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Pennsylvania Turkey Hunting

THE KEYSTONE STATE, Pennsylvania's nickname for its central position among the 13 original colonies, is also appropriate because our state has been a keystone for restoring wild turkey populations throughout the U.S. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, when most of our surrounding states had completely lost their wild turkeys, small wild flocks held on in the rugged ridges of central Pennsylvania's Ridge and Valley region. If you have ever hiked the steep, rocky, remote ridges along the Mid-State Trail then you know why these areas became the last havens of wild turkeys during the late 1800s. These locales were not suitable for farming or lumbering.

A hundred or so years ago, only 30,000 turkeys were thought to remain in the entire country, and 10 percent were right here in Pennsylvania.

As habitat conditions improved throughout the 20th century, and also thanks to regulated hunting seasons and the trapping and transferring of wild birds, turkeys repopulated the woodlands throughout Pennsylvania. What many hunters today also may not realize is that while most states closed their turkey seasons, the Game Commission offered turkey hunting statewide for every year but 1913, 1914 and 1926. Unlike most states, where wild turkey populations were gone, Pennsylvania maintained our turkey hunting tradition. To this day fall turkey hunting is a major recreational tradition here. Pennsylvania typically has more fall turkey hunters than any other state. In 2001, 228,564 fall turkey hunters took to the woods. Why is fall hunting so popular here? It stems back to traditions established years ago.

Market hunting for turkeys was very popular in the 1700s and early 1800s because the birds were so abundant. With no seasons, no bag limits, nor any other sort of regulations or protection, turkeys were killed year-round - gobblers, hens and whole broods. At times entire flocks were shot from nighttime roosts.

As the early settlers exploited the turkeys and the axe consumed the bird's habitat, turkeys became so rare that in 1873, for the first time, a law was enacted that closed the turkey season from January 1 to October 1, with a $25 fine (pretty hefty back then) for killing or possessing a turkey out of season. A $10 fine was established for violating regulations prohibiting the use of blinds, snares, traps and the destruction of nests. In 1897 - two years after the Game Commission was created -a daily limit of two birds was established, with no season limit. In 1905 a season limit of four was passed, with a daily limit of one. Turkey seasons were again shortened in the following years, to run from mid-October to the end of November.

Spring hunting was made illegal in 1873, because it was generally believed that turkeys were easily called in and killed then. During the fall they were thought to be more wild and dispersed, making them more challenging to hunt. Also, prior to closing the season from January to October, there were no regulations against killing hens in the spring, and nesting hens could be (and were) killed while incubating. This was certainly detrimental to the already low turkey population.

Then, in 1913, in a timely and unprecedented move, the legislature closed turkey hunting statewide for a 2-year period, to protect the state's struggling turkey population. This was the first time turkey hunting had been stopped since the state's colonization. The first season following the closure produced a harvest of 3,651 turkeys, and this enormous harvest was directly attributed to the 2-year closure. Based on field estimates, hunter numbers from 1915-1919 averaged 316,800 per year, with turkey harvests averaging approximately 3,905. With further restrictions came improved harvests. In 1917 the season limit was reduced to one, and with this reduced limit, two years later, in 1919, hunters reported taking 5,181.

In 1923, the turkey season didn't open until November 1, the same as the opening date for other small game, to prevent illegal hunting. Calling was made illegal, and hunting hours were set from sunrise to sunset, eliminating nighttime hunting for roosting turkeys.

A report from 1942 by Edward L. Kozicky, who was studying wild turkeys as a graduate student at the Pennsylvania State College (the predecessor to Penn State University), commented that the fall hunting strategy of scattering and calling a turkey flock was "employed to a small extent." The most common method back then was chance. Kozicky writes, "The hunter employing this method selects a spot where he thinks turkeys are ranging and waits for them. Some hunters, although it is illegal, construct blinds at their favorite turkey crossing."

Hunting strategies certainly have changed since then. Turkey blinds again are legal (refer to current digest), calling is legal, and the most common fall strategy today is scattering and calling back the flock.

Today, fall turkey hunting seasons still open mostly in November, but differ in length according to turkey population densities within different units. Rather than limit the number of turkey hunters, the Game Commission controls fall harvests by regulating season lengths in wildlife management units. Seasons vary from a closed season in WMUs 5A & 5B to three weeks in several other WMUs. The daily and season limits remain one. Fall harvests currently exceed 40,000 birds, with more than 225,000 hunters.

Biologists generally agree that fall either-sex hunting can affect population growth, that turkey populations fluctuate annually, and that the vulnerability of wild turkeys to hunting increases in years of poor mast production. Most also believe that hunting mortality occurs in addition to natural mortality, not instead of natural mortality. This is a very important point to remember.

