ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- It was Sept. 1 when I was taking my daughters to daycare before work near Alexandria, and I noticed a huge flock of wild turkeys just off the road a few hundred yards up.
The birds had a whole sea of vegetation to disappear into, but they hung tight in the road ditch long enough for me to get my camera and snap a bunch of photos. This group was a mixed bag of toms, hens and poults that look old enough now to do a good job avoiding predators.
Two hours later, I was again behind the wheel of my truck a few miles down a different road from my house when I spotted another big group of birds. This one was a flock of about 20 that has frequented this same general area all summer.
In late July, there was a trip back to our hunting land in southern Minnesota, and I saw the same thing -- hens bunched up together to help avoid predators with poults jumping up all around me as I walked along a standing corn field with the river and tree cover to my left.
It’s not an exact science, but I have seen more young turkeys this summer than I remember seeing in the last five, six summers combined. There are parts of west-central Minnesota that can hold good turkey numbers, and I wanted to hear what someone from the Glenwood Area DNR has witnessed in their field work as it pertains to production of the birds around the region.
“I’m going to have to speak on that from what I’m hearing from other people in the DNR. I’ve been working a bunch out west with water control projects, and I haven’t seen the production from Kensington west over to Donnelly, Morris, Wheaton,” area wildlife assistant manager Jason Strege said. “But a co-worker of mine, John Maile, he’s been working more east and south and he’s been seeing the production you’re seeing. When I have gone east into the more traditional turkey area, I have seen more poults. John has been seeing a lot of production.”
The western part of the Glenwood DNR’s work zone tends to have some more open terrain, so it’s not surprising that bird sightings would go down that direction with a lack of ideal habitat for turkeys. If indeed poult survival numbers are up in the more timbered regions of this area and across the state, that should bode well for hunting seasons in the future.
High turkey numbers are not something anyone should take for granted. Reaching adulthood for turkeys is incredibly difficult.
Studies from across the country have shown time and again that survival rates for young birds are pretty dismal. One report out of Pennsylvania looked at multiple studies of eastern wild turkeys, the subspecies found in Minnesota, that showed the proportion of poults that die in their first two weeks of life ranged from 56-73%. And that’s for the birds that even reach that stage. Nest predation is also a big factor in low production rates.
“Any of the upland nesting birds have a high mortality rate,” Strege said. “That’s across the board. I’m not familiar with any current studies that have been conducted around here. Just because we’re not really considered a destination state for turkeys, but it’s tough for them. A 2-year-old turkey is getting to be an old turkey.”
The National Wild Turkey Federation lists a number of factors that impact turkey populations, but one that trumps them all is habitat. Areas of quality habitat, meaning large swaths of early-successional growth and other thick cover, have higher nesting-success rates by keeping hens hidden from more predators.
It also creates the best-possible diet for the poults, with plenty of insect life and overhead cover for them to seek that food out without being spotted by predators before they can fly into trees. The NWTF said studies have shown up to 90% mortality rates for poults without suitable brood habitat.
Then there’s the weather to worry about. Like pheasants, cold, wet springs can be tough on young birds in states with colder climates like Minnesota. That’s where turkeys likely caught a huge break in 2020.
“It was super dry this spring,” Strege said. “A lot of the storms that hit northern Minnesota and southern Minnesota completely missed our work area. Through all of June, we didn’t have any sort of rain events that should have affected production on pheasants or turkeys ... We had what should have been an excellent nesting season for upland birds this year.”
That was reflected in the DNR’s pheasant count during the statewide August roadside survey recently released. Pheasant numbers were up 42% from 2019 and 37% above the 10-year average.
Seven, eight years ago, it was nothing for me to hear gobbles from every ridge top during my spring hunting, even in areas of southwestern Minnesota that have not traditionally been thought of as the ideal turkey range in the state.
I still have birds to chase in those areas, but numbers have certainly been down from that high mark over the last handful of years. Maybe we’re in for a boom in the population again after conditions seemingly aligned for a good hatch this past spring.
“One hard winter, one bad nesting season can really drive population numbers up and down,” Strege said. “It’s not like your birds are living 5-6 years to withstand that, so you’ll see heavy swings in populations, that’s for sure. Seven, eight years ago, it wasn’t much to see a group of 40, 50 birds, especially in the really high-quality habitat of Pope County and areas like that. I haven’t been seeing that the last half dozen years or so. It would be nice to have a good reproductive year on it.”