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Declining Turkey Populations in Alabama

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Declining Turkey Populations in Alabama

Old 04-03-2022, 03:13 AM
  #1  
Spike
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Join Date: Mar 2022
Posts: 12
Default Declining Turkey Populations in Alabama

Declining Turkey Populations in Alabama

Alabama, as well as other Southeastern states, is experiencing a noticeable decline in turkey numbers. This decline is actually quite dramatic in some areas. Estimating the population is far from an exact science and may be quite difficult to determine. The reasons for the decline of turkey populations are numerous. It is everything from loss of habitat, poor reproduction due to the increasing raccoon population to increases in other predator populations. In the opinion of some wildlife biologists, the liberalization of deer baiting laws has become a detriment to turkeys. Adding to these issues is another very big problem: During the heyday of turkeys, feral hogs were not common and certainly were not in the numbers they are today. Therefore turkeys did not have to contend with the issues hogs have now subjected them too. The rapid increase of wild hog populations has seriously impacted what was once some of the stateís best turkey hunting lands. There is plenty that can be done but most management practices will be time-consuming, expensive, and often out of the hands of most hunters who do not own the property they are hunting. This is especially true when it comes to addressing habitat loss. Letís look at each of these issues and some possible solutions.

Habitat Loss

This issue is by far the most challenging of all issues faced with addressing declining turkey populations. The landscape is quite different than existed fifty-seventy years ago during the heyday of turkeys. Much of the forests especially in the southern third of the state, have changed from an old growth mixed pine/hardwood forest to a pine monoculture mostly of Loblolly pine. Often, the only mast producing hardwoods in these forests are along the banks of streams. In many places, these buffer zone strips of hardwood trees are usually only 20-30 yards wide. These small areas are usually left during logging operations as a buffer zone to prevent silting of the bodies of water and because of the difficulty in removing the hardwood trees. Often these larger hardwood trees are not marketable. While these trees often provide roosting areas and travel corridors for turkeys, they donít supply enough acorns and other types of mast to support large flocks of turkeys through the winter months. The mast is consumed by a large number of wildlife species in addition to turkeys.

The large pine stands and clear-cut areas often provide excellent nesting and brood habitat, but this does little to supply food during the cooler months when insects are almost non-existent and turkeys are dependent on hardwood mast. Therefore, the turkeys frequent the creek drainages throughout most of the winter. As previously stated these stands of hardwoods are usually confined to narrow strips and thus too small to supply an adequate food supply.

Another issue with the pine monoculture is that much of it is in fast-growing planted Loblolly pines. This type pine cannot tolerate controlled burning until they reach a certain size and age. Therefore it is generally five years or more before prescribed burning can be practiced. By that time, many of these forests will become far too thick for good turkey habitat.

Many of these Loblolly pine plantings replaced what once were stands of traditional Longleaf pines in Alabama. The Longleaf pines were far more fire resistant even at a very young age and landowners often kept the land under controlled burning plans. This greatly reduced the undergrowth, opening the woods, thus making them ideal for turkeys to travel in. This practice also caused much new growth to sprout, providing additional food through the last part of winter and early spring, when food is normally scarce.

Old growth mixed hardwood and pine timber forests found in the heyday of turkeys have fallen out of favor with land owners. Wildlife thrived in these mixtures of old growth hardwood and pine forest interspersed with agricultural lands. Pine monoculture has now become the norm and lacks the habitat benefits. Controlled burning of pine stands is the next best tool a wildlife manager or landowner has to positively impact turkey numbers as well as other wildlife species. However control burns should be properly timed and administered or they can be detrimental.

As discussed earlier, most hunters donít own the property they hunt and have little to no control of timber harvest practices or permission to control burn the land. On top of that, controlled burning is not cheap and for that reason, many landowners have ceased the practice. Until the amount of controlled burns somewhat approaches the levels of twenty years ago, much of the forest habitat will just not be suitable to sustain large numbers of turkeys. That is a significant issue in turkey management.

Research through the years has revealed a hen mortality rate of 49% in strictly pine monoculture forests, while for hens in mixed pine/hardwood forests was 38%. In strictly hardwood forests, this mortality rate was just 3%. Let me repeat those numbers: 49% to 3%. This speaks volumes for the best habitat.

