We all know that 2020 has thus far been the most unusual year in most of our lifetimes. For Georgia’s turkey population, this was no different. With many people off work and school, they turned to the great outdoors. For many, that meant heading to the woods to hunt the elusive spring gobbler.

Georgia’s reported turkey harvest was the highest it has been since 2016, when WRD first initiated reporting through Game Check. Though final numbers aren’t available yet, it already looks as though hunter effort was up significantly this year. Online Wildlife Management Area sign-ins were the highest they have been in three years, up almost 60%. This year’s total harvest reported through Game Check was 14,365 birds, up 27% from last year.

 

Turkey Harvest Numbers between 2019-2020

 20192020% Change from 2019 to 2020
Total Harvest 11,30614,36527%
Public Land Harvest 1,3771,85335%
Private Land Harvest9,92912,51226%
WMA Harvest9041,15928%
WMA Sign-Ins3,1684,96857%

 

Turkey Harvest Increase from 2016-2019 to 2020

 2016-2019 Average% change from 2016-2019 average
Total Harvest 11,53525%
Public Land Harvest 1,33739%
Private Land Harvest10,19823%
WMA Harvest85436%

 

What does the increase in harvest mean?

PutnamCounty_openingday_turkey_2020

Hunter 2020 Putnam County opening day turkey.

Many Georgians were able to use this time to enjoy the outdoors and harvest North America’s quintessential upland game bird. This is fantastic news, right?

Well, yes, it is a bright spot in an otherwise uncertain time that we had such wonderful spring weather, lots of gobbling birds, and many of us were able to enjoy multiple successful hunts. But at the same time, biologists have been concerned with what has been termed “Southeastern Wild Turkey Decline.” State agencies and researchers across the southeast have been monitoring turkey harvest, reproduction, and other population parameters for years, and have noticed an alarming declining trend. Georgia is not exempt – reproductive success, measured by an average number of poults per hen observed each summer, has been on the decline since the late 1990s and is about one-third of what it was at its peak. The average number of poults per hen in 2018 (birds that would be adults this year) was 1.6 (a stable population needs at least two poults per hen observed). While this number was slightly higher than surrounding years, it still may not be enough to replace the birds lost this year through harvest, depredation, or other causes of death.

 

What does this mean for future seasons?

Wild turkey with chicks

Wild turkey hen with poults. Photo credit: Adobe Stock

In the short term, we may see a decline in harvest for the next couple of years. We will also have to hope that this year brings a successful poult hatch with excellent survival. Will this be enough to bounce back from the hit the population took this year? Biologists don’t know yet, but the long-term reproductive trends have us concerned that turkeys aren’t able to bounce back like they used to in many areas of the state.

 

Georgia, along with other states across the Southeast, has to take a hard look at how we manage our turkey population. While many factors, such as large-scale habitat changes and predator abundance, are difficult for biologists to manage, we can affect harvest pressure through regulations. This may mean changes to statewide turkey regulations in coming years – which will help ensure a sustainable population able to withstand the ups and downs of weather, predator abundance, and yes, hunters escaping to the turkey woods during a pandemic.