Fall harvests can impact survival of both young birds and adult birds when certain circumstances occur. The challenge faced by wildlife biologists is how to balance the popularity of fall hunting with the effect harvest may have on turkey numbers. In years when there is a poor hatch, adult turkeys are more vulnerable, simply because young birds are not there for hunters to get. In turn, an over harvest of adult hens can significantly reduce the number of nesting hens available the following spring. Similarly, when natural food supplies are poor, the entire turkey population is more susceptible to hunting mortality. In years of low mast production, turkeys use fields more, which makes them easier to locate. When acorns, beechnuts or other mast is abundant, flocks are widely scattered and are more difficult to pattern, so hunter success is lower.

With the rising popularity of spring gobbler hunting, biologists began to examine the potential impact of both spring and fall hunting on wild turkey flocks. The task is to make certain that the demand among hunters for both spring and fall hunting can be safely met. One of the first states to study this issue was Iowa in the 1980s. Fall hunting was new to the state, and the woodlot-type habitat in which turkeys resided was believed to make the birds more vulnerable. Biologists speculated that fall turkey harvest was an additive mortality factor. In other words, many of the birds taken in the fall season would have survived to reproduce if there were no season. The result of the study was a determination that turkey populations varied mostly because of variations in poult survival, but fall hunting slowed the rate at which turkey flocks could recover from a bad year. The authors of that study reported that if more than 10 percent of the fall population is harvested, the population may d ecline. The trouble, though, is knowing when the 10 percent level is reached.

Intensive studies of turkey productivity and survival in Virginia and West Virginia in the early 1990s indicated that high fall harvests may suppress population growth and limit spring gobbler harvests. The researchers concluded that maximum population growth and the highest spring harvest could be achieved by eliminating the fall season. However, the researchers also showed that even with a liberal fall harvest, turkey numbers could still grow, but at a slow rate. In other words, continued heavy fall harvests could be maintained if hunters were satisfied with lower success in the spring.

They found that when the fall season length was greater than six weeks, the population growth rate was slow. If fewer birds were taken, the annual population growth was greater than 10 percent. Limiting the fall season to a degree produced better population growth, and ultimately hunters were more satisfied with the number of birds they saw and heard in both seasons.

As a result of the studies, Virginia reduced the length of their fall season and West Virginia began to limit the number of hunters in counties recently opened to fall hunting. Both methods preserved fall hunting opportunity and allowed for better population growth.

Here in Pennsylvania, fall turkey harvests vary by wildlife management unit. In most units, productivity and survival of young appear to be good. Using the spring gobbler harvest as an index, turkey numbers are increasing. But it is important for biologists to remain vigilant. Adjusting fall seasons is the best way of providing optimum hunting opportunities. At times, it may be necessary to reduce the length of fall seasons to allow populations to grow. In the worst case scenario, fall seasons may occasionally be closed. But in the good times, fall hunting opportunities should remain liberal.

Currently, the goal of wild turkey management here is to allow the population to grow. In most wildlife management units that can be accomplished with a 2- or 3- week fall season. Longer seasons and more liberal bag limits may not be achievable with current hunter numbers and the high interest in fall turkey hunting.

Right now Keystone State turkey hunters are living in the "good old days." Hunters can enjoy golden days in the autumn woods for up to three weeks in some units. The air is crisp, the scenery ablaze with color, and fall hunting is great exercise.

We are privileged to be able to enjoy both spring and fall hunting in this state. To continue to have the outstanding hunting we have come to expect, fall harvests are carefully monitored and trends in spring harvests are watched. Modern research has shown that spring gobbler hunting can provide maximum recreational opportunity to hunters with little impact on the turkey population. Research has also shown that we can maintain fall hunting, too. However, we must acknowledge that as hunter numbers and the popularity of the sport grow, fall hunting opportunities might not expand as rapidly.

As the turkey population and our understanding of them grew, traditions also changed. Spring turkey hunting was reinstated in 1968, after being closed since 1873, but with the restriction of harvesting bearded birds only, protecting nesting hens. Because the spring season opens after the peak of breeding, and gobblers are polygamous, acquiring a harem of hens to which he breeds, the excess gobblers can be harvested annually without impacting the population. Ever since 1984 Pennsylvanians have enjoyed a month-long spring season, statewide.

Traditions continue to change. More and more people are discovering the joys of spring turkey hunting. Since 2000, the number of spring turkey hunters has exceeded that of fall turkey hunters in Pennsylvania. According to estimates from the National Wild Turkey Federation, this switch is not only the result of fall hunters switching to spring turkey hunting, but also an influx of new turkey hunters who hunt only in the spring. With more spring gobbler hunters than any other state, Pennsylvania definitely remains a keystone turkey state.

- By Mary Jo Casalena, PGC Biologist and Bob Eriksen, NWTF Biologist

No portlets in this column.
Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797