Wildlife - Wild Turkeys

2014 Turkey Harvest Report Wild Turkey

The 2014 Turkey Harvest Report is provided in Adobe® Acrobat® (PDF) format. Adobe® Reader® is required to open this file and is available as a free download from the Adobe® Web site.
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Ranking only behind the white-tailed deer in popularity among hunters, the Eastern wild turkey is an important natural resource in South Carolina.  The 2014 Turkey Hunter Survey represents the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Wildlife Section’s ongoing commitment to conduct pertinent research related to the state’s wild turkey population.  The primary objectives of this survey research were to obtain valid estimates of; (1) the statewide spring gobbler harvest in 2014, (2) the harvest of gobblers in the constituent counties of the state, and (3) hunting effort related to turkeys.  Information on hunter’s opinions of the turkey resource and other aspects of turkey hunting are also presented.

Due to the importance of turkeys as a state resource, DNR believes that accurately assessing the harvest of turkeys, as well as hunter participation in turkey hunting, is key to the management of this species.  Proposed changes in turkey-related laws and regulations should have foundations in biology, therefore, the population dynamics associated with annual hunting mortality cannot be ignored.  Similarly, when issues arise that do not involve biological parameters, it is important to have information related to turkey hunter activities afield because they too form an important basis for managing wild turkeys.

Since the inception of the Statewide Turkey Restoration and Research Project (Turkey Project) the methods used to document the turkey harvest have changed.  Historically, turkey harvest figures were developed using a system of mandatory turkey check stations across the state.  This system yielded an actual count of harvested turkey and was, therefore, an absolute minimum harvest figure.  Shortcomings in this system included deterioration of check station compliance, complaints from hunters regarding the inconvenience of check stations, and costs associated with the check station system.  The requirement to check harvested turkeys in South Carolina was eliminated following the 2005 season.  Prior to eliminating the check-in requirement, DNR conducted surveys in order to document the rate of noncompliance, as well as, to determine the relationship between harvest figures obtained from check stations and those obtained from surveys.  As would be expected, harvest figures obtained from surveys are higher than those from check stations due to lack of compliance with the check-in requirement.

Survey Methodology

The 2014 Turkey Hunter Survey represented a random mail survey that involved a single mail-out.  The questionnaire for the 2014 Turkey Hunter Survey was developed by Wildlife Section personnel (Figure 1 - Adobe PDF). The mailing list database was constructed by randomly selecting 25,000 individuals who received a set of 2014 Turkey Transportation Tags which are required in order to hunt turkeys in South Carolina.  Data entry was completed by Priority Data, Inc., Omaha, Nebraska.

Results from the mail survey were corrected for nonresponse bias using data collected during 2008-2013 by Responsive Management of Harrisonburg, Virginia using a Computer Assisted Telephone Interview program (CATI).

Statistical analysis was conducted using Statistix 7 (Analytical Software, Tallahassee, FL).

Results and Discussion

Turkey Harvest

During the 2014 spring season it is estimated that a total of 14,649 adult gobblers and 1,599 jakes were harvested for a statewide total of 16,248 turkeys (Table 1 - Adobe PDF). This figure represents a 15 percent decrease in harvest from 2013 (19,211) and a 36 percent decrease from the record harvest established in 2002 (16,348 check station, 25,487 estimated by survey).  The overall reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to one primary factor, poor reproduction. 

Although reproduction in wild turkeys was generally poor between 2003 and 2009 it was much better in both 2010 and 2011 (Figure 2 - Adobe PDF) which led to a substantial increase in harvest in 2012.  However, reproduction returned to poor levels following the 2012 season resulting in decreased harvests the last two seasons (Figure 3 - Adobe PDF). Also interesting, the percentage of juveniles (jakes) in the harvest in 2014 was the lowest on record and coincident with the lowest recruitment ratio on record which occurred in the summer of 2013. This association between changes in reproduction and its effects on harvest are rather remarkable in South Carolina’s turkey harvest and reproductive data sets.

Unlike deer, wild turkeys are much more susceptible to significant fluctuations in reproduction and recruitment and with the exception of the last two years, these measures of production have generally not been good in the last decade.  Lack of reproductive success is typically associated with bad weather (cold and wet) during nesting and brood rearing season.  On the other hand, habitats are continually changing in South Carolina.  Although timber management activities stimulated the growth in South Carolina’s turkey population in the 1980s, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged pine stands that are greater than 10 years old, a situation that does not support turkeys as well.

