Wildlife - Wild Turkeys

2020 Turkey Harvest Report Wild Turkey

The 2020 Turkey Harvest Report is provided in (PDF) format.


Ranking only behind white-tailed deer in popularity among hunters, the Eastern wild turkey is an important natural resource in South Carolina. The 2020 Turkey Hunter Survey represents the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), 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 2020, (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, SCDNR 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, SCDNR 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 2020 Turkey Hunter Survey represented a random mail survey that involved a single mail-out. The questionnaire for the 2020 Turkey Hunter Survey was developed by Wildlife Section personnel (Figure 1).The mailing list database was constructed by randomly selecting 30,000 individuals who received a set of 2020 Turkey Transportation Tags which are required to hunt turkeys in South Carolina. Data entry was completed by Data Dash, Inc., Farmington, Missouri.

Results from the mail survey were corrected for nonresponse bias using data collected by Southwick Associates, Fernandina Beach, Florida using a Computer Assisted Telephone Interview program (CATI).

Statistical analysis was conducted using Statistix 10 (Analytical Software, Tallahassee, FL).

Results and Discussion

Turkey Harvest

During the 2020 spring season it is estimated that a total of 13,348 adult gobblers and 696 jakes were harvested for a statewide total of 14,044 turkeys (Table 1). This figure represents a 19 percent decrease in harvest from 2019 (17,374). Determining why the harvest decreased this amount is difficult because legislative changes went into effect in 2020 which established new season frameworks, bag limits, and a first-time fee for turkey tags. Additionally, the Covid-19 virus surfaced just prior to the 2020 turkey season. Abrupt and significant changes like these can create "noise" which interrupts or disguises trends that develop over time under more uniform conditions. The big question is was the decrease in harvest in 2020 a continuing trend of fewer turkeys and declining harvests or was it an artifact of the legislative changes and effects of Covid-19?

On one hand, turkey harvest figures have trended down for over a decade in South Carolina reflecting decreased numbers of turkeys likely due to ongoing poor recruitment of poults into the population. This trend appears to be a regional situation and has been called the "southeast turkey decline" by biologists and managers. The percentage of jakes in the 2020 harvest (5.0%) was the lowest on record. Low jake harvests are usually indicative of poor recruitment the previous year. This would lend credence to the notion that the decrease in harvest in 2020 was simply a continuation of a declining trend.

On the other hand, the legislative changes and effects of Covid-19 could easily explain much of the decline in harvest. Along with the new season structure the legislative changes allowed for only one gobbler to be taken during the first 10 days of the season. This was an intentional effort to limit the harvest of birds early in the season to moderate possible effects of early gobbler removal on the reproductive success of hens. Additionally, overall hunter numbers were down 12 percent in 2020 perhaps related to "pushback" by hunters on the first-time fee for a set of turkey tags. Nonresident hunter numbers were down nearly 50 percent likely due to the high fee for a set of nonresident turkey tags ($100), as well as, concerns associated with Covid-19 which was raging during the spring of 2020. It will likely take several years for the effects of the legislative changes and Covid-19 to settle and allow for new trends to emerge.

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 2020 was 0.6 gobblers per square mile statewide (Table 2). 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 Spartanburg (1.5 turkeys/mile2), Fairfield (1.2 turkeys/mile2), Union (1.1 turkeys/mile2), Anderson (1.0 turkeys/mile2), and Laurens (0.9 turkeys/mile2) (Table 2).

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 2029 were Williamsburg, Fairfield, Spartanburg, Orangeburg, and Berkeley (Table 3).

Number of Turkey Hunters

Even though all individuals receiving a set of Turkey Transportation Tags were licensed to hunt turkeys, only 67 percent indicated that they actually hunted turkeys. Based on this figure, approximately 43,164 hunters participated in the 2020 spring turkey season, a 12 percent decrease from 2019 (49,060). Counties with the highest estimates for individual hunters include Fairfield, Laurens, Newberry, Spartanburg, and Union (Table 4). As previously discussed, "pushback" by hunters on the first-time fee for a set of turkey tags along with travel restrictions and other issues associated with Covid-19 likely was likely responsible for the reduced number of hunters, particularly nonresidents.

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 8.4 days afield during the 2020 season (Table 4). Successful hunters averaged significantly more days afield (11.2 days) than unsuccessful hunters (6.6 days). Extrapolating to the entire population of turkey hunters yields a figure of 269,154 total days of spring gobbler hunting, a 4 percent increase from 2019 (258,445 days).

Although hunter numbers were down in 2020, there was increased effort by those who did hunt which may be attributable to Covid-19 "lockdowns" and the notion that individuals had more time to hunt. 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. The top 5 South Carolina counties for overall days of turkey hunting during 2020 were Fairfield, Spartanburg, Laurens, Chester, Union and Newberry counties (Table 4).

Turkey Harvest by Period 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 simulated hen calls. With respect to both biology and quality hunting, the timing of the spring gobbler season should take into account three primary factors: peak breeding, peak gobbling, and peak nest initiation. 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 of hens.

A recent multi-year nesting study conducted in the lower coastal plain indicates that on average, hens do not initiate nesting until April 9. Gobbling studies conducted simultaneously to the nesting studies indicate peak gobbling occurs the first 10 days of April. The peak in gobbling is believed to coincided with nest initiation by hens because gobbling increases in response to decreased hen availability due to commencement of nesting activities.

