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Oklahoma turkey population changing

April 08, 2010 at 04:04 PM

The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Spring turkey season opened recently, and the population of birds in western Oklahoma is thriving. East of Interstate 35 is a different story, especially southeast.

The population of Rio Grande wild turkeys, which dominate the western and central portions of the state, is strongest in western Oklahoma but down slightly in east and central Oklahoma, said Rod Smith, wildlife biologist of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

But there has been a sharp reduction in Eastern wild turkeys. That sub-species of birds, predominantly found in southeastern Oklahoma, has declined to the point that state wildlife officials are contemplating shortening the season or decreasing bag limits in the future.

“We haven’t had an early hatch since 2004,” said Jack Waymire, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Eastern turkey guru.

The number of gobblers taken by hunters in southeastern Oklahoma last year was less than half of what it was in 2004, Waymire said.

The decline is due to the weather. Drought-like conditions in 2005 and 2006 meant fewer seeds to attract insects for turkey poults (chicks).

“If there are no bugs, they don’t survive,” Waymire said.

Cold and wet springs haven’t helped either. A predator can smell a wet hen, making it easier for predators to find a clutch of turkey eggs for a meal, he said.

A turkey hen will try to make as many as three nests, but the later the nests the less chance of survival, Waymire said.

Oklahoma is not the only state seeing a decline in Eastern wild turkeys. There are fewer birds in southeast Kansas, southern Missouri, Arkansas, western Mississippi, Louisiana and east Texas, Waymire said.

Those states are also contemplating shortening seasons or reducing bag limits until the population recovers, he said.

“Just one good early hatch and we would recover,” Waymire said.

Both Waymire and Smith s uggest hunters first scout that areas where they found turkeys last year. Hens normally return to the same area where they nested last year.

However, many flocks were disrupted by the recent cold snaps, Smith said.

“Those winter flocks got displaced or moved around with the ice storms,” he said. “We have seen good numbers of birds in places that we haven’t before and received reports of smaller numbers in areas where they have been good in the past.

“I wouldn’t quit on the old honey holes. I would assume they will break up in the spring and get back to their old haunts.”

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