Ever since the end of the fall turkey season, I have been hearing concerns from a few folks about how this winter might impact turkeys. Like any wildlife, turkeys are going to have a tough go of it this winter. The combination of cold and snow is going to make finding food difficult. Seeking thermal cover, or areas where the trees can block the wind and hold in heat, is going to be very important on bitter cold days and nights.
Turkeys are more resilient to winter temperatures than you might expect, but they will shiver to stay warm, which burns body fat and muscle. Any birds that cannot find food to keep their strength up will grow weak and perish, either from cold, starvation or predation.
The 2013 turkey seasons were not the best in recent history. Our spring hunt was hampered by extended snow cover. I had to bring a snow shovel along to dig down into the snow to put up our turkey blind. In another turkey hunt, which was in May, there was still snow on the ground. Bird sightings were low, and harvest was down from prior years. Our fall season was a bit of a surprise, with a total of 4,633 birds registered across the state.
Even though we consider turkey a big game species, we manage it very differently than other big game species in the state. When it comes to deer and bear, we work hard to accurately model our statewide population, and we set a harvest level that keeps the population at a healthy number.
When it comes to turkeys, we use hunter harvest to help manage population levels to an extent, but we set our harvest levels, especially our spring permit levels, based on what we referred to as a “hunter happiness quotient.” This means we increase or decrease permit levels based on what hunters tell us. We look at hunter success; we like to see an overall success rate of at least 20 percent.
Note that this looks at all permits issued, including people who never hunt, so our success rate in Wisconsin is actually much higher. Also, we evaluate responses to surveys we send out that ask questions about seeing birds, hearing birds, and whether they felt crowded by other hunters.
While I do know some turkey hunters who favor fall turkey hunting as their primary turkey hunting choice, most people I speak with seem to treat fall turkey hunting as opportunistic, at least in the Northwoods. They put in for a permit, and when they see a turkey while hunting in the fall, they harvest it; or, when they see a flock of birds frequenting an area, they make plans to try to harvest a bird from the flock. If fall harvest levels were lower, it could indicate lower hunting pressure, a lower available population or both. Since young turkeys hatch after the spring hunting season, the turkey population should be at its annual peak during the late spring and early summer.
We would lose a few young to predators, injury and disease throughout the summer and fall, but the population in the fall should be higher in the fall than in the spring. When we have a late, cold spring like we did in 2013, though, our turkey broods are fewer, and numbers of young are lower. This could impact our fall hunt, and would definitely impact the following spring.
How will this record-breaking winter impact our turkeys? It will be difficult to tell fully until spring. By this point in winter, all wildlife is probably just trying to survive until spring arrives. March is here, which means spring is coming, and bare ground has got to be somewhere on the horizon.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.