The 2020 season marked a return to two spring turkey season frameworks in South Carolina. In Game Zones 1 and 2 which encompasses the piedmont and mountains the season is now April 1 to May 10, whereas, in Game Zones 3 and 4 located in the coastal plain the season is March 22 to April 30. Based on the research, the April 1 season start date coincides more closely with the onset of nesting and peak gobbling. This should provide for improved reproductive success by hens because gobblers are not harvested too early and it should also lead to improved hunting success because gobblers are not accompanied by as many hens due to onset of nesting. On the other hand, the March 22 season start date is nearly 3 weeks prior to peak nest initiation and prior to peak gobbling as well. That being the case, considerations should be given to potential effects on reproduction due to excessive early removal of males and decreased hunter success due to decreased gobbling and hunters competing with hens.

If seasons are set appropriately, the greatest proportion of turkeys should be harvested during the first week or 10 days of the season because increasing number of hens should be egg-laying or incubating resulting in gobblers that are naïve and more responsive to hunters’ calls. Harvest by period of season demonstrates that the timing of the April 1 opening date affords higher turkey harvests as most turkeys are harvested during the 10 days following the April 1 opening date (Figure 4).

When broken-out by specific season frameworks the results are similar. In areas where the season begins March 22, only 34 percent of the total harvest was accounted for during the first 10 days of the season (Figure 5). This is likely because late March is the time of peak breeding and males gobble less because hens are available. Hunters refer to this as gobblers being "henned-up." On the other hand, 45 percent of the harvest occurred during the first 10 days of the season in areas where the season begins April 1 (Figure 6). This is because by April 10 a significant number of hens are involved in nesting activities leaving gobblers "lonely" and more susceptible to hunters' calls. These same trends were apparent prior to 2016 when there were split season in South Carolina with one framework beginning March 15 and the other April 1.

Hunting Success

For determination of hunting success only those individuals who actually hunted turkeys were included in the analysis and similarly, success was defined as harvesting at least one turkey. Overall hunting success in 2020 was 27 percent (Figure 5). Unlike deer hunting which typically has high success, turkey hunting can be an inherently unsuccessful endeavor, relatively speaking.

The statewide bag limit in South Carolina is 3 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 3 birds. Ironically, the percentage of hunters taking 3 birds was only 2.1 percent, however, this small percentage of hunters harvested an estimated 24 percent of the total birds taken in the state (Figure 6).

Hunter Opinion Regarding Turkey Numbers

The 2020 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. Approximately 48 percent 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 (37 percent) believed that the turkey population was decreasing than increasing (16 percent). On a scale of 1 to 3 with 1 being increasing, 2 being the same, and 3 being decreasing, the overall mean rating of 2.2 suggests that hunters viewed the turkey population as decreasing. The opinion among hunters that the turkey population is decreasing has been consistent the last few 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.

To estimate the prevalence of errant shots at turkeys, the 2020 Turkey Hunter Survey asked hunters to indicate the number of turkeys that they "shot but did not kill or recover during the 2020 season in South Carolina." Approximately 9.7 percent of hunters indicated that they shot but did not kill or recover at least one turkey in 2020 (10.1 percent in 2019). There were approximately 43,164 turkey hunters in 2020 meaning that approximately 4,181 turkeys were shot or shot at and not killed or recovered. Therefore, approximately 23 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, some percentage of the 4,181 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 hundreds of 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 can be stimulated to gobble using the various turkey calls, particularly late in the afternoon near areas where turkeys frequently roost. Additionally, it is now common for hunters to set up on food plots, often in blinds, using decoys in areas that turkeys frequent for feeding and loafing in the afternoon.

To gain a better understanding of the distribution of harvest with respect to time of day, the 2020 Turkey Hunter Survey asked hunters to identify the number of birds harvested in the morning compared to the afternoon. Results indicate that approximately 72 percent of gobblers were harvested in the morning compared to 28 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.

COVID-19 and the 2020 Spring Turkey Season

On March 16, the week prior to the opening of the 2020 spring turkey season, Governor Henry McMaster announced the closing of schools in South Carolina. Government agencies, businesses, sporting events, etc. immediately followed suit with stay-at-home recommendations or mandates. This marked the beginning of the COVID-19 "lockdown" which lasted well beyond the close of the turkey season in early May.

To determine possible effect of COVID-19 on spring turkey season, two questions were added to the 2020 Turkey Hunter Survey. The first asked participants how the pandemic affected the amount of time they spent turkey hunting compared to a "normal" year. There were 3 choices: more, about the same, or less. Responses were similar for residents and nonresidents with approximately 57 percent of respondents indicating they hunted the same amount as a normal year. A higher percentage (25%) of participants indicated they hunted more than those who indicated they hunted less (18%). On a scale of 1 to 3 with 1 being more, 2 being the same, and 3 being less, the overall mean of 1.3 suggests that respondents hunted more during the 2020 season. As previously discussed, although total turkey hunter numbers were down (12%), the total amount of effort (man/days) increased (4%) in 2020. Thus, for those individuals who hunted, they hunted more on average than in 2019.

The second question asked participants if the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic were the sole reason they did not turkey hunt in South Carolina during 2020. Responses were not similar for residents compared to nonresidents. Significantly more nonresidents (85%) than residents (37%) indicated that circumstances surrounding COVID-19 were the sole reason they did not hunt in South Carolina in 2020. These results are not surprising given that travel restrictions, quarantines, etc. could have easily affected nonresidents more than residents. Finally, these results could easily explain the decrease (12%) in hunter numbers seen in 2020. This is particularly the case as nonresident hunter numbers decreased approximately 50 percent from 2019.

The tables and graphs referred to in this report are provided in (PDF) format.

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