So in a nutshell one of the biggest issues in turkey management is Silviculture related. Turkeys continue to loose habitat because of the pine monoculture. Can the turkey population overcome or adapt to this pine monoculture? The answer is no because it does not meet all the habitat requirements. Too many of the other habitat requirements are being destroyed. Letís examine some of these issues.

As with the declining quail population, increased pesticide applications in farming and forestry operations kill the very insects that the turkeys (especially poults) require for their diet and survival. The use of said pesticides is unavoidable. As with quail chicks, young turkeys need a high protein diet. Their very survival relies on the abundance of insects to fulfill this need in the habitat. Thus the lack of insects is a limiting factor.

Certain farming practices such as the untimely clearing of fallow fields and field edges can destroy nesting habitat. Fallow fields once overgrown with weeds and providing nesting habitat have often been planted in pines or taken into crop rotation resulting in loss of nesting habitat.

Coupled with these issues are increased urbanization and other land uses resulting in habitat loss and degradation that contributes to declining turkey populations.

Turkeys are therefore being subjected to increased habitat loss and degradation.

Predator Populations

With the loss of habitat, predation (primarily on nest) has increasingly contributed to the decline of turkey populations. I will break down predator issues into three categories:

∑ Nest predators such but not limited to as raccoons (coons), opossums (possums) and skunks (stripped & spotted),

∑ Carnivore predators such as bobcats, foxes (red & grey) and coyotes and

∑ Avian (raptor) predators such as hawks, owls, and even eagles.

Nest predators have a far greater impact on turkey populations than carnivore predators. It is very likely that up to 75% of all turkey nests are destroyed by some type of nest predator. The vast majority of these nests are lost to raccoons. So, coons are the main nest predator.

Trapping of coons has dropped dramatically in the last several years as fur prices have been depressed and are at rock bottom. This has led to even less trapping resulting in an explosion of the coon population and caused devastating effects in the hatching success of turkey eggs as well as other ground nesting birds. Thus coons are having a detrimental effect on turkey hatching success. Also coon hunting has fallen in popularity. Coon hunting with dogs was very popular during the heyday of turkeys and indeed until about the 1980s. I grew up coon hunting and knew many people that coon hunted.

Carnivore predators, while killing a certain amount of turkeys, are probably a bit exaggerated on their negative effects. The number one culprit of these predators is the bobcat. Bobcats are very stealthy and extremely quick. Not only can they easily catch the young poults, they often kill adult turkeys. Foxes are mainly a threat to the younger turkeys.

While coyotes manage to kill a few turkeys and most certainly destroy nests, they also prey on certain nest predators such as coons, opossums, and skunks. While many turkey hunters believe coyotes are a major turkey predator, research studies have proven that not to be the case and actually they have a minimal effect (when compared to other predators) on turkey depredation. So, time and resources may be better spent targeting other carnivore predators such as bobcats and foxes if resources are limited.

While hunting and trapping can both be utilized to remove the predators, trapping removes most carnivore predators. However with trapping it is very difficult to stay ahead of them. It will require a full-time effort to do so. Furthermore, there is simply not enough predator control.

There simply is not enough hunting and trapping to keep the nest predators and carnivore predators in check. Consequently predator populations are increasing at an alarming rate. These same predators are problematic for other prey species as well that would benefit with effective predator control. Lack of predator removal in ecosystems subjected to changing and loss habitat is a major detriment to management of many prey species including turkeys.

Therefore targeted removal by trapping and hunting of nest and carnivore predators can reap noticeable benefits.

Avian predators, especially hawks, are a very real threat to poults the first several weeks of their lives. Due to the fact that killing of all avian predators is illegal, there is basically nothing that can legally be done to address this problem. Therefore control of these avian predators is off the board.

Wild/Feral Hogs

In most areas of the State, the proliferation and explosion of wild/feral hog populations have been devastating to turkey populations. Not only do the hogs destroy turkey nests by eating the eggs, but the worst damage they do is to greatly reduce the amount of hardwood mast (food). The hardwood mast as previously stated is usually very limited in most planted pine forests. Without an adequate winter food supply, large flocks of turkeys just cannot exist. Winter food therefore is a very limiting factor in turkey management.

Feral hogs have been reported in all of Alabamaís 67 counties.

Although some of the hogs are removed by hunting, trapping is the only effective means of keeping wild hog numbers even partially in check. This is a full-time job and not an easy task. There are some very effective trapping systems available but they are quite expensive and out of reach financially for most property owners. Wild hogs quickly become trap wise and will avoid them. I have seen many issues with land owners not allowing hog hunting on their property, especially during deer season when the property is being leased by deer hunters, etc.

