Last year’s early warm-up was greeted eagerly by almost everyone, turkey hunters being the possible exception. “It was all over before the season even began,” some lamented; “it” being peak turkey breeding activity. Those same folks were much more encouraged by this year’s delayed spring, and would probably be surprised to learn their assumptions regarding the weather are but one of several common misconceptions associated with spring turkey hunting.
Because they observe toms strutting, gobbling and chasing hens just before and during the hunting season, many folks assume it’s peak breeding period. It’s not. We just notice it more because we’re out there more. Biologists set hunting seasons to begin after most of the hens have bred and begin incubating. There’s still plenty of courtship and some breeding activity going on, but the peak has long since passed by the time hunters take to the woods, regardless of the weather.
The breeding cycle for turkeys, like deer, is controlled not by weather but by photoperiodism — changes in day length, which occur at the same time every year regardless of weather. As a result, timing of the breeding season varies very little (if at all) annually. Granted, inclement weather could result in increased early nest loss, which might spur some late re-breeding and re-nesting, and could give the impression of a later breeding season.
Despite a mountain of empirical evidence to the contrary, the myth that turkeys out-compete deer for food just won’t go away. This misconception is likely perpetuated because the decline in our state’s deer herd coincides roughly with expansion of the turkey population. But it’s purely circumstantial evidence, and hardly enough to draw any conclusions about cause and effect. My alarm clock goes off every morning before the sun rises. That doesn’t mean my alarm clock causes the sun to rise.
Critics often point out that turkeys eat the acorns deer need to fatten up before the long winter. But acorns are a very unstable commodity. Deer somehow manage to lay on sufficient winter fat even in years when hard mast is scarce or absent. And even after a light crop, there are always a few acorns left on the ground the following spring.
If turkeys were out-competing them, deer would show physical signs of stress long before they started disappearing from the landscape. Maine biologists examine thousands of deer each year and average body weights are the same now as they were before turkeys were introduced, then became established.
Numerous studies have concluded that turkeys do not have a detrimental effect on the availability of deer food. If you’re still not convinced, look at states where turkeys have been established far longer. Those with the highest turkey densities tend to have the highest deer densities too.
If you want to know the real culprit, ask someone who actively manages deer and runs trail cameras. Any negative influence turkeys have on deer food availability is far outweighed by that of raccoons. Due largely to a decline in trapping, raccoon populations have boomed.
I hunt all over the country each fall and I’ve seen the trend almost wherever I go.
Circumstantial evidence and coincidence also contribute to the myth that turkeys eat grouse eggs. I know it sounds outrageous but a surprising number of folks actually believe this, or at least blame turkeys when grouse numbers are low. They fail to consider that grouse populations experience wide annual fluctuations, rising in years with warm, dry springs and dropping after cold, wet springs. Weather is the prime culprit. Next on the list would be our old friend the raccoon, followed by skunks, foxes, coyotes and other legitimate nest predators.
Whether it’s cold and wet or warm and dry, my alarm clock will go off and the sun will rise on another spring turkey season, starting with this Saturday’s youth hunt. Hunters may welcome the late spring but the turkeys will do what they always do this time of year, go through their courtship ritual, listen to the distant drumming of a grouse and suspiciously eye a passing predator as they glean a leftover acorn from the forest floor.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: