Wild Turkey in Virginia

On this wonderful spring day in Charlottesville as I was driving in to l’etoile – I kept thinking how I would love the chance to hunt wild turkey.  I have eaten it many times and consider it some of the best wild game there is.  It actually got me inspired to sit down and jot a few words about this area and this great bird that is not only for Thanksgiving.

Early settlers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were
dependent on wild game for meat year round due to inadequate methods of food
preservation. Wild turkey and other game were staple food items for settlers
who explored and developed the Virginia countryside. But with increasing
colonization, wild game was also hunted professionally and sold at markets to
feed the growing human population in larger towns and cities. Wild game meats
were sold in quantities comparable to domestic animals, and at a fraction of
the cost of domestic meats.

Early settlers survived by taming the land with ax and plow.
Forests were cut to make way for agricultural production and lumbering. By the
turn of the 20th Century the landscape of Virginia had changed significantly
from the days when settlers first arrived at Jamestown. The extensive forests
that were havens for wild turkey and other wildlife were gone. Most forests had
been cut for lumber or to developed as agricultural lands for crops or grazing
domestic animals. These changes in habitat conditions, combined with market
hunting, led to the disappearance of wild turkeys from 2/3 of Virginia and they
had become rare in other sections. Populations of wild turkeys in Virginia were
probably at their lowest during the period from 1880 to 1910.

Concern for wild turkey conservation led to the passage of
the “Robin Bill” in Virginia during 1912 which prohibited the sale on
the open markets of wild turkey and several other species of birds. However,
enforcement of the “Robin Bill” and other legislation restricting
hunting methods and bag limits did not come until 1916, with the creation of
the Game Department.

The next milestone in turkey conservation came in 1929 when
the Game Commission began a restocking program using turkeys reared at game
farms. Game farm turkeys could easily be propagated and the Game Commission
raised and released several thousand birds before we realized these birds were
not capable of surviving and reproducing in the wild. In 1936, the Virginia
Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit was established under the direction of C. O.
Handley. Their first priority was to develop a satisfactory propagation method
to re-establish turkey populations. Many modifications of breeding, raising,
and releasing game farm turkeys were attempted from 1936 to 1955. All totaled,
the Commission raised and released over 22,000 game farm turkeys. In the final
analysis however, very little, if any, credit can be given to these efforts at
establishing wild turkey populations in any locality in Virginia.

A new procedure was developed in 1955 whereby native wild
turkeys were trapped and transferred to areas with suitable habitat. This
method proved highly successful and from 1955 to 1993 nearly 900 wild turkeys
were trapped and relocated in Virginia, primarily to the Southwest and
Tidewater regions. Wild turkey populations are now found throughout the

Fall hunting for wild turkeys has been a long-established
tradition in Virginia during the 17th-19th centuries when hunting was not
regulated and during the 20th century when seasons and bag limits were first
enforced. However, spring gobbler hunting is a relatively recent management
program that was initiated in 1962 as an experimental season on some public
lands in western Virginia. The experimental season was quickly adopted as it
was determined that spring hunting was biologically feasible and interest in
spring hunting grew.

Following the success reintroduction of the wild turkey, the
Department turned its emphasis towards research questions about wild turkey
biology and management. The most extensive project was a long-term study to
investigate survival, reproduction, and the impacts of fall hunting on wild
turkeys in western Virginia. This project, entitled “The Wild Turkey
Population Dynamics Research Project” was begun to determine the cause of
low population levels and low growth rates in wild turkey populations in
western Virginia. During the 5-year project biologists captured wild turkeys
and attached radio transmitters to the birds to monitor their movements,
survival, and reproduction. The study was part of a cooperative project with
West Virginia and the combined project resulted in a study of more than 1,000
wild turkey hens, the largest single study ever conducted anywhere in the

By combining efforts with West Virginia, the research
project was able to evaluate the impacts of several different fall hunting
season impacts on survival rates. Four different season structures were
evaluated including, no fall hunting, 4-weeks, 8 weeks and 9-weeks of fall
hunting. Results of the study found no difference in survival rates of turkeys
in the 8 and 9-week season in Virginia. Survival rates in Virginia averaged 48%
in Virginia. Survival was 52% in West Virginia’s counties with a 4-week season
and the area in West Virginia without fall hunting averaged 59% survival.
Natural mortality accounted for 34% of the population losses in the study.
Mammalian predators were responsible for most of the natural mortality. Foxes
and bobcats were the most common predators of adult turkeys. Virginia hunters
averaged taking 16% of the population whereas West Virginia hunters averaged
taking 7%. Illegal mortality was surprisingly high, averaging 21% in both

Significant differences were found in annual survival rates
that appear to be related to the availability of mast crops, namely acorns.
Survival rates were higher during years with good mast crops and were much
lower during years of mast failures. Hens monitored during the study for
reproduction revealed surprisingly low recruitment. Only one-third of the hens
were successful hatching a clutch and about half of those were lost during the
first 4-weeks following hatching. The high reproductive potential the wild
turkey is capable of producing was never achieved during the 5-year study; hens
averaged producing only 1.5 poults.

The study concluded that Virginia’s longer fall season was
adding mortality to the population, which lower survival rates. Low
reproductive rates were not compensating for high mortality. High fall
harvests, associated with mast failures, were resulting in lower densities and
lower growth rates.