Baiting Deer and Supplemental Feeding

Regarding deer baiting, our stateís laws have been greatly relaxed in recent years as to what is considered baiting. As a result there is probably much more corn on the ground in Alabama forests than in past years.

Corn obviously attracts turkeys, but at the same time concentrates their feeding zones into small areas. The concentration of turkeys feeding on these baited areas in turn attracts the aforementioned carnivore predators to more easily ambush and kill the turkeys.

However, the main issue of baiting deer when it comes to feeding corn is that it exposes the turkeys to certain alpha toxins (aflatoxin), especially if the corn is molded. This is a toxin produced by fungi on the molded corn. Wild turkeys do not have the strong immune system to protect them from these toxins. Time will tell what effect the deer baiting will have on Alabamaís turkey population. While the corn provides critical food at a time of need it also has the aforementioned disadvantages. More research is needed on the effects of deer baiting on turkeys.

Any supplemental feeding of turkeys by feeders will concentrate the turkeys around the feeders which attract carnivore predators that ambush and kill the turkeys. To avoid this issue, supplemental food plots are suggested especially where food is a limiting factor in turkey management. The use of supplemental food plots is becoming increasingly necessary because of the loss of food resources due primarily to changing farming practices and the pine monoculture.

Conclusion

One final issue I would like to reiterate is that most property is privately owned and not publicly owned. To exacerbate the problem, most of the privately owned property is in very small tracts. Wildlife managers can't mandate habitat manipulation and predator control on these private properties and certainly can't control loss of habitat on these properties. Those decisions are strictly made by the property owner (as they should be).

Turkey populations are in peril because of the combined aforementioned reasons. I donít see the Loblolly pine monoculture going away. If anything it is increasing. Combined with other loss of habitat causes such as farming methods/practices, urbanization and other land uses, the situation is grim. As a result, I believe wild turkey populations will continue on a downward spiral in not only Alabama but other States throughout their range in the Southeast. Unfortunately, in my opinion, we will never see large numbers again.

Wildlife Biologist
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Old 06-21-2022, 05:21 AM
  #2  
Spike
 
Join Date: Jun 2022
Posts: 13
Default

Originally Posted by Wildlife Biologist View Post
Declining Turkey Populations in Alabama

Alabama, as well as other Southeastern states, is experiencing a noticeable decline in turkey numbers. This decline is actually quite dramatic in some areas. Estimating the population is far from an exact science and may be quite difficult to determine. The reasons for the decline of turkey populations are numerous. It is everything from loss of habitat, poor reproduction due to the increasing raccoon population to increases in other predator populations. In the opinion of some wildlife biologists, the liberalization of deer baiting laws has become a detriment to turkeys. Adding to these issues is another very big problem: During the heyday of turkeys, feral hogs were not common and certainly were not in the numbers they are today. Therefore turkeys did not have to contend with the issues hogs have now subjected them too. The rapid increase of wild hog populations has seriously impacted what was once some of the stateís best turkey hunting lands. There is plenty that can be done but most management practices will be time-consuming, expensive, and often out of the hands of most hunters who do not own the property they are hunting. This is especially true when it comes to addressing habitat loss. Letís look at each of these issues and some possible solutions.

Habitat Loss

This issue is by far the most challenging of all issues faced with addressing declining turkey populations. The landscape is quite different than existed fifty-seventy years ago during the heyday of turkeys. Much of the forests especially in the southern third of the state, have changed from an old growth mixed pine/hardwood forest to a pine monoculture mostly of Loblolly pine. Often, the only mast producing hardwoods in these forests are along the banks of streams. In many places, these buffer zone strips of hardwood trees are usually only 20-30 yards wide. These small areas are usually left during logging operations as a buffer zone to prevent silting of the bodies of water and because of the difficulty in removing the hardwood trees. Often these larger hardwood trees are not marketable. While these trees often provide roosting areas and travel corridors for turkeys, they donít supply enough acorns and other types of mast to support large flocks of turkeys through the winter months. The mast is consumed by a large number of wildlife species in addition to turkeys.

