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Missouri's wild turkeys aren't having enough hatchlings, worrying scientists and hunters

In Missouri, the number of young wild turkeys, or poults, per mother hen has declined sharply in recent years.
File photo / Alisha Mosloff
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In Missouri, the number of young wild turkeys, or poults, per mother hen has declined sharply in recent years.

Wild turkey populations in Missouri have taken a nosedive in the past 15 years. Biologists say the declines are connected to dwindling numbers of baby turkeys statewide.

Jake Williams grew up listening to wild turkeys calling to one another in the forests of eastern Missouri.

When he was about 5, barely old enough to keep up, Williams started tagging along with his dad and uncle on hunting trips in St. Francois County. It was the early ‘90s, during what he calls the “heyday of turkey hunting.”

“We’d go out before daylight and get up on a ridge,” he said. “It wasn’t anything unusual — in fact, it was the norm — to hear birds gobbling in pretty much every direction.”

These days, Williams said, you can go miles without seeing a single turkey.

Once considered a conservation success story in Missouri, wild turkey populations have taken a nosedive in the past 15 years. The causes of the decline are complicated, but biologists say it’s connected to dwindling numbers of baby turkeys statewide. Though production of turkey hatchlings remains low, data from the Missouri Department of Conservation show slight gains this year compared to the five-year average.

The wild turkey population came close to disappearing altogether in Missouri in the first half of the 20th century, as it did in other states. Uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction nearly drove the species locally extinct and by the 1950s, an estimated 2,500 turkeys were left statewide.

Decades of habitat restoration and breeding programs helped the population rebound. Turkey populations in Missouri peaked in 2004 at about 600,000 birds. Since then, populations have plummeted to an estimated 350,000 turkeys statewide.

At the same time, turkey reproduction has stalled.

The number of young wild turkeys counted per female, or the poult-to-hen ratio, has tumbled in recent decades — from 4.6 at its highest point in 1971 to 0.8 in 2017, a record low in Missouri.

Turkey production remains low statewide, based on this year’s annual survey, in which scientists and Missouri residents record turkey sightings in June, July and August.

Based on observations of more than 75,000 turkeys this summer, the statewide poult-to-hen ratio is 1, meaning that female turkeys are producing about one hatchling per year on average.

Missouri’s turkey production in 2021 was about 11% higher than the five-year state average. But compared to the average over the past 20 years, turkey production in 2021 was down 23%.

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Researchers are studying ways to help boost Missouri’s wild turkey populations, but MDC turkey biologist Reina Tyl said it’s unlikely they will return to levels seen in the 1990s.

“We're kind of starting to think that this might be the new normal,” Tyl said. “I know that's not necessarily what people would like to hear. But we have to think about the fact that it's a very different world for turkeys now than it was several decades ago.”

Multiple factors are likely driving low turkey reproduction in Missouri, including habitat loss and shifting weather patterns.

More severe rainstorms in the springtime can drench young hatchlings, making it harder for them to maintain their body temperature and increasing the likelihood they'll die of hypothermia. Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency of severe weather events, which could exacerbate turkey population declines.

Predator populations have also grown in Missouri in recent years, driven by declining prices for racoon pelts, and habitat availability has shrunk statewide.

“I personally would much prefer to be able to say, ‘If we fix this one thing, everything will be better,’” Tyl said. “But that's not the reality of the situation.”

For now, she said, there’s no evidence to suggest that overharvest is driving the declines in turkey populations.

Missouri regulations allow hunters to harvest female turkeys during the fall archery and firearms seasons, but they account for a small fraction of overall harvest. Of the more than 38,000 turkeys harvested statewide this year, about 7% were hens.

Though Jake Williams feels nostalgic for the turkey hunting of years past, it remains an important part of his life. He even suspects his turkey-loving dad may have named him and his sister, Jennifer, after the birds. (Jake is the term for a young male turkey, and Jenny refers to a female.)

“I travel where the turkeys are,” Williams said. “I'm addicted to it. I love hearing turkeys, I love watching turkeys. I like to harvest them, but that's not at all the most important part to me. I take a lot of people out now and try to help them experience what turkey hunting's like. I want to see our turkey population get back to at least somewhere where it was.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Shahla Farzan is a general assignment reporter and weekend newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes most recently from KBBI Public Radio in Homer, Alaska, where she covered issues ranging from permafrost thaw to disputes over prayer in public meetings. A science nerd to the core, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. She has also worked as an intern at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and a podcaster for BirdNote. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, combing flea markets for tchotchkes, and curling up with a good book.
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