Although many hunters believe North Carolina’s annual wild-turkey harvests are related to the previous year’s poult survival, that’s inaccurate, according to biologist Chris Kreh of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

“The total number of turkeys is dependent upon the number of hens,” he said. “If you look at the early 1980s we estimated 100,000 total turkeys, meaning we likely had 50,000 hens. Each hen, according to a formula based on springtime observations, raises two poults that survive nesting, hatching and the first few days of life until they can fly. 

“Today, we’ve got about 260,000 turkeys, roughly 2 1/2 times as many as the 1980s, but with a steady 2.0 poult survival rate. That means three times as many living hens now as then, and three times as many turkeys in the state.” 

That also means approximately 87,000 gobblers.

Because on average poult survival, with the harvest of hens illegal, North Carolina’s statewide flock continues to expand, although the annual poult-survival rate has changed little over 20 years.

Predators, weather and hunting don’t affect total turkeys survival because of the birds’ hardiness and hens’ biology, Kreh said.

“Even though ground predators might destroy and eat a hen’s eggs in a nest, hens will re-nest and lay new clutches if their nest is destroyed,” he said. “One mating with a gobbler allows a hen to lay multiple fertilized eggs at different times. Hens routinely lay two, three or even four clutches of eggs if their nests are destroyed.”

Kreh said many hunters believe cold, wet springs cause chicks to die from hypothermia, but hens quickly re-lay eggs.

“It’s true (that) poult survival is terrible the first two or three days, but I think colder, wetter weather is more important to turkey hunters than turkeys,” he said. “Turkey chicks can stay relatively dry by getting under a hen’s wings, plus, hens’ eggs don’t hatch the same day. After a few days, small turkeys can fly at the first sign of danger or to roost.”

The Commission obtains its annual poult-survival ratio from spring and summer observer reports. 

“We look at harvest figures and numbers of hens to determine how healthy our turkeys are, not spring observations,” Kreh said. “Being an observer is completely voluntary. We simply collect the data and compare it to harvests and know 2.0 poults per hen means our turkeys are doing okay.”