Gene Chague | Berkwoods and Waters: Wild turkey population is looking pretty good

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LENOX — At a recent monthly meeting of the Berkshire County League of Sportsmen, David Scarpitti, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) Turkey, Upland Game and New England Cottontail Project Leader gave an upbeat report on our wild turkeys:

Turkeys are the second most popular game species behind deer. Although hunted mostly in the spring, there is a fall season. About 21,000 turkey hunters across the state buy a spring turkey permit.

He believes our turkey population looks "pretty good". On average during the spring season some 2,500 to 2,600 birds are harvested per year. During the peak years of 2008 and 2009 between 2,800 and 2,900 were harvested. The harvest declined slightly and stabilized at 2,600 to 2,700 birds and he feels that is good. Roughly 175 to 180 birds are harvested each fall.

Following turkey restorations (around 40 years ago), our flock experienced a tremendous population increase. Over time, it peaked and then declined slightly and they hope that it will stabilize somewhere near the peak. Other states like NY, CT and RI are seeing more significant declines but Massachusetts has not seen such declines yet.

DFW analyzes the spring harvests, the brood surveys and fall harvests county by county. Using this information they piece together assessments of the population. Population is one part of it and hunters are the other part.

It used to be that the turkeys existed only in the Berkshire and Franklin Counties. Consequently, all of the turkey hunters came here. But over time as turkeys became more common in eastern Massachusetts, less people needed to travel out here. Some of the declining harvests seen in the Berkshires are a consequence of that shift in hunters. Overall, he believes the turkeys are doing fine.

Another thing to consider is that habitat has changed. There are fewer dairy farms and the forests are changing. Although turkeys are very adaptable and can survive in those conditions, he believes forest thinnings would help. DFW is working on that in terms of its management of state lands and is also working with private landowners to manage their lands better. Harvests and predations don't really affect turkey population.

"First and foremost, the way to manage the turkey population is through habitat", he said.

He wants to hear more from local hunters. Do we see more turkeys or about the same? He gets mixed reactions. Some think there are not as many turkeys as there used to be while others think it is just as good but there are fewer hunters.

There are a couple of diseases that are present in wild turkey populations. Avian pox is the primary one that most people can see. The other one is LPVD, a relatively new type of virus that affects turkeys.

Some are concerned that these diseases are causing some of the declines that other states are experiencing, particularly in NY. There has been a lot of research on this and he believes the diseases are not the "smoking gun". Research has shown that a high percentage of turkeys may carry these diseases but they are not dying in mass quantities from them. There will be some individual mortality but overall they don't believe there is a direct link to any significant mortality. It is not something that is terribly concerning at this point.

"If our harvest was declining dramatically or our hunter success rates were going down dramatically, then they would be concerned," he said.

They have looked at it but it hasn't borne any substance to warrant further examination at this point. Incidentally, the viruses are avian specific and have no known consequence or danger to humans. If you shoot a turkey that looks weird when gutting it out, use your judgment.

DFW sends out e-mail hunter surveys on turkeys, deer, bears, etc. every year. It is their general game take survey. There are questions there about turkeys, how they hunt them, how much time spent hunting them, etc.

"Things are pretty good. We have a 2 bird bag limit per year, the fall turkey season was recently expanded from one week to two and it was expanded statewide," he said.

The fall harvest did not show a tremendous increase because of these changes. There does seem to be an increase in turkey hunting and harvests in the fall mainly by deer hunters using a bow.

Yearly turkey brood surveys assess poult production and they get that information from all sorts of people. He gets more results from people in eastern Massachusetts with turkeys in their back yards than from more rural areas. The surveys are getting a little more biased on backyard birds, verses huntable birds. Data are collected in June, July and August, but August is the important month. Brood numbers are highest in the spring and they get whittled down over time. The important numbers are how many poults exist at the end of August. By that time predation dwindles and they are much less susceptible to predators.

There is coyote, fox and fisher predation when the poults are in production in the spring and when hens are sitting on nests. Outside of that there is not much predation on adult turkeys. Predators are not a controlling mechanism on turkeys.

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Next Sunday, the Taconic Chapter of Trout Unlimited is hosting a fly-tying afternoon at the Wahconah Country Club in Dalton from 2-5:30 p.m.

The event, which is free and open to the public, will be an informal gathering with members bringing in their own vises and tying materials along with a few extra sets available for those curious about tying. A great opportunity to learn about tying. If interested contact Henry Sweren at hsweren8@aol.com.

Questions/comments: Berkwoodsandwaters@roadrunner.com. Phone/fax: (413) 637-1818


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