Evin Stanford, the Commission's big-game biologist, said that the agency's summer brood survey, which measures nesting success, showed a record-tying low in numbers of turkey poults hatching and surviving through the summer.
"The percentage of hens observed with poults is an indication of nesting success, while the ratio of poults to hens observed with poults is an indication of poult survival," Stanford said. "Overall productivity is determined by the ratio of poults per hen; a ratio of 2.5 is considered good productivity."
Stanford said that statewide, a total of 32,394 wild turkeys were observed by survey responders between July 1 and Aug. 31. Only 51 percent of hens had poults, which indicates poor nesting success. Hens that were observed with poults had an average of 3.1 pounds, which is poor-to-fair poult survival. The overall ratio of poults per hen was 1.6, poor productivity.
"The statewide productivity index tied the previous record low set in 2003," Stanford said. "Wild turkey productivity was down in all three regions of the state when compared to 2011, with a record low productivity index being recorded for the coastal and mountain regions."
Why did it happen? Stanford only could venture a guess.
"It was probably weather-related," he said. "I don't have information on weather going back to the brooding period, but that probably was what caused it to be so low. But it's hard to pinpoint. I remember during the early poult-rearing season I didn't have an impression we had statewide bad weather, but something happened."
Extended periods of cool, wet weather can be fatal to newly hatched chicks, which have small, downy feathers and can't fly. They may become soaked and succumb to hypothermia.
"After a few weeks, poults can survive a few weeks of bad weather," Stanford said. "The critical time is right after the hatch."
Stanford said that turkey reproduction has been marginal the past few years, finally falling below that norm this year.
"The last few years we've seen productivity in the upper end of poor to the bottom of good," he said. "A lot of times we'd have only one area down, but this year (survival) was poor statewide. The coastal region didn't change as much, dropping from 2.0 to 1.8 poults per hen. The piedmont and mountains were worse than they have been."
Stanford said hunters shouldn't worry a lot, unless low productivity of poults becomes a long-term trend.
"It doesn't have a huge implication, unless it happens over and over," he said. "There may be fewer opportunities to harvest a turkey in 2014. Next spring, there may be fewer jakes. If poor reproduction continues, harvests probably would level off in the future."
However, observations of gobblers was up this summer, with observers seeing .55 gobblers for ever hen. That number has fluctuated between .50 and .51 in past years.
"That basically is a way to gauge the harvest from the previous spring," Stanford said. "The gobbler harvest was up for most areas of the state because the overall turkey population was up, and we had an increasing number of turkey hunters over time. But (the 2012 harvest) wasn't a radical change (from past years)."
Stanford estimates the statewide flock at 260,000 birds.