Harvest Per Unit Area County Rankings

Comparisons can be made between turkey harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established.  Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of the size of individual counties.  One measure of harvest rate is the number of turkeys taken per square mile (640ac. = 1 mile²). When considering the estimated turkey habitat that is available in South Carolina, the turkey harvest rate in 2014 was 0.7 gobblers per square mile statewide (Table 2 - Adobe PDF). Although this harvest rate is not as high as it once was, it should be considered good and is similar to other Southeastern states.  The top 5 counties for harvest per unit area were Union (1.6 turkeys/mile²), Laurens (1.6 turkeys/mile²), Cherokee (1.5 turkeys/mile²), Spartanburg (1.4 turkeys/mile²), and Greenville (1.3 turkeys/mile²) (Table 2 - Adobe PDF).

Turkey Harvest Rankings by County

Total turkey harvest is not comparable among counties because there is no standard unit of comparison, i.e. counties vary in size and are, therefore, not directly comparable. However, some readers may be interested in this type of ranking.  The top 5 counties during 2014 were Williamsburg, Laurens, Berkeley, Union, and Fairfield (Table 3 - Adobe PDF).

Turkey Harvest by Week of Season

Gobbling by male wild turkeys occurs primarily in the spring and is for the purpose of attracting hens for mating purposes.  Therefore, spring turkey hunting is characterized by hunters attempting to locate and call gobbling male turkeys using emulated hens calls.  With respect to both biology and effective hunting, the timing of the spring gobbler season should take into account three primary factors; peak breeding, peak gobbling, and peak incubation.  Considering these factors, seasons can be set to afford hunters the best opportunity to hunt during the best time (i.e. peak gobbling) without inhibiting reproductive success.

South Carolina currently has two spring turkey season frameworks.  Throughout most of the state (Game Zones 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) the season is April 1-May1.  This season is based on a recommendation from DNR following gobbling and nesting studies that were conducted in the 1970’s. The other season framework is March 15-May 1 and is only in effect in Game Zone 6 (lower coastal plain).  This season is socio-politically based.  For additional information on setting spring turkey season refer to: https://www.dnr.sc.gov/wildlife/turkey/springseason09.html.

If seasons are set appropriately, the greatest proportion of turkeys should be harvested during the first week of the season because hens should be laying or nesting resulting in gobblers that are naïve and most responsive to hunter’s calls.  Harvest by week of season demonstrates that the timing of the April 1 opening season affords higher turkey harvests as most turkeys are harvested during the week following the April 1 opening date (Figure 4 - Adobe PDF ). When broken-out by specific season frameworks the results are similar.  In areas were the season begins March 15, only 27 percent of the total harvest was accounted for during the first week of the season (Figure 5 - Adobe PDF). This is likely due to the fact that late March is the time of peak breeding and males gobble less because “they are all henned up”.  On the other hand, 44 percent of the harvest occurred during the first week of the season in areas where the season begins April 1 (Figure 6 - Adobe PDF). This is due to the fact that by the first week in April, a significant number of hens have left the gobblers and begun continuous incubation. 

Comparing the first two weeks of each season format, we find that where the season opens March 15, 43 percent of gobblers were harvested while this figure is 67 percent where the season opens on April 1.  Finally, the percentage of turkeys harvested in the first week of the season in areas where the season opens April 1 is essentially the same as the percentage of turkeys harvested during the first two weeks of the season in areas where the season opens March 15.  Again, this is a reflection of fewer available hens due to nesting and this lack of hens stimulates peak gobbling resulting in hunters being more successful in locating and calling responsive birds.  These results have been consistent since this type of data has been available.

Number of Turkey Hunters

Even though all individuals receiving a set of Turkey Transportation Tags were licensed to hunt turkeys, only 42 percent actually hunted turkeys.  Based on this figure, approximately 45,949 hunters participated in the 2014 spring turkey season, an 9 percent decrease from 2013 (50,752 ). Counties with the highest estimates for individual hunters include Laurens, Fairfield, Newberry, Union, and Chester (Table 4 - Adobe PDF).

Hunter Effort

For the purposes of this survey hunter effort was measured in days with one day being defined as any portion of the day spent afield.  Turkey hunters averaged approximately 5.0 days afield during the 2014 season (Table 4 - Adobe PDF). Successful hunters averaged significantly more days afield (7.1 days) than unsuccessful hunters (4.5 days).  Extrapolating to the entire population of turkey hunters yields a figure of 227,069 total days of spring gobbler hunting, down 5 percent from 2013 (240,256 days). 

The number of days devoted to turkey hunting in South Carolina is significant and points not only to the availability and popularity of turkeys as a game species, but to the obvious economic benefits related to this important natural resource.  Figures generated by a 2003 Survey by the National Wild Turkey Federation estimate that approximately 35 million dollars are added to South Carolina’s economy annually from turkey hunting.  The top 5 South Carolina counties for overall days of turkey hunting during 2014 were Newberry, Fairfield, Union, Laurens, and Chester counties (Table 4 - Adobe PDF).

