Annual hatches affect state and regional turkey populations more than any other factor. Areas with successive years of good hatches in the spring see their flocks grow and even expand into new habitats. Conversely, places with two or more poor hatches in a row show stable or decreasing numbers of birds. There have always been-and will always be-hatch fluctuations from year to year and from region to region. Hence, turkey populations across America always go up and down in the short term.
Studies show that areas with good numbers of adult hens (2 years of age or older) have the best prospects for productive hatches. While some juvenile hens attempt to nest, most are unsuccessful. Most mature hens nest every spring. If predators destroy their first nests, many hens re-nest.
The first weeks after hatching are a critical time for a typical brood of 10 to 12 poults. Studies show that predators may eat 50 to 75 percent of an area’s poults. Or they may die from exposure to rain or cold. Dry, warm springs are best for brood production. As poults grow their chances for survival increase and an area’s flock expands.
Many wild turkeys die in the claws and jaws of predators. Major killers of adult turkeys and poults include foxes, bobcats, coyotes and eagles. Smaller rascals like raccoons, skunks, opossums, snakes, hawks and crows eat turkey eggs and poults. In many fast-developing areas stray dogs and cats prey on turkey nests and young birds.
Many wildlife managers support increased predator control as a means of sustaining and growing turkey flocks. There is no doubt that this works in certain areas, especially in the western half of the country. For example on ranches where many foxes, coyotes and bobcats are killed by hunters, Rio Grande or Merriam’s turkeys are much more abundant than on ranches that receive little or no predator control.
Wild turkeys are susceptible to many diseases and parasites. One of the most common and potentially devastating parasitic illnesses is Histomoniasis or “blackhead disease.” It strikes the liver of birds. Some years, according to studies, blackhead disease accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the sick or dead Eastern or Osceola turkeys found in parts of the Southeast.
Avian pox is a contagious viral disease that can sicken or kill Eastern and Osceola birds. The disease, characterized by sores on turkeys’ heads and necks, can run through a flock and drop turkey numbers in the short term.
All subspecies of turkeys host several blood parasites, such as flatworms and roundworms. Turkeys also carry all sorts of lice and mites. But scientists say these parasites do not seem to damage the health of individual birds or flocks.
Domestic and pen-raised turkeys are highly susceptible to many types of viral and parasitic diseases. For this reason, wildlife managers continue to preach not to release game-farm turkeys into the wild, or else they might spread crippling diseases to wild birds.
Studies across the country have concluded that the illegal killing of turkeys, especially the shooting of breeding and nesting hens in the spring, can negatively impact populations. As turkey populations grow and expand across America, the poaching of hens and gobblers throughout the year is a growing problem. State conservation officers are aggressively going after poachers to minimize the impact of crime on turkey flocks