Wildlife Species Guide
Monitoring The Flocks
Since the first releases of Merriam’s turkeys in the Pine Ridge, the goal of wild turkey
management in Nebraska has remained unchanged: to maintain turkey populations sufficient
to support hunting and aesthetic enjoyment without adversely affecting
other public interests.
Nearly all of Nebraska’s suitable wild turkey habitat is privately owned,
and influencing turkey populations through habitat acquisition and manipulation
on private land is difficult. The Habitat Program, funded by the sale of
Nebraska Habitat Stamps to hunters and wildlife enthusiasts, has financed
the purchase of several turkey habitat sites and habitat improvement
projects on public land.
Introductions of live-trapped wild turkeys and capture and transplant
operations, the dominant management activities from the 1950s through
the 1980s, have given way to monitoring and inventorying turkey populations
and controlling the harvest in spring and fall wild turkey hunting seasons.
Flock and population inventories and analysis of hunter harvest information
play major roles in current wild turkey management, providing the basis for
spring and fall hunting regulations and helping to determine how many
permits will be issued, the length of the seasons and their opening dates.
Winter flock counts, primarily from cooperating private landowners, provide
information about potential breeding populations and minimum population
estimates. Mail-in survey cards are sent to landowners with traditional,
long-utilized wintering sites, and the response rate from two mailings in
January and early February is usually 70 percent or higher.
Brood surveys conducted in July and early August provide an indication
of reproductive success, including poult-to-hen ratios, age ratios and
production information useful for predicting fall populations and
adjusting harvest regulations.
To conduct brood surveys, biologists, wildlife technicians and
cooperators drive established routes during the early morning hours.
The number of hens and poults seen and the estimated age of the poults
are recorded on data sheets. Hens without broods and gobblers seen on
the brood routes also are recorded. Winter flock counts and spring
poult-to-hen ratios from summer brood surveys are used to predict
relative fall populations.
Beginning with the first fall hunting season in 1962, hunters were
required to check in their birds at game check stations. The degree
of precision provided by mandatory game checks for wild turkey is
no longer considered necessary, and turkey check stations were discontinued
in 1987. Total harvest is now estimated using a questionnaire mailed
to selected permit holders. Information about sex and age composition
in the harvest is obtained from feather samples submitted by successful
hunters. Hunter success also is a good indication of turkey population levels.
Turkeys taken during the fall hunting season reveal other characteristics
of the population. In an expanding population, the ratio of young birds
to old birds is greater than in a stable population, for example, and
the occurrence of disease or parasite infestations in a population or
flock can be discovered by inspecting harvested birds. Crop-content
examinations made during the hunting seasons reveal much about the birds’
foraging and feeding habits.
Biologists sometimes trap turkeys when they flock together on wintering
areas after the fall hunting season. Some are marked for life-history
studies, and others are used for transplanting. One trapping effort
lasting several years, for example, investigated turkey movement
patterns and showed considerably greater movement of turkeys along
he Niobrara River than in the Pine Ridge.
Harvest is controlled on a unit basis by establishing several types
of hunting seasons and by controlling the number of permits issued.
In the spring season, only gobblers or bearded hens are taken (bearded
hens were first allowed in 1996). Since a gobbler can successfully mate
with many hens, the gobbler-and-bearded-hen season has little if any
effect on the population, and it allows hunters to take more birds
without affecting the total population.
Fall seasons provide an opportunity for hunters to take some of "surplus"
birds from the population, birds that would otherwise be lost to other
causes. Within limits, hunting mortality is compensatory and not additive
to mortality from natural causes. That is, hunters kill birds that would
be lost to natural causes, not birds in addition to those that would be
lost to natural causes.
Biologists have determined that up to 15 percent of the hens in a
healthy population could be taken without affecting the population
in succeeding years. That is not the case when a population is below
its carrying capacity, the maximum number of individuals of one species
or the number of species a habitat area can support without detrimental
effects, since natural mortality (losses to disease, predators, and
other natural causes) usually is proportionately lower in a population
below carrying capacity.
In many areas of the state, control of hunting is based almost entirely
on landowner tolerance. Since landowners control access in those areas,
in effect, they control the harvest. Although turkeys sometimes cause
depredation problems -- usually minor or controllable -- they are highly
regarded by most landowners. In addition to their aesthetic appeal,
the birds’ consume undesirable insects, especially grasshoppers, and
some landowners are reluctant to allow enough hunting to keep a population
at a level best for the health of the turkey population. Over-protection can
lead to depredation complaints and problems for the turkeys themselves, as
the potential for disease outbreaks increases in areas of high concentration.
Properly managed hunting is a valuable management tool in maintaining
the health of Nebraska’s wild turkey populations. Constant monitoring
through surveys, trapping and marking and analysis of data derived from
the harvest ensure that turkey hunters take an appropriate number of
birds from areas with adequate populations,
and that the wild turkey will remain a permanent Nebraska resident.