Lots of people have called me a lot of things in the past — not all of them necessarily good — but one thing I do call myself is a turkey hunter.
I’ll read or look at anything that comes across my desk containing the word “gobbler.” If it has feathers and a beard, I can’t get enough of it. I don’t go to a hunting or sportsman’s show during the winter when I don’t buy at least one turkey call.
So when I read reports of last spring’s poor hatch in the Carolinas, I sort of went pale. A poor hatch — especially when we’ve experienced several of them over the past handful of years — is something that will bring a frown to the face of any serious turkey hunter.
South Carolina started experiencing a downturn in its turkey population eight or nine years ago, as I remember. Poult production since about 2005 has been a steady series of, well, if not failures, then certainly not successes. The annual spring harvest has, for the most part, responded in a similar fashion.
Charles Ruth, the biologist who oversees wild turkeys for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said that this summer’s dismal hatch results — the worst on record — were probably driven by all the cool, wet weather we experienced in late May and early June, the period when turkey hatchlings are most susceptible to dying of hypothermia. But on the other hand, he said, it’s difficult to blame environmental factors for all those poor hatches over the past decade.
“There might have been some particular year when it was the rain, but for us to get consistent reports like that, there’s gotta be something going on here,” Ruth said. “We started to see the downturn in our hatches well before it affected our harvest. It’s kind of a lag effect; it takes some time for it to catch up.”
Ruth and other turkey biologists across the Southeast have been putting their heads together for several years, comparing data that appears to be frighteningly consistent. They’re still trying to work out what the problem might be, if it’s just a single thing. He points to changes in habitat caused by almost epidemic conversion to pine plantations, maybe the influx of coyotes, but perhaps, he said, it’s a case of turkeys reaching a population level that can no longer be sustained.
“When we were in our restoration effort, the turkeys were fairly energized; they were hitting on all cylinders. But at some point, they’re going to get in a position in their relationship with the habitat that it just ain’t happening anymore,” he said.
I’m crossing my fingers that the acreage that was put in pines in the late 70s and early 80s will, little by little, be timbered over the next few years, and the early successional habitat will be rejuvenated. Ruth isn’t holding his breath; because of other factors, he doesn’t think the bounce will be as high this time. I’m hoping he’s wrong, but worried that he’s right. All turkey hunters should be.