The large pine stands and clear-cut areas often provide excellent nesting and brood habitat, but this does little to supply food during the cooler months when insects are almost non-existent and turkeys are dependent on hardwood mast. Therefore, the turkeys frequent the creek drainages throughout most of the winter. As previously stated these stands of hardwoods are usually confined to narrow strips and thus too small to supply an adequate food supply.

Another issue with the pine monoculture is that much of it is in fast-growing planted Loblolly pines. This type pine cannot tolerate controlled burning until they reach a certain size and age. Therefore it is generally five years or more before prescribed burning can be practiced. By that time, many of these forests will become far too thick for good turkey habitat.

Many of these Loblolly pine plantings replaced what once were stands of traditional Longleaf pines in Alabama. The Longleaf pines were far more fire resistant even at a very young age and landowners often kept the land under controlled burning plans. This greatly reduced the undergrowth, opening the woods, thus making them ideal for turkeys to travel in. This practice also caused much new growth to sprout, providing additional food through the last part of winter and early spring, when food is normally scarce.

Old growth mixed hardwood and pine timber forests found in the heyday of turkeys have fallen out of favor with land owners. Wildlife thrived in these mixtures of old growth hardwood and pine forest interspersed with agricultural lands. Pine monoculture has now become the norm and lacks the habitat benefits. Controlled burning of pine stands is the next best tool a wildlife manager or landowner has to positively impact turkey numbers as well as other wildlife species. However control burns should be properly timed and administered or they can be detrimental.

As discussed earlier, most hunters donít own the property they hunt and have little to no control of timber harvest practices or permission to control burn the land. On top of that, controlled burning is not cheap and for that reason, many landowners have ceased the practice. Until the amount of controlled burns somewhat approaches the levels of twenty years ago, much of the forest habitat will just not be suitable to sustain large numbers of turkeys. That is a significant issue in turkey management.

Research through the years has revealed a hen mortality rate of 49% in strictly pine monoculture forests, while for hens in mixed pine/hardwood forests was 38%. In strictly hardwood forests, this mortality rate was just 3%. Let me repeat those numbers: 49% to 3%. This speaks volumes for the best habitat.

So in a nutshell one of the biggest issues in turkey management is Silviculture related. Turkeys continue to loose habitat because of the pine monoculture. Can the turkey population overcome or adapt to this pine monoculture? The answer is no because it does not meet all the habitat requirements. Too many of the other habitat requirements are being destroyed. Letís examine some of these issues.

As with the declining quail population, increased pesticide applications in farming and forestry operations kill the very insects that the turkeys (especially poults) require for their diet and survival. The use of said pesticides is unavoidable. As with quail chicks, young turkeys need a high protein diet. Their very survival relies on the abundance of insects to fulfill this need in the habitat. Thus the lack of insects is a limiting factor.

Certain farming practices such as the untimely clearing of fallow fields and field edges can destroy nesting habitat. Fallow fields once overgrown with weeds and providing nesting habitat have often been planted in pines or taken into crop rotation resulting in loss of nesting habitat.

Coupled with these issues are increased urbanization and other land uses resulting in habitat loss and degradation that contributes to declining turkey populations.

Turkeys are therefore being subjected to increased habitat loss and degradation.

Predator Populations

With the loss of habitat, predation (primarily on nest) has increasingly contributed to the decline of turkey populations. I will break down predator issues into three categories:

∑ Nest predators such but not limited to as raccoons (coons), opossums (possums) and skunks (stripped & spotted),

∑ Carnivore predators such as bobcats, foxes (red & grey) and coyotes and

∑ Avian (raptor) predators such as hawks, owls, and even eagles.

Nest predators have a far greater impact on turkey populations than carnivore predators. It is very likely that up to 75% of all turkey nests are destroyed by some type of nest predator. The vast majority of these nests are lost to raccoons. So, coons are the main nest predator.

Trapping of coons has dropped dramatically in the last several years as fur prices have been depressed and are at rock bottom. This has led to even less trapping resulting in an explosion of the coon population and caused devastating effects in the hatching success of turkey eggs as well as other ground nesting birds. Thus coons are having a detrimental effect on turkey hatching success. Also coon hunting has fallen in popularity. Coon hunting with dogs was very popular during the heyday of turkeys and indeed until about the 1980s. I grew up coon hunting and knew many people that coon hunted.

Carnivore predators, while killing a certain amount of turkeys, are probably a bit exaggerated on their negative effects. The number one culprit of these predators is the bobcat. Bobcats are very stealthy and extremely quick. Not only can they easily catch the young poults, they often kill adult turkeys. Foxes are mainly a threat to the younger turkeys.

