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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Are Wild Turkeys Overpopulated?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., August 4, 2007.)
A recent news article covering the Audubon Society's press
conference on "common birds in decline" mistakenly reported
that wild turkeys are overpopulated. Are they really?
My short answer is no. If you’re interested in my long answer, read on.

A few weeks ago a news article covering the Audubon Society's press conference on "common birds in decline" accurately reported that we’re losing songbirds. Lots of them. And the reasons are many. But the article mistakenly attributed to naturalist and field researcher Scott Weidensaul the view that wild turkeys are overpopulated. I’ll address that in a moment.

Songbirds come in a variety of feathered forms, and are a good indicator of habitat health. It’s self-evident that high numbers and diverse species of songbirds in an area mean the habitat is healthy and meeting their needs.

A big reason for the decline of songbird populations is the loss of habitat. As we build more shopping centers and business parks, aiming for a positive economic impact, we rob songbirds of needed habitat. On a national scale, the loss is huge.

And, it’s probably no accident that songbird populations are declining at a time when the domestic cat is the most popular pet in America. Household cats are major predators of songbirds. Responsible pet owners take note.

Still another reason for the decline of songbirds is competition from other species. The animal that has been tagged as probably the biggest competition is the whitetail deer. Deer don’t just eat the granola those songbirds need. Deer, unlike most other species, will literally eat the habitat – the stuff that produces the nuts and berries that birds eat and the shrubs that they nest in.

Which brings me to turkeys. Like other birds, wild turkeys need nesting habitat. But turkeys do not compete with songbirds for nesting space.

Nor do they harm that habitat as deer can do. Weidensaul, in telling me he doubts that he could point to clear indicators of turkey overpopulation, said, “Unlike deer, turkeys – even a lot of them – are unlikely to have landscape-level impacts on their habitat.”

The reason is that the niche turkeys occupy is very different from that of deer. And that’s true in a number of ways.

Turkeys do not devour the habitat that provides food for the creatures that share that habitat. They scavenge delicacies under the leaf litter and enjoy some goodies that few other animals eat, such as delicious slugs. They eat a wide variety of foods – mostly what the habitat produces. By contrast, deer eat the plants that produce the habitat.

Also in contrast to deer, turkeys have plenty of natural predators – crows, owls, skunks, raccoons, and more. Some destroy eggs in the nest, others devour poults, and still more prey on the adults. Predators are especially diligent in the springtime in an effort to feed their own young.

Cold wet weather is a particular risk for newly hatched turkey chicks in the spring. So, wild turkeys have plenty to worry about. And if their population rises in an area that is home to their natural predators, predator populations will rise correspondingly. That’s the way the predator-prey relationship is supposed to work. And it usually does work.

Where is the predator-prey relationship not working? Jerry Feaser of the Pennsylvania Game Commission points out, “Some areas of the state have enough woods to support thriving turkey populations, but not enough to allow hunting without violating safety zones or to support enough predators to keep turkey population growth in check.”

Those areas tend to be suburban and city areas. Simply put, people in Pittsburgh neighborhoods want neither coyotes nor hunters patrolling for turkeys.

In unhuntable areas, Feaser says the way to keep turkey population growth in check is a trap and transfer program. Pennsylvania has exchanged wild turkeys from Allegheny County for pheasants from South Dakota.

Most people appreciate wildlife and are glad that populations are thriving. But they must deal with bears that knock over bird feeders, deer that persevere at nibbling shrubbery, geese that persist in depositing their droppings in parks and on golf courses, and turkeys that gather under suburban bird feeders and scratch lawns for bugs and grubs. Finding ways to cope is the price of living with nature.

As for our neck of the woods, turkeys are not overpopulated. But they’re plentiful, and offer good prospects for the fall hunting season.


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