A thick blanket of fallen leaves completely covered the hikers’ feet on Turkey Ridge Trail in St. Louis County.
A leafless forest is great for spotting Missouri’s largest bird — the wild turkey — this time of year, said Ed Leutwiler, a longtime volunteer with Missouri Department of Conservation.
But unfortunately, the loud crunching sounds of Leutwiler’s group of seven hopeful turkey watchers during a Nov. 18 hike in Rockwood Reservation were not ideal.
“They hear us coming, and they run,” he said, explaining that wild turkeys have excellent hearing.
Leutwiler has led an annual turkey-watching hike the weekend before Thanksgiving for more than 10 years, and countless other times through the year. But he’s seen a turkey on such a hike only once.
In Missouri, the wild turkey was once so plentiful that people could’ve walked out their back doors and killed one for dinner, Leutwiler said. But by the 1930s, the population dropped to just a couple thousand, as more and more land was being used for agriculture and development.
Through the Missouri Department of Conservation’s efforts starting in 1950, the wild turkey population rebounded and came to a peak in 2004 of about 600,000. But now the numbers are on a slow decline, with the current number just over 400,000.
The problem isn’t the overhunting of adult turkeys, conservationists say. It’s that the chicks, or poults, aren’t surviving at the rates they once were, says the department’s turkey expert Reina Tyl.
“The number of turkeys we see is driven primarily by production, not survival or harvest of adult turkeys,” Tyl said during a webinar in June about why Missourians are seeing fewer wild turkeys.
Missouri has seen some wetter springs, which complicates nesting conditions for hens, she said. The protein-rich insects and invertebrates that young turkeys find delicious may not be as abundant. That means it’s taking poults longer to get stronger, leaving a longer period that they’re vulnerable to predators.
For the last year, Tyl has been working with the University of Missouri to study the most successful nesting conditions for hens and their young. They are currently analyzing their first batch of data.
“Quality habitat will provide everything a hen and her brood needs – food, water, and shelter from bad weather and predators,” Tyl said.
Standing on a narrow ridge in Rockwood Reservation — one of the state’s oldest wildlife conservation areas — volunteer Marilynn Motchan explained that wild turkeys largely live in Missouri’s woods.
“They use their feet and scratch the dirt,” said Motchan, who assisted Leutwiler on the hike. “They’re looking for acorns and seeds and berries. Believe it or not, they will also eat some little bitty frogs or reptiles or insects.”
The child hikers gasped.
In the fall, people like to hunt turkeys, Motchan said, and humans are their main predators. But they also face other dangers from raccoons, coyotes, skunks and possums.
Hens will lay 14 to 18 eggs in nests on the ground, she said as she passed around a model of a turkey egg to the group.
Missouri’s researchers have found that it’s the nesting period that’s raising a “big red flag.”
These chicks’ survival is about half of what it was in the 1980s, Tyl has found in her research.
“We saw on average during our recent study 23% of poults surviving their first four weeks of life,” Tyl said. “And back in the 80s, that was closer to 46%.”
That’s why researchers are focusing their time this year on studying the habitat turkeys need to nest successfully and that also provides broods with quality forage.
In February, Tyl and her collaborators at Mizzou captured and marked 51 hens with GPS transmitters in Putnam County in northern Missouri.
About 80% of the hens had a “nest attempt” that reach the incubation period, meaning that the hen laid a full clutch of eggs and began sitting on them, Tyl said. Unfortunately, only about 21% of nests successfully hatched, which was a lower nesting success rate than they observed during a study of turkey productivity from 2014 to 2018.
The researchers weren’t just monitoring the hens.
The team also marked and tracked nest predators during the spring to estimate how many were in the area. For the larger predators, such as coyotes, bobcats, and foxes, they used trail cameras and scent stations to lure the predators to the camera traps.
They also surveyed the abundance of vegetation and arthropods around the nest sites, as well as collected temperature and precipitation data using weather stations deployed across the study area.
“It was a busy field season for our research team,” Tyl said. “They are currently sorting through photos from the trail cameras, identifying arthropods, and preparing for the start of the next field season.”
On a basic level, the researchers know that hens need a forest that isn’t too overgrown or mature — but the hens also can’t survive in an open field that would leave them vulnerable to predators, Tyl said.
Some of the best ways to improve nesting and brood-rearing habitat, she said, is planting native warm-season grasses and wildflowers, prescribed burning, edge feathering, timber stand improvement, and woodland restoration.
A common question that Tyl gets is why the department doesn’t just put a pause on hunting turkeys, particularly hens. But that alone won’t solve the problem, she said.
The fall harvest rate in Missouri is actually lower than it was in the 1980s, she said, when about 4% of hens were removed during the fall seasons. Recently it was closer to 1%. According to their projections, even if Missouri eliminated that one percent of hens that are hunted over five years, the state would still see a decline in the turkey population. It’s all about protecting the young turkeys, conservationists say.
It’s also about the work that Leutwiler and Motchan are doing to get people interested in learning more about wild turkeys.
At the end of the hike, Leutwiler used a tool to make the turkey gobble sounds, and the children laughed and made him do it over and over again.
“Conservation is really, really amazing,” Leutwiler said, as people began heading home. “We almost lost our turkeys. We almost lost our whitetail deer. We almost lost our river otter and beaver. All of them are thriving today.”
This article by Rebecca Rivas is published from The Missouri Independent through a Creative Commons license.