New turkey hunting regulations aimed at growing population numbers

Brian Whipkey
Pennsylvania Outdoor Columnist

Hunters looking for Thanksgiving turkey have new challenges this fall.

Hunting season opens Oct. 30 in Pennsylvania for gobblers and hens, but in some parts of the state, the season’s length has been reduced. In addition, the season is closed this fall for the southeastern corner of the state.

Another change is the removal of rifles from the fall season. In the past, fall hunters were permitted to use centerfire rifles to shoot longer distances, but rifles have been removed from the regulations to help preserve the turkey population.

A gobbler walks through a Pensylvania woodlot. Hunting season for turkey begins Oct. 30 in parts of the state.

The changes stem from an overall population decrease.

Turkey numbers

Mary Jo Casalena, biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said overall there are fewer turkeys. “It’s below our management goal,” she said about the total population that’s now less than 200,000.

One of the reasons the population is down is colder weather in the spring. “The spring weather is getting very unpredictable. We’re seeing more intense weather,” and days with frost. She said cold, wet weather affects the eggs and young birds. In addition, the bad weather cuts down on the yield of mass crops like acorns and apples that turkeys eat.

The agency’s data show a 19% decrease in the number of gobblers taken during the recent spring hunting season. About 28,000 birds were shot compared to a three-year average number of 37,000 turkeys statewide.

She said it’s the first time the harvest was below 30,000 birds in recent years.

A large gobbler walks near a wooded field area on May 22 in Somerset County.

Besides a smaller number of birds, the harvest report is also down because there are fewer hunters. Her data show 193,600 turkey hunters this year compared to 10 years ago when the state had about 230,000 sportsmen in the spring hunting season.

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“The number of hunters is on a declining trend,” she said. The average age of a turkey hunter is 55, but she added, “We still have a lot of youth hunters.”

The hunters who did make it afield had a success rate of about 15% for their first bird. Hunters can purchase a second spring gobbler tag. That percentage is slightly down from the three-year average of 19%.

To increase the population, there are shorter seasons in some of the areas of the commonwealth. “In a lot of Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) we eliminated the three day Thanksgiving season,” she said about it contributing to the reduction in the turkey population in past years. She said there was too large of a harvest of hens in past years. About 60% of the fall harvest is typically hens.

Fall hunting seasons

This year’s seasons are WMU 2B – Oct. 30-Nov. 19 and Nov. 24-26; WMUs 1A, 1B, 4A, 4B, 4D and 4E – Oct. 30-Nov. 6; WMUs 2A, 2F, 2G, 2H, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D and 4C – Oct. 30-Nov. 13; WMUs 2C, 2D and 2E – Oct. 30-Nov. 13 and Nov. 24-26; WMU 5B  – Nov. 2-4; WMUs 5A, 5C and 5D – closed to fall turkey hunting.

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“Turkey hunting is a strong tradition in Pennsylvania, but we have to protect the resource,” Casalena pointed out about the season changes.

A flock of turkey cross a rural roadway.  The season for gobblers and hens starts Oct. 30 in parts of Pennsylvania.

She suggests hunters scout for the turkey’s food sources to find birds. “If you can find where food is, whether it’s acorns and or if you’re hunting in farm country where the corn was just harvested and there’s a lot of corn on the ground, that’s where I would go searching for turkey.”

She said when food sources are scarce, it’s easier to pattern turkey that stay close to the food. When there are a lot of food options, the turkey are more apt to wander around more.

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“The seasons are shorter so hunters have to take advantage of the hunting while they can,” she said about getting out to hunt.

If you’re looking to take a turkey this fall and have the choice, she said it’s better to shoot a jake (a young gobbler) than a hen. If turkey hunters want to help manage the turkey population, she said they should try not to harvest the adult hens. They are the birds that are showing the broods how to survive the winter and can have eggs in the spring.

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In late winter this year, the Game Commission banded 474 gobblers as part of a research study on their travel habits. If you harvest one of them, the agency asks you to use the information on the leg band to report where it was taken.

Positive points for turkeys

A positive note for some parts of the state this year were cicadas. The Brood X cicadas emerged after 17 years in several parts of the commonwealth, including the southeastern part of the state. Casalena said turkeys and their predators filled up on the high protein insects. She said fox, coyote, raccoons and hawks may have been enjoying the rare insects and pursued fewer young turkeys. When young turkeys have good food sources, they are able to mature faster and roost in trees away from the predators.

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Another positive for the wild birds involves a study of West Nile virus. She said they are in the final year of a three-year study, and the findings are showing that turkeys are not susceptible to the disease like what’s been found in grouse. She said the hens have been showing anti-bodies to the virus and are passing it on to their young. The research is revealing turkeys are not carriers of the disease.

Brian Whipkey is the outdoor columnist for USA Today Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at bwhipkey@gannett.com and sign up for our weekly Outdoors Newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name.