How’s Ontario’s turkey population doing? That has to be one of the most common questions the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) is asked regarding wild turkeys.
“We try to avoid providing an estimate because there is really no good way to provide an estimate of turkey numbers. There is certainly no good way to count them, like with bigger animals like moose,” said Patrick Hubert, MNRF senior wildlife biologist.
For many years, the province provided a number of 70,000, and then greater than 70,000. Hubert said there are likely more birds than that now.
The traditional method to estimate a turkey population was to figure about 10% of the population is harvested by hunters every year. Using this methodology — which Hubert called crude — the population could have peaked at over 100,000 birds (note: this is not the MNRF’s number) based on the highest harvest of 10,492 in 2008. The MNRF is researching alternative ways of estimating the population on smaller scales.
At press time in March, harvest numbers were not yet in for the 2019 season, but going back in time, the harvest dropped to a low of 6,912 in 2014. Numbers seemed to rebound starting in 2015 when it was back up to 7,200, and 7,800 in 2018.
“Our population is stabilized and is fluctuating,” Hubert said. “In some areas we’re not seeing as many birds as we used to in the heyday when numbers were at their max.”
Many factors at play
Hubert said a couple of other factors are playing into the province’s total population. First, when a wildlife species is reintroduced to an area, the numbers expand rapidly and then stabilize. Second, a cold, wet spring tends to reduce the time hunters spend afield, which could mean fewer birds are sighted and reported.
Another clue to the health of the turkey population is the percentage of jakes in the harvest. More jakes mean a successful hatch the season before, while fewer means the birds were struggling. In 2018, the percentage of jakes was low, indicating poor reproduction in 2017. Reproduction was not ideal in three of the five years from 2014-2018.
Although there was speculation that West Nile virus (WNV) might be impacting turkey numbers, recent research shows it’s not a factor. A study led by Dr. Amanda MacDonald found that of 213 samples submitted last spring, 95 turkeys tested positive for West Nile exposure and 29 for flavivirus (and likely also WNV).
“Wild turkeys are able to be infected/exposed but appear quite resistant to full-blown disease and death,” MacDonald said. “But also that WNV carrying mosquitos are obviously out there for that many to be exposed.”
Figures declining stateside
Mark Hatfield, National Director of Conservation Services with the National Wild Turkey Federation in the US, said the process for estimating turkey populations varies from state to state. Some states use a harvest percentage, others rely on surveys and brood information, while others have a computer model that combines some of these methods.
Turkeys hit a high in 2004 stateside. The population has declined since, with the latest national population estimate at 6.2 million birds three years ago.
Hatfield blamed the decline on a variety of factors. A change in forestry management practices towards less cutting, which results in less young forest that is vital for turkeys in various life stages, is one stressor. He also mentioned the population reaching its peak and regressing, plus the negative impact of weather.
Populations in the north are spotty, with Sault Sainte Marie being the northern edge on the west and WMU 42 on the east. Hubert said jake harvest isn’t as clear an indicator in the north, as hunters are newer and could tend to be more apt to take a jake. He believes turkeys are near the northern limit where weather can be tolerated.
There have been turkey sightings near Thunder Bay, but Hubert said these are pen-reared birds. “People think they are helping by releasing birds and it’s the absolute worse thing they can do,” he said, explaining it could dilute the gene pool if wild birds move in and introduce diseases.
Predators like it cold and wet
Hen turkeys lay one egg a day for 10 to 12 days and then sit on the nest for 28 days. A wet spring is not only hard on the poults, but it makes the adult females on the nests vulnerable.
“If you have cold, wet conditions, the scenting conditions for predators increase,” Hatfield said, adding it can also impact the numbers of insects, which are a source of protein for the birds.
Harvest reporting is vital
The challenge with basing the population on the harvest rate is the high rate of hunters who don’t report their harvest.
Keith Munro, Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters Wildlife Biologist also encouraged hunters to report. “Ontario hunters are invested in seeing sustainable turkey populations in the province,” he said. “Hunters and the OFAH were instrumental in the reintroduction of wild turkeys and continue to provide critical information to support their management.”
Hubert noted there was a spike in reports when online reporting was introduced. He is hopeful things will improve with the introduction of mandatory reporting this year. Another advantage of the new system is the online reminder sent to hunters. Going forward, the system will track if the hunter fails to report and will automatically prevent tag purchases the next year.
To fill out a harvest report or for more info visit
Jeff Helsdon lives in the turkey-rich woods of southwestern Ontario. He enjoys hunting upland game with his English cocker spaniel, hunting deer and waterfowl, and fishing with his wife and family. Reach Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.