The Wild Turkey
An Ohio Conservation Success Story
By Mike Reynolds, Division of Wildlife wildlife biologist
Ohio’s early settlers served wild turkey and a smorgasbord of other wild game for their Thanksgiving feasts. The wild turkey can once again be served, thanks to wildlife management efforts. About 75,000 hunters pursue wild turkeys in Ohio, mostly in the spring, but the fall wild turkey season also provides almost seven weeks of fall turkey hunting in 48 counties.
In the pre-dawn darkness, I slowly climbed a narrow ridge covered in mature hardwoods. After reaching an old log landing just below the summit, I caught my breath and made myself as comfortable as possible up against a stout white oak. As the sky began to brighten, I listened for the thundering gobble that I was certain would come at any moment from the longbeard perched in his roost tree just down the spur ridge. I was not disappointed.
After flying down to the ground that wary Tom slowly circled my position. He made the hair on the back of my neck tingle as he returned explosive gobbles to the soft yelps from my slate call, but he remained just out of sight on my left and eventually began moving away down the ridge as the hen he thought was there failed to materialize…
I would have to wait for another day to carry that ol’ longbeard out of the Vinton County woods, but for the remainder of that beautiful spring morning I was able to sit quietly and reflect on a great conservation success story the restoration of the wild turkey to Ohio.
Wild Turkey Restoration
Wild turkeys were abundant across the Buckeye State prior to European settlement, but habitat loss and subsistence hunting resulted in the rapid disappearance of this majestic game bird from Ohio. The last bird was reportedly shot in Adams County in 1904 and, sadly, spring mornings became much quieter.
Efforts to reintroduce the wild turkey back to Ohio began in earnest in the 1950s, but the game farm turkeys released in the forests of southern Ohio did not retain enough of the blood of their wild cousins and quickly succumbed to disease and predators.
Through the efforts of former Division of Wildlife biologists Eugene Knoder, Bob Donohoe and others, wild turkeys were obtained from other states, primarily Kentucky, West Virginia, and Missouri. The first wild turkeys were reintroduced in 1956 in what was then known as the Raccoon State Forest in Vinton County. Supplemented by releases of wild turkeys in other areas, it did not take long for these new birds to multiply and by 1966 a limited spring gobbler hunting season was opened.
Since that time, thousands of wild turkeys have been trapped and translocated in Ohio by hundreds of Division of Wildlife employees and volunteers of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). Today wild turkeys can be found in all 88 Ohio counties.
Spring turkey harvests have steadily increased from 12 in 1966 to an annual harvest of more than 20,000 gobblers in six of the past nine years.
No matter where you live in Ohio, get permission to hunt in a nearby woodlot, a pasture along a wooded stream, or visit the thousands of acres of public lands, and listen for the ringing gobble of the wild turkey this spring. Come April, get dressed up in your finest camouflage, grab your favorite call, and talk some turkey. You can bet I will.
Division of Wildlife biologists will continue to monitor wild turkey harvests and populations as turkeys face increasing suburban sprawl, other changing land uses, and habitat losses. Changes in hunting seasons or bag limits will be closely scrutinized to be sure that wild turkeys continue to thrive in the Buckeye State.
Wild Turkey Research Projects
One of the keys to the successful management of wild turkeys in Ohio has been the active research program that has provided critical information used by biologists to maximize hunting opportunities for wild turkeys while allowing populations to expand and grow. Here is a brief overview of the research projects that have been completed in the past few years:
Wild Turkey Hen Reproductive Study
Three hundred eighty-six hens were captured and fitted with backpack-style radio transmitters to accomplish the objectives of this five-year research project. Hens were tracked during the spring from 2002 through 2006 to determine the onset of nest incubation in relation to the start of the spring wild turkey hunting season. The average peak of incubation during this study was May 1. In fact, only seven percent of hens had started incubating a nest by the opener of the spring gobbler season. When you hear frustrated hunters speak of the gobblers being “henned up” in the first weeks of turkey season, they are correct. Try hunting the last two weeks of the spring season to locate a lonely gobbler – but be ready, he may come a runnin’!
Wild Turkey Gobbler Mortality Study
Nine Division of Wildlife crews trapped and placed reward bands on more than 2,700 wild turkeys during the winters of 1997 through 2008. The final three years of banding (2006- 2008) were conducted in cooperation with the states of New York and Pennsylvania as part of a regional harvest rate study in partnership with the NWTF.
Bands returned by hunters have allowed estimation of annual survival and harvest rates. The harvest rates observed over time are within recommended limits that provide for quality wild turkey hunting. Radio telemetry was used on a limited number of gobblers in 2007 to determine the types and amount of mortality caused by factors other than hunting. Not surprisingly, the leading cause of death was hunter harvest during the spring turkey season.