Hunting Success

For determination of hunting success only those individuals that actually hunted turkeys were included in the analysis and similarly, success was defined as harvesting at least one turkey. Overall hunting success in 2014 was 22 percent (Figure 7). Unlike deer hunting which typically has high success, turkey hunting can be an inherently unsuccessful endeavor, relatively speaking. As would be expected, the majority of successful hunters take one gobbler (Figure 7 - Adobe PDF). However, the percentage of successful hunters who take two birds is quite high as well.  This indicates that successful hunters had nearly the same chance of taking two birds as they did one bird. 

The statewide bag limit in South Carolina is five gobblers.  Obviously, most successful hunters harvest only one or two birds.  However, it is interesting to note the relative contribution to the total harvest of turkeys by the few hunters that harvest many birds.  Ironically, the percentage of hunters taking more than 3 birds was only 2.5 percent, however, this small percentage of hunters harvested 26 percent of the total birds taken in the state (Figure 8 - Adobe PDF). These results have been consistent since this type of data has been available.

Hunter Opinion Regarding Turkey Numbers

The 2014 Turkey Hunter Survey asked participants to compare the number of turkeys in the area they hunt most often with the number of turkeys in past years.  Participants were given 3 choices; increasing, about the same, or decreasing.   Half (50%) of hunters indicated that the number of turkeys in the area they hunted most often was about the same as in past years.  A higher percentage of hunters (35%) believed that the turkey population was decreasing than increasing (15%).  On a scale of 1 to 3 with 1 being increasing, 2 being the same, and 3 being decreasing, the overall mean rating of 2.1 suggests that hunters viewed the turkey population as decreasing.  As previously discussed, this is likely attributable to very poor reproduction the last two years.

Turkeys Shot but not Recovered

Harvesting game signals the end of a successful hunt and although most hunters do a good job of preparing their equipment and mental state, it goes without saying that a certain percentage of game is shot or shot at and not killed or recovered.  This point is no different when turkey hunting. 

In order to estimate the prevalence of errant shots at turkeys, the 2014 Turkey Hunter Survey asked hunters to indicate the number of turkeys that they “shot but did not kill or recover during the 2014 season in South Carolina”.  Approximately 10.8 percent of hunters indicated that they shot but did not kill or recover at least one turkey in 2014 (10.9% in 2013).  There were approximately 45,949 turkey hunters in 2014 meaning that approximately 4,763 turkeys were shot or shot at and not killed or recovered.  Therefore, approximately 22 percent of the total number of turkeys shot at were not killed or recovered.  These results have been consistent since this type of data has been available.

This data is certainly not indicative of “dead and unrecovered turkeys”, however, it is clear that some percentage of the 4,763 turkeys that were shot at did eventually die.  Although shot shells for turkeys have become increasingly sophisticated, accurate, and lethal it is a fact that the pattern of a shotgun is relatively broad and contains between 200 and 400 pellets.  Therefore, a “clean miss” is not as clear-cut for turkeys compared to other big game like deer where there is typically a single projectile. Additional research is needed on this topic.

Turkey Harvest in the Morning VS. Afternoon

The typical spring turkey hunt is characterized by attempting to locate a gobbling bird prior to or just after sunrise.  Once a gobbler is located most hunters position themselves as close as they can to the gobbler without scaring it away.  Various types of callers that mimic the sounds of wild turkeys are then used to attempt to call the gobbler into gun range.  This technique of locating a gobbling bird, setting-up, and calling is repeated as necessary. 

Traditionally, spring turkey hunting was primarily carried out during the first few hours of the day.  As the popularity of turkey hunting has increased, many hunters now hunt in the afternoon as well.  Gobblers are generally not as vocal in the afternoon but they can be stimulated to gobble using the various turkey calls, particularly late in the afternoon near areas where turkeys frequently roost.

In order to gain a better understanding of the distribution of harvest with respect to time of day, the 2014 Turkey Hunter Survey asked hunters to identify the number of birds harvested in the morning compared to the afternoon.  Results indicate that approximately 73 percent of gobblers were harvested in the morning compared to 27 percent in the afternoon.  This data may be useful if discussions arise concerning the relative importance of morning compared to afternoon harvest of gobblers in the spring.  These results have been consistent since this type of data has been available.

The tables and graphs referred to in this report are provided in Adobe® Acrobat® (PDF) format. Adobe® Reader® is required to open this file and is available as a free download from the Adobe® Web site.
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