Turkey Research and Management
The eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the largest game bird native to Louisiana. Prior to 1880, the wild turkey population in Louisiana was estimated to be as high as one million birds. However, by the turn of the century, the state's turkey population started a precipitous decline due to exploitation of our virgin forests as well as commercial, subsistence, and unregulated sport hunting. After World War II, Louisiana’s wild turkey population was at its lowest point—only 14 isolated flocks totaling less than 1,500 wild turkeys remained throughout the state. In 1962, LDWF, with support from partners such as the National Wild Turkey Federation and private landowners, began trapping and releasing wild turkeys into suitable habitat to restore the population. Today, wild turkeys are distributed across Louisiana and occupy most available habitat suitable for the species.
Up to 20,000 hunters pursue wild turkeys in Louisiana each year. LDWF is responsible for balancing the needs of wild turkeys and those who hunt them—monitoring the state’s wild turkey population and harvests and conducting other research as well as managing the population through periodic restocking, recommending hunting seasons and regulations, and improving habitat. LDWF also offers technical assistance to landowners and managers to improve habitat on public and private lands to benefit wild turkey. LDWF is involved in regional and national monitoring and management of wild turkey through the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Wild Turkey Working Group.
Monitoring Populations and Harvests
Methods for monitoring wild turkey populations are limited compared to other popular game species. For example, turkeys leave very little consistent evidence of their presence within an area they are using, making techniques like browse surveys, which are used to assess white-tailed deer densitites, ineffective. Aerial surveys used to estimate waterfowl abundance do not work for turkey populations as turkeys spend less time in open areas and are nearly impossible to detect under dense forest canopies. The most effective ways to track turkey population trends are assessing annual reproduction and recruitment (individuals added to the population) and monitoring annual harvests.
Reproduction and Recruitment
Numerous factors can influence wild turkey reproduction annually including:
- Environmental factors such as average temperatures and annual precipitation
- Quality of habitat available for nesting, brood-rearing, and wintering
- Season timing and harvest.
Every year, LDWF conducts a Wild Turkey Poult Production Survey throughout Louisiana to develop population indices and track population trends of wild turkeys. LDWF staff and volunteers record turkey sightings every July and August to provide data for the Wild Turkey Poult Production Survey, which assesses annual reproduction and recruitment. It is important to note that this survey is only an index to reproduction and not a population estimate. We also obtain information on the ratio of males and female turkeys in the population from this survey.
LDWF staff monitor harvests through the Louisiana Big and Small Game Harvest Survey and tag validation data. The harvest survey is a mail survey sent out each year to a random subset of people who purchased hunting licenses. Through this survey, we have information about the annual estimated number of turkey hunters and harvest dating back to 1980. In 2009, LDWF implemented a tagging program for wild turkeys to track changes in turkey harvest based on the actual number of turkey tags that are validated/reported each year. We summarize results of harvest tag reporting annually. Through these results, we can closely analyze harvest by parish, management region, and week of the season. Although there are differences between the harvest estimates provided by the survey and tag reporting (likely due to noncompliance and variable reporting rates), both methods have shown a declining trend in turkey harvest in recent years.
LDWF also conducts and sponsors of a number of research projects to study population status, habitat needs, biology, harvest characteristics, and harvest rates. These include gobbling activity surveys, banding studies, and nesting ecology studies. From this research, we have learned that:
- Turkeys are quite mobile—movements of more than 5 miles are common in contiguous habitat. In one study, two radio-tagged hens moved about 20 miles before radio contact was lost.
- In Louisiana, turkeys primarily start to nest during the second week of April.
- Gobbling activity generally increases until the start of hunting season, regardless of the start date.
- Harvest rates can be highly variable each year depending on the site, bag limit, and season length.
- Brood size is generally largest in the western longleaf region of the state.
- Adult gobblers typically make up more than 80% of the reported annual harvest.
- Nesting Ecology/Female Wild Turkey Movements/Male Harvest Rates in Western Louisiana
- Male Harvest Rates in Kisatchie National Forest
- Nesting Ecology/Female Wild Turkey Movements/Male Harvest Rates in Southeastern Louisiana
- Establishing Opening Dates for Spring Wild Turkey Hunting Season
- Use of Pine-Dominated Forests by Female Eastern Wild Turkeys Immediately after Prescribed Fire
- Nest Site Selection and Nest Survival of Eastern Wild Turkeys in a Pyric Landscape
- Prescribed Fire Influences Habitat Selection of Female Eastern Wild Turkeys
- Movements of Wild Turkey Hunters during Spring in Louisiana
- Space Use, Daily Movements, and Roosting Behavior of Male Wild Turkeys during Spring in Louisiana and Texas
- Survival and Recovery Rates on Male Wild Turkeys on Private Lands in North-Central Louisiana
- Nesting Ecology of Wild Turkeys in a Bottomland Hardwood Forest
- Effects of Variable Spring Harvest Regimes on Annual Survival and Recovery Rates of Male Wild Turkeys in Southeast Louisiana
- Seasonal Space Use and Habitat Selection of Female Wild Turkeys in a Louisiana Bottomland Forest
- Wild Turkey Movements during Flooding after Opening of the Morganza Spillway, Louisiana
- Seasonal Space Use and Habitat Selection of Adult Raccoons (Procyon lotor) in a Louisiana Bottomland Hardwood Forest
- Spatial Ecology and Survival of Male Wild Turkeys in a Bottomland Hardwood Forest
Restocking wild turkeys introduces birds into areas that have quality habitat but no source population of turkeys for population expansion. In 1962, LDWF began trapping and releasing wild turkeys into suitable habitat to restore the population. Since then, LDWF has released more than 3,900 turkeys in 45 parishes. Locating suitable wild turkey habitat for release sites has been key to the success of our turkey restocking program. Most areas in the state capable of supporting viable wild turkey populations have now been restocked.
Landowners and sportsmen periodically request LDWF to stock wild turkeys. We evaluate these requests according to the following criteria:
- Presence or absence of wild turkeys
- Distance from presently occupied turkey range
- Amount of suitable habitat at the release site
- Support and protection by local residents
- Land use trends
- Potential for expansion.
Recommending Hunting Seasons and Regulations
LDWF recommends turkey hunting seasons and regulations to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission based on results of population and habitat monitoring and other research. These recommendations must address three of the following five criteria to be considered:
- Landscape scale or habitat issues affecting wild turkey populations
- Harvest data trends
- Staff recommendations supported by scientific data
- Public support
- Commission request.
As with other wildlife populations, quality habitat drives turkey populations. Armed with an understanding of wild turkeys’ biological requirements, LDWF uses a number of techniques to improve turkey habitat on wildlife management areas and offers technical assistance to improve turkey habitat on public and private lands. Techniques include:
- Active forest management
- Enhancing forest and understory structure
- Managing vegetation (natural and planted) in open areas
- Prescribed burning (in pinelands).