South Carolina turkey hunters hoping for a reversal of a 5-year trend of poor hatches will be disappointed at the results of the 2015 summer brood survey, which confirmed another year of poor recruitment.
Charles Ruth, deer and turkey project coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said date from the poult survey indicates that the population didn’t bounce back the way hunters and biologists had hoped.
“Reproduction in turkeys has generally been low for the last decade”, said Ruth. “In the 2015 summer survey, the average brood size of 3.6 poults per hen with poults remained good. Recruitment ratio is the key number, and it’s a measure of young turkeys entering the population based on the total number of hens. The total recruitment ratio in 2015 was only 1.5, a very low number, continuing a less than desirable downward trend in turkey recruitment. This low figure was primarily driven down because a high percentage of the hens (59) had no poults at all by late summer.
“Recruitment ratio has averaged only 1.7 over the last five years, considered a low number because a ratio of 2.0 is somewhat of a break-even mark for maintaining the population,” Ruth said. “When turkey populations were expanding during the 1980s, recruitment ratio averaged 3.5 and puts recent numbers into perspective. At the regional level, it appears that reproduction was poor in most of the state.”
Ruth said that wild turkeys are susceptible to significant fluctuations in reproduction and recruitment, often associated with cold, wet weather during nesting and brood rearing season but also because a host of native predators take advantage of turkey nests and broods, including raccoons, opossums, snakes, foxes, bobcats and numerous avian predators. Coyotes, not native but well-established across South Carolina, also prey on turkey nests and broods.
“Turkeys naturally have high reproductive potential and are able to maintain populations in spite of predation and other mortality factors,” Ruth said. “The problem is, that we have not been getting much ‘bounce back’ amid years of poor recruitment.”
Ruth said the prospects for the 2016 season are somewhat reserved, but some good news exists.
“Given recent harvest trends (that) have followed trends in reproduction very closely, the expectation for 2016 is only fair,” Ruth said. “That said, I expect the harvest to increase slightly over 2015 because the lack of 2-year-old birds last year resulted from the all-time low reproduction in 2013. Although not great, reproduction in 2014 did increase a little, evidenced by the increase in the harvest of jakes last year. If trends hold, more 2-year-old birds should be available during spring of 2016. Again, numbers are not like they used to be, but this season should be better than last season.
“The bottom line is, the state’s turkey population is about 35 percent below record levels of around the turn of the century,” he said. “The gobbler-to-hen ratio during last summer’s survey was 0.5, which is the lowest since the year 2000. Low gobbler-to-hen ratios can affect the quality of hunting because hens are extremely available, which affects gobbling and responsiveness to calling by hunters.”