I’ve only dabbled with hunting turkeys the past couple springs, allowing other “stuff” to take priority.


So, this year, amongst all the “stay-at-home and social distancing” madness, I thought, “What better time to get serious about hunting spring turkeys."


I sat down and phoned five different land owners, all within decent driving distance of home and asked them permission to hunt turkeys on their land this year.


I could have recorded the conversation with any one of them and simply played it back five different times, because the first thing out of all their mouths was the question “Where have all the turkeys gone?”


Back in January a press release was issue by the Kansas Dept of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) addressing the issue of declining turkey populations in the Midwest, including Kansas. This week I spoke with Kent Fricke, Small Game Coordinator with the KDWPT and got a little “Kansas turkey 101.”


Fricke says the Kansas turkey population peaked in about 2008 and has declined since, some years slowly and other years steadily, and the harvest of Kansas wild turkeys peaked in about 2015.


He told me the turkey populations were too high in some areas for a time, and now it’s hard to know what good population numbers should be for different areas of the state.


Each year the KDWPT uses counts by farmers, rural mail carriers and wildlife and parks personnel to estimate reproduction rates of deer, quail, pheasants and turkeys.


Last year’s turkey production estimate (number of new chicks hatched and surviving) was the lowest on record. Fricke gave me four factors that can affect wild turkey populations in Kansas, none of which can be controlled much, and here’s his take on each, in no particular order.


Weather obviously affects all wildlife populations. Last spring’s floods, and exceptionally dry springs and summers can wreak havoc with turkey numbers. But Fricke pointed out that weather has a different effect in different parts of the state. Wet springs in the west are good and produce more green cover and insects that young turkeys need. Wet springs in the east, however often cause horrendous flooding like last year and decimate turkey nests. This works adversely for drought. Exceptionally dry springs and summers in the west bake everything, while those same conditions in the east have less adverse effects because the eastern part of the state is greener. Fricke says turkey hens will re-nest if its early enough in the season. If their nest or young are destroyed late in the spring, they simply will not reproduce that year.


Habitat conservation is always an issue with wildlife populations, and Fricke calls habitat management “huge” for turkey numbers. He says with the massive decline in turkey numbers, he would expect to see glaring differences in habitat across the state, but aside from the evolving farming practices and removal of some tree rows, he can’t pinpoint any change in habitat that would explain the drop in turkey number seen. Fricke asks that farmers and landowners leave a few grassy and weedy areas around their properties to provide nesting cover and to attract insects necessary for young turkey’s survival.


Predation is another factor to consider. The Midwest has no shortage of predators, but when thinking about predation as a problem to turkey numbers, many folks only consider young birds being eaten by coyotes and bobcats, both of which are numerous here in Kansas. The other part of the equation is the number of nests that are robbed and destroyed by raccoons, skunks, possums and feral house cats, all of which love fresh eggs, and will also snatch baby turkey chicks if given the opportunity. Predator trapping and hunting are the most effective ways of helping control predator numbers.


Disease can be another factor in dwindling wildlife numbers, but Fricke says there is no current indication that disease has played any part in the declining turkey population in Kansas.


Kent Fricke told me “Our primary focus is declining nest and brood survival rates, which are influenced by habitat and weather. As turkey biologists, we don’t have a good handle on which of these factors, if any are causing this decline in turkey numbers. Harvest numbers are about the only thing we as an agency can control by adjusting season lengths and harvest limits.”


As hunters and landowners, lets do our part in helping solve this problem by adhering to seasons and harvest regulations, by trapping predators and by leaving and creating habitat for turkey nesting and survival.


Steve can be contacted by email at stevenrgilliland@gmail.com