By Mike Dye
So often we get the call: “Why can’t I hunt turkeys in March? My friend in such-and-such state starts hunting them in March, so why do we have to wait until April?” It is a good question to address. To boil it down to the simplest explanation, our spring turkey season timing is a compromise between biology and hunter desires.
To understand the season structure, we need to start with a basic turkey reproduction biology lesson. In early spring, gobblers will begin to display (strut) and gobble to assert their dominance within the social structure of the turkey population/flock. There will be a lot of shuffling around and fighting amongst all the gobblers until a specific social hierarchy is determined. This will go on for weeks before the hens are ready to breed with the toms. Much of the gobbling and strutting hunters report seeing during the early spring is related to this behavior. At this stage, the hens are not ready to breed yet, but the males are getting primed and ready to go.
Hens will respond to changes in day length (photoperiod) in early April and start to become receptive to being bred. This receptivity usually closely coincides with the peak of gobbling activity. Hens are very selective in this process, usually only allowing the most dominant birds to breed with her. If a dominant bird isn’t available, she will hold off breeding until he becomes available, often forgoing breeding for a few days. Hens have a fairly long window in which they are biologically able to breed, so by delaying breeding she can give her eggs the opportunity for the best genetics within that given population. If the dominant gobbler in the area is removed, she will often delay breeding until a new social hierarchy has been determined.
Once the hen has been bred, she will begin laying eggs. This next phase of turkey reproduction is known as the nest initiation phase. In the early stages of egg production, she may lay an egg every two to three days, but by peak egg laying she will be laying an egg per day over 10 to 14 days. During this time, she will continue to breed to make sure she has the best genetics from the dominant gobblers going to egg production. After she has laid her clutch of eggs, she will begin incubating the eggs, entering the third phase of reproduction—the incubation phase. This phase will last about 28 days until the eggs begin to hatch. She will remain sitting on the eggs day and night through this entire period, only taking short recesses to feed through the day.
With these phases of reproduction in mind, there are three main strategies that biologists can use to set season structure for spring turkey seasons, each with advantages and disadvantages. The first option would be to set season timing to encompass all breeding behaviors, typically starting at some point in March. Several states, mostly in the Southeast, use this strategy, and it can work well in areas with robust populations or light hunting pressure. This season structure is often favored by many hunters as the turkeys are actively gobbling and can be susceptible to calling during this period. However, the disadvantage to this system is that you are often removing the most dominant birds from the system prior to breeding, which can result in delaying breeding behaviors. Especially in heavily hunted areas, this early harvest can reduce the number of males to the point that reproduction may be limited or impaired. As you can imagine, over time this would lead to decreases in populations by having fewer females breeding, often laying clutches of unfertilized eggs, and spreading out the nesting over a longer period, allowing predators to have a greater impact on nest survival.
The other main problem is the potential for illegal hen harvest. As hens are out moving around and searching for nesting habitat, they are more susceptible to illegal harvest. Even with our more conservative season, we have observed illegal hen harvest of up to 9% here in Virginia; moving the season earlier may increase that illegal harvest.
The second option would be to set hunting season to coincide with the peak of incubation. From a strict population biology standpoint, this is the most preferred season. By this point, most hens would be bred, so we would see limited impact of removing males from the population at this time. The hens would be fully engaged in nesting behaviors, so there would be a significantly reduced risk of illegal hen harvest. The negative to this system is that it places the hunting season opening even later. Here in Virginia, our peak of incubation is around May 5.
If we set the season at this point, our season would come in three weeks later than our current structure, and the season would probably have to be shortened by a week or two. We might produce more turkeys, but the hunting conditions would be more difficult and would occur well past the peak of gobbling activity. According to our survey data, our hunters very much value hearing and calling in turkeys. If our season was this late, much of the gobbling would be over and hunter dissatisfaction would likely increase.
The third option is a compromise of these two systems, and the way that Virginia has managed turkey hunting for decades. Our season is timed to coincide around the peak of nest initiation. This provides for higher hunter satisfaction because we are closer to the peak of gobbling activity. By this point, a good portion of the hens have already bred, so removing the males has less effect than removing them prior to peak of breeding. There is some risk to this system, as we will remove some males during this breeding period, but we typically still see high amounts of reproductive success. In general, this season structure has some of the positives and some of the negatives with either the early or late options. Overall, this tends to be the Goldilocks season timing for most Virginia hunters and managers. We have good hunting and are still conservative enough to maintain robust populations.
As you start hearing those first gobbles of the year and start yearning to chase the longbeards, just remember that by waiting just a bit you are helping to build a stronger population. The old adage that good things come to those who wait may very well be true for Virginia’s turkey hunters.
Mike Dye is the upland gamebird biologist – turkey and grouse for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources