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History of Wild Turkey in Virginia

by Gary Norman, Forest Game Bird Biologist

Early settlers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were dependent on wild game for meat year round due to inadequate methods of food preservation. Wild turkey and other game were staple food items for settlers who explored and developed the Virginia countryside. But with increasing colonization, wild game was also hunted professionally and sold at markets to feed the growing human population in larger towns and cities. Wild game meats were sold in quantities comparable to domestic animals, and at a fraction of the cost of domestic meats.

Early settlers survived by taming the land with ax and plow. Forests were cut to make way for agricultural production and lumbering. By the turn of the 20th Century the landscape of Virginia had changed significantly from the days when settlers first arrived at Jamestown. The extensive forests that were havens for wild turkey and other wildlife were gone. Most forests had been cut for lumber or to developed as agricultural lands for crops or grazing domestic animals. These changes in habitat conditions, combined with market hunting, led to the disappearance of wild turkeys from 2/3 of Virginia and they had become rare in other sections. Populations of wild turkeys in Virginia were probably at their lowest during the period from 1880 to 1910.

Concern for wild turkey conservation led to the passage of the “Robin Bill” in Virginia during 1912 which prohibited the sale on the open markets of wild turkey and several other species of birds. However, enforcement of the “Robin Bill” and other legislation restricting hunting methods and bag limits did not come until 1916, with the creation of the Game Department.

The next milestone in turkey conservation came in 1929 when the Game Commission began a restocking program using turkeys reared at game farms. Game farm turkeys could easily be propagated and the Game Commission raised and released several thousand birds before we realized these birds were not capable of surviving and reproducing in the wild. In 1936, the Virginia Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit was established under the direction of C. O. Handley. Their first priority was to develop a satisfactory propagation method to re-establish turkey populations. Many modifications of breeding, raising, and releasing game farm turkeys were attempted from 1936 to 1955. All totaled, the Commission raised and released over 22,000 game farm turkeys. In the final analysis however, very little, if any, credit can be given to these efforts at establishing wild turkey populations in any locality in Virginia.

A new procedure was developed in 1955 whereby native wild turkeys were trapped and transferred to areas with suitable habitat. This method proved highly successful and from 1955 to 1993 nearly 900 wild turkeys were trapped and relocated in Virginia, primarily to the Southwest and Tidewater regions. Wild turkey populations are now found throughout the Commonwealth.

Fall hunting for wild turkeys has been a long-established tradition in Virginia during the 17th-19th centuries when hunting was not regulated and during the 20th century when seasons and bag limits were first enforced. However, spring gobbler hunting is a relatively recent management program that was initiated in 1962 as an experimental season on some public lands in western Virginia. The experimental season was quickly adopted as it was determined that spring hunting was biologically feasible and interest in spring hunting grew.

Following the success reintroduction of the wild turkey, the Department turned its emphasis towards research questions about wild turkey biology and management. The most extensive project was a long-term study to investigate survival, reproduction, and the impacts of fall hunting on wild turkeys in western Virginia. This project, entitled “The Wild Turkey Population Dynamics Research Project” was begun to determine the cause of low population levels and low growth rates in wild turkey populations in western Virginia. During the 5-year project biologists captured wild turkeys and attached radio transmitters to the birds to monitor their movements, survival, and reproduction. The study was part of a cooperative project with West Virginia and the combined project resulted in a study of more than 1,000 wild turkey hens, the largest single study ever conducted anywhere in the country.

By combining efforts with West Virginia, the research project was able to evaluate the impacts of several different fall hunting season impacts on survival rates. Four different season structures were evaluated including, no fall hunting, 4-weeks, 8 weeks and 9-weeks of fall hunting. Results of the study found no difference in survival rates of turkeys in the 8 and 9-week season in Virginia. Survival rates in Virginia averaged 48% in Virginia. Survival was 52% in West Virginia’s counties with a 4-week season and the area in West Virginia without fall hunting averaged 59% survival. Natural mortality accounted for 34% of the population losses in the study. Mammalian predators were responsible for most of the natural mortality. Foxes and bobcats were the most common predators of adult turkeys. Virginia hunters averaged taking 16% of the population whereas West Virginia hunters averaged taking 7%. Illegal mortality was surprisingly high, averaging 21% in both states.

Significant differences were found in annual survival rates that appear to be related to the availability of mast crops, namely acorns. Survival rates were higher during years with good mast crops and were much lower during years of mast failures. Hens monitored during the study for reproduction revealed surprisingly low recruitment. Only one-third of the hens were successful hatching a clutch and about half of those were lost during the first 4-weeks following hatching. The high reproductive potential the wild turkey is capable of producing was never achieved during the 5-year study; hens averaged producing only 1.5 poults.

The study concluded that Virginia’s longer fall season was adding mortality to the population, which lower survival rates. Low reproductive rates were not compensating for high mortality. High fall harvests, associated with mast failures, were resulting in lower densities and lower growth rates.