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Column: Wild turkeys soon begin their spring trot

| Monday, Feb. 26, 2001

I pulled the pickup off the road and started to point out the turkeys to Doug, my grandson, but he'd already seen them. 'Holy cow,' he said, 'there must be a million of 'em.'

Doug has the natural hyperbole of a good fishermen.

'You count the ones to the right of the big pine, and I'll take the ones on the left,' I said.

Both of us counted while the turkeys dug and scratched for beechnuts.

'How many?' Doug asked.

'I got 45. What about you?'

'Forty-eight,' he answered. 'And I probably missed some.'

Ninety-three turkeys in a single flock.

We watched through field glasses as gobblers fanned and strutted. Doug oohed and aahed over the longbeards. 'Oh, baby,' he whispered, 'wait until spring gobbler season. We'll be back here.'

Two other vehicles pulled off Route 155 just north of Emporium, and I knew that if we did return when spring gobbler season opened we wouldn't be alone. A flock of turkeys this large attracts lots of attention.

I also knew that while a few birds might remain in the area, the turkeys would soon begin a natural dispersal from their winter range to their spring territories. Sometimes, those ranges overlap, but often the distances are one to three miles apart.

If turkeys all stayed together, mating and nesting in the same limited area, the range simply wouldn't support them. Besides, they'd be extremely vulnerable to nest destruction by predators. So, they spread out.

It's been an unusual winter for seeing turkeys.

Not long ago, Denny Gulvas, the famed turkey caller-videographer from Dubois, called. In addition to turkeys, Gulvas and I share another passion: hunting whitetail bucks.

We talked a long time about our deer hunting experiences over the past season and eventually got around to turkeys.

'You know, Dave,' Gulvas said, 'I really haven't seen many turkeys. But I know they're out there.'

Gulvas isn't alone.

Gerald Runkle of the East Fork Sportsmen's Club in Potter County told me the club maintains 38 feeders scattered over a wide area of the county. 'We haven't had a single turkey come to those feeders this winter,' Runkle said. 'We have deer and squirrels, and even a couple of bear have shown up. But no turkeys.'

Bill Ragosta, Potter County wildlife conservation officer, says that during the last couple of years there are periods of time when turkeys seem 'to vanish from the face of the earth.'

But Ragosta says that always changes. 'They seem to come out of the woodwork in March,' he explained. 'During the last couple of weeks, I've seen many flocks.'

Ragosta also touches on a possible reason for this unusual occurrence. 'Last fall's strong beechnut crop appears to have kept them back in the woods.'

John Dzemyan, Game Commision land manager group supervisor for McKean and Elk counties, but also an inveterate wanderer of all the 'big woods,' has seen several large flocks of turkeys.

'I know of three flocks that were working beechnuts from November until Jan. 28 when we had a six-inch snowfall that added to the 12 to 14 inches already on the ground,' Dzemyan said. 'All of a sudden, the turkeys came down from the mountain and were seen for two weeks working spring seeps and streamsides. One flock had 70 to 90 birds in it, depending on who counted them and when.'

Dzemyan is confident hunters will find a good population of turkeys when the spring season opens on April 28.

'If the hatching season is dry, we'll be pleasantly surprised at how many turkeys we find out there this summer,' Dzemyan added.

As for the spring dispersal, it's basically a matter of hens finding areas where they can nest and raise poults. Abandoned fields, pipelines, seeded logging roads, even the edges of clear cuts all offer cover and a rich source of insect life that's critical to poult survival.

Hens move into those areas as mating and nesting season arrive. It is part of an annual cycle tied to sunlight. As sunlight increases, mating and nesting behavior are triggered.

Just as bucks follow does in late October and through November, the old gobblers won't be far behind the hens come late March and throughout most of April.

That's one thing we can count on.

Dave Drakula is an outdoors writer based in Emporium, Cameron County.

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