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Missouri Turkey Researchers Scramble To Understand Why Populations Are Shrinking

Missouri Department of Conservation
The number of young wild turkeys, or poults, per mother hen in Missouri has dwindled to less than one, on average. “They're not reproducing well enough to even replace themselves," said Reina Tyl, resource scientist at the Missouri Department of Conservation and leader of the state's turkey research program.

Missouri’s wild turkey population has plummeted in recent years, alarming hunters and scientists alike.

Now, with production of young turkeys at near-record lows, researchers at the University of Missouri and the Missouri Department of Conservation are launching new studies to pinpoint possible reasons for the decline.

Missouri’s wild turkey was once a conservation success story, a species brought back from the edge of statewide extinction through decades of targeted habitat restoration and captive breeding, beginning in the 1950s.

Though it’s nearly impossible to count the exact number of turkeys statewide, MDC estimates the population peaked at about 600,000 birds in the early 2000s and has since shrunk by nearly half to about 350,000.

The number of young turkeys counted per mother hen, known as the poult-to-hen ratio, has also dwindled — from 4.6 at its highest point in 1971 to 0.8 in 2016, the lowest ever recorded.

In other words, said MDC resource scientist Reina Tyl, each female is producing less than one baby turkey per year on average.

“They're not reproducing well enough to even replace themselves,” said Tyl, leader of the state’s wild turkey research program. “That’s the big concern.”

Alisha Mosloff
University of Missouri
A three-day-old turkey poult in an enclosure at the University of Missouri. Researchers plan to outfit adult females and young turkeys with radio transmitters to track their movements, behavior and survival.

Still, these sharp declines aren’t unique to Missouri. The number of young turkeys produced per hen has tumbled across the U.S. in recent years, from Oklahoma to Tennessee.

Mitch Weegman, assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Natural Resources, calls the trends “worrisome.”

“We’re trying to be proactive,” said Weegman, who studies the population biology of turkeys and other wild birds. “We can’t sleep on this idea that turkey populations are not what they should be in Missouri.”

Weegman, along with University of Missouri researcher Michael Byrne, are working to understand the factors affecting turkey reproduction — by outfitting more than 150 females in northern Missouri with small radio transmitter “backpacks” that fit snugly on the birds and track their location and behavior.

The goal, said Weegman, is to take a close look at each step of wild turkey reproduction, tracking females as they build their nests, incubate eggs and care for their young. Once the baby poults hatch, the team plans to attach tiny GPS tags on their backs and follow them for their first month, thought to be the “most sensitive period” of life.

The four-year project is funded primarily through a $1.3 million MDC grant, with additional support from the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Hunters eager for answers

A tangled web of factors is likely driving low turkey reproduction in Missouri, researchers say.

“If we could pinpoint, ‘This is what's causing all of our problems,’ it would potentially be an easier fix,” Tyl said. “But it's not as simple as just pointing to one cause.”

Since the 1980s, more land has been converted from pasture to row crops — while in other parts of the state, mature forests now have less shrub and grass cover, potentially reducing the amount of turkey nesting habitat.

Shifting weather patterns and more severe rainfall can also be detrimental to young turkeys, which get “stinky” when they get wet, Tyl said, making it easier for predators to sniff them out. And these predators may be getting more common in Missouri, driven by a drop in the price of racoon pelts.

Missouri Department of Conservation
Researchers attach a GPS "backpack" to a wild turkey. The University of Missouri team will tag female turkeys in northern Missouri beginning in January.

But after years of declining turkey reproduction, hunters in Missouri are getting “more and more restless,” said John Burk, National Wild Turkey Federation district biologist.

“People remember the good old days, and that’s what they want to continue to see,” said Burk, a longtime turkey hunter himself. “Hunters want something done, and they think a simple regulatory change will make it go back to the way it was in the early 2000s, and that’s simply not the case. We could close the turkey season altogether, but unless we solve the poult survival problem, nothing’s going to change.”

Under Missouri regulations, hunters are allowed to harvest female turkeys during the fall archery and firearms seasons only. But according to official MDC numbers, the vast majority of turkey hunters harvest males in the spring. Last year, hunters in Missouri shot 43,162 turkeys, of which 38,332 were males harvested in the spring, or about 89%.

Tyl said she has heard from hunters concerned that the fall harvest of female hens might be hastening the population decline, though models and recent research suggest hunting is not what’s driving the trend.

“A lot of them say, 'Why are you allowing this? We shouldn't be harvesting hens in the fall. We should be lowering the bag limit, because this is having an effect,’” she said. “If we felt it was detrimental, then we would make the change. But that's just not what the information is telling us right now.”

The department evaluates the hunting regulations every year, she added, and is working to improve the population forecast models. To help gather more data on populations statewide, MDC has asked hunters to mail in feathers from turkeys they harvest this fall.

The more accurate the mathematical models are, Tyl said, the better the management decisions will be in the future.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Correction: There were 43,162 turkeys harvested in Missouri in 2019, according to official totals from MDC. A previous St. Louis Public Radio story reported an incorrect harvest total listed on the MDC website.

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

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