KEN PERROTTE: Poultry numbers might be paltry, but you can help | Local


VIRGINIA’S spring gobbler season opens in full glory Saturday. Thousands of turkey hunters will wake well before daybreak. We’ll guzzle coffee and slip into the woods, hoping to hear toms thundering off their roosts. As daylight overtakes darkness, the birds fly down and strut into shotgun range, summoned by our seductive calling. Our hearts pound.

What’s that? You’re not hearing or seeing many wild turkeys on your hunting property?

Hmmm. Much could be to blame. Overharvesting, as we discussed last week, excessive predation of both young and adult birds, and habitat conditions can all play a part.

Contrary to cartoons and uninformed opinion, it is always a jungle out there for any wildlife species. It’s especially tough being a young turkey. Research shows that, of hen turkeys that decide to nest, half or fewer of their nests successfully hatch poults–baby turkeys. About half or fewer of those poults that do hatch survive two weeks. That’s the age when most can fly to a tree limb with their mother and avoid nighttime predators.

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From there, young birds still fall prey to a variety of hazards. Although a hen may lay a dozen eggs, Virginia’s statewide, long-term average number of poults seen with their moms by summer is a paltry 2.5. The rest are dead. It’s a wonder we ever see any gobblers, considering the challenges.

Predators

Some hunters, me included, often levy considerable blame on nest predators. Raccoons, skunks, opossums, crows, feral hogs, snakes–all happily steal and eat eggs from ground-nesting birds like turkeys. Bobcats and coyotes, plus raptors like hawks and owls also kill and eat turkeys, with a special fondness for easy-to-catch, delectable young birds. Some of these mammalian predators are also keen on dining on deer fawns.

So, we trap. Usually for a while. We make a small dent in predator populations, rationalizing we may have saved a nest or two, and forge ahead.

Most experts agree that trapping, albeit sustained trapping over substantial pieces of property, can show improved numbers of desired game species. The state of Georgia recently passed legislation that legalizes year-round hunting and trapping of raccoons and opossums—two species known to eat turkey eggs.

In an increasingly suburbanized Virginia, trapping might lessen conflicts between household pets and predators. Mammalian predators such as coyotes, raccoons and opossums seem to thrive in suburban sprawl.

Still, it’s difficult. Mike Dye, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resource’s upland gamebird project leader, says most research shows the time required to achieve any measurable success on nesting or brood rearing through predator removal is out of reach for most landowners.

“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trap,” he says, “but your time and money are better spent on habitat improvement. In general, healthy habitats will negate predation impacts.”

Habitat

While older, mature woods may be ideal for mature turkeys in the late fall and winter, poults – indeed the young of many wildlife species –need specific habitat features to survive and thrive. Most species need mixed habitat, with older woods abutting places less densely crowded with mature trees and featuring a variety of other vegetative features. White-tailed does, for example, need places with adequate cover so they can inconspicuously hide their fawns from predators.

Hen turkeys move their broods away from the nest site in just a couple days, seeking places with native grasses and forbs where their babies can find protein-laden insects to eat, important for rapid, needed growth. Ideally, these brooding areas are somewhat open, with ample vegetation that’s high enough to conceal feeding youngsters as they move through but low enough for moms to look out for danger.

Often, whether you’re talking public or private lands, this type of grass-forb habitat needs regular maintenance or else it transforms into scrubby woods. Supporting a variety of wildlife requires an optimal mix of habitats, old and new, dense and open. It requires a plan and a willingness to work the landscape.

Getting Help

Dye encourages anyone concerned about turkey numbers to first look at the habitat to see what’s missing or could be changed to improve it for brood rearing or nesting.

Virginia’s wildlife biologists, plus “private lands biologists,” many of whom also have some forestry or agronomy expertise, are willing to visit with landowners to discuss habitat improvements. Even better, some habitat improvements on private lands can be made using cost-share programs, many contained in the federal Farm Bill.

“These aren’t your run of the mill food plot programs,” Dye said, “so don’t go in thinking they will pay for a food plot, but rather they will help you establish fawning, nesting and brood rearing cover. These are the often-overlooked pieces when managing deer and turkey. Offsetting predator impacts rely on diverse plant communities that can allow the target species to obtain high quality forage while minimizing movements outside of secure cover.”

If cost share isn’t a main concern or if you are dealing with more forested habitats where cost share is less available, then DWR’s local district biologists may be assets, Dye notes.

“These biologists can run through the whole gamut of options talking about habitat, harvest management along with other options for management,” Dye says. “They usually have a working knowledge of the cost share programs so they can help you decide if that would be an option for your property. If your property is primarily forested, it may be worthwhile to contact the Virginia Department of Forestry to discuss timber management practices that can work in conjunction with other habitat practices.”

Other options would include numerous forest management consultants or even private wildlife habitat consultants.

To learn more about private lands biologist assistance, see dwr.virginia.gov/quail/get-involved/private-land-biologist/.

Ken Perrotte:

Outdoors@FreeLanceStar.com