Arkansas’ turkeys are struggling. The numbers have declined for a decade, hunter successes have gone downhill and there isn’t one factor on which to pin the blame.
Yes, poor hatches due to bad weather is the first factor cited by wildlife biologists in explaining the decline. The second factor is likely to be predators.
There are an awful lot of different critters going after Arkansas turkeys these days. The adult birds aren’t the targets. The grown turkeys can pretty well take care of themselves.
It is the eggs and newly hatched poults that are so vulnerable to predators as to make chances of reaching flying status well under 50 percent.
The lengthy roster of turkey predators in the state includes raccoons, skunks, possums, coyotes, hogs and fire ants. There may be some flying predators too, like crows and hawks, but these appear much less a factor than those listed above.
No statistics are readily available, but many wildlife biologists believe raccoons are the No. 1 turkey predator. Raccoons are everywhere in abundance in Arkansas, and this is partly due to the animals prolific reproduction and partly due to the decline in trapping in recent decades.
Once upon a time, raccoon pelts were a viable commodity. Some people were full-time trappers. Many more were part-timers, including youngsters in rural areas earning money for a first car, a new firearm or a movie night with a date. But the fur market has nosedived worldwide.
As a result, raccoons are flourishing. Skunks are abundant as well, and possums are about as prolific as raccoons. All these go for turkey eggs, easy pickings since the nests are on the ground.
Coyotes are not exactly new in Arkansas, but they have greatly increased in numbers in the past half-century. Not only will a coyote go for a meal of turkey eggs, it will also grab the poults.
Feral or wild hogs are on the upswing all over Arkansas, with the largest numbers in the southern third of the state.
These hogs will and do eat anything. Turkey eggs? Sure. Wild hogs even kill and eat deer fawns. Many Arkansans are seriously concerned because there isn’t a concentrated campaign to reduce the numbers of feral hogs. Trapping is the only effective method, according to biologists and land managers, although many Arkansans say they want a chance to shoot a hog.
Also on the upswing are fire ants, and like the hogs, these are more abundant in the southern part of Arkansas.
Unlike the other predators, fire ants don’t go for the eggs, they go for the newly hatched poults, according to Rick Evans of Calion, a long-time turkey hunting enthusiast and a former commissioner with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
Evans explained, "When turkey eggs hatched in a nest, there is an odor given off, and fire ants zoom in on that odor. Some friends of mine have watched this. That’s why the hen turkey will move off a distance as soon as the hatching begins, and she will call to the poults as soon as they come out of the shells to get them away from the fire ants."
Newly hatched turkey poults can’t fly, but they can run on the ground as soon as they come out of the shells.
According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, "Making an impact on a predator population is very expensive and labor intensive. Even after going to the trouble of removing hundreds of wild turkey predators from an area over several years, it is doubtful that you would see a significant increase in the numbers of wild turkeys. This is due in part to the movement of more predators from surrounding habitats into the area.
"While certain predators may need to be controlled in specific instances, the long-term solution to maintaining wild turkey populations at huntable levels will be dependent not on the predator control, but on man’s activities and good habitat management."
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.