While coyotes manage to kill a few turkeys and most certainly destroy nests, they also prey on certain nest predators such as coons, opossums, and skunks. While many turkey hunters believe coyotes are a major turkey predator, research studies have proven that not to be the case and actually they have a minimal effect (when compared to other predators) on turkey depredation. So, time and resources may be better spent targeting other carnivore predators such as bobcats and foxes if resources are limited.

While hunting and trapping can both be utilized to remove the predators, trapping removes most carnivore predators. However with trapping it is very difficult to stay ahead of them. It will require a full-time effort to do so. Furthermore, there is simply not enough predator control.

There simply is not enough hunting and trapping to keep the nest predators and carnivore predators in check. Consequently predator populations are increasing at an alarming rate. These same predators are problematic for other prey species as well that would benefit with effective predator control. Lack of predator removal in ecosystems subjected to changing and loss habitat is a major detriment to management of many prey species including turkeys.

Therefore targeted removal by trapping and hunting of nest and carnivore predators can reap noticeable benefits.

Avian predators, especially hawks, are a very real threat to poults the first several weeks of their lives. Due to the fact that killing of all avian predators is illegal, there is basically nothing that can legally be done to address this problem. Therefore control of these avian predators is off the board.

Wild/Feral Hogs

In most areas of the State, the proliferation and explosion of wild/feral hog populations have been devastating to turkey populations. Not only do the hogs destroy turkey nests by eating the eggs, but the worst damage they do is to greatly reduce the amount of hardwood mast (food). The hardwood mast as previously stated is usually very limited in most planted pine forests. Without an adequate winter food supply, large flocks of turkeys just cannot exist. Winter food therefore is a very limiting factor in turkey management.

Feral hogs have been reported in all of Alabamaís 67 counties.

Although some of the hogs are removed by hunting, trapping is the only effective means of keeping wild hog numbers even partially in check. This is a full-time job and not an easy task. There are some very effective trapping systems available but they are quite expensive and out of reach financially for most property owners. Wild hogs quickly become trap wise and will avoid them. I have seen many issues with land owners not allowing hog hunting on their property, especially during deer season when the property is being leased by deer hunters, etc.

Baiting Deer and Supplemental Feeding

Regarding deer baiting, our stateís laws have been greatly relaxed in recent years as to what is considered baiting. As a result there is probably much more corn on the ground in Alabama forests than in past years.

Corn obviously attracts turkeys, but at the same time concentrates their feeding zones into small areas. The concentration of turkeys feeding on these baited areas in turn attracts the aforementioned carnivore predators to more easily ambush and kill the turkeys.

However, the main issue of baiting deer when it comes to feeding corn is that it exposes the turkeys to certain alpha toxins (aflatoxin), especially if the corn is molded. This is a toxin produced by fungi on the molded corn. Wild turkeys do not have the strong immune system to protect them from these toxins. Time will tell what effect the deer baiting will have on Alabamaís turkey population. While the corn provides critical food at a time of need it also has the aforementioned disadvantages. More research is needed on the effects of deer baiting on turkeys.

Any supplemental feeding of turkeys by feeders will concentrate the turkeys around the feeders which attract carnivore predators that ambush and kill the turkeys. To avoid this issue, supplemental food plots are suggested especially where food is a limiting factor in turkey management. The use of supplemental food plots is becoming increasingly necessary because of the loss of food resources due primarily to changing farming practices and the pine monoculture.

Conclusion

One final issue I would like to reiterate is that most property is privately owned and not publicly owned. To exacerbate the problem, most of the privately owned property is in very small tracts. Wildlife managers can't mandate habitat manipulation and predator control on these private properties and certainly can't control loss of habitat on these properties. Those decisions are strictly made by the property owner (as they should be).

Turkey populations are in peril because of the combined aforementioned reasons. I donít see the Loblolly pine monoculture going away. If anything it is increasing. Combined with other loss of habitat causes such as farming methods/practices, urbanization and other land uses, the situation is grim. As a result, I believe wild turkey populations will continue on a downward spiral in not only Alabama but other States throughout their range in the Southeast. Unfortunately, in my opinion, we will never see large numbers again.

Wildlife Biologist
It is very depressing to read this.
Alex34 is offline  

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