Wild turkey populations have been declining over the past several years, especially in the Southeastern parts of the United States where turkey hunting borders on religion. These declines have resulted in new game regulations and increased research.
Everyone has a theory for the decline. A popular one involves an increase in wild turkey predators.
As coyote populations expand and grow, human contact with coyotes is more common. Many have put two and two together and assume more coyotes mean fewer turkeys.
But should coyotes get all the blame? Are they the worst of the turkey predators? Let’s take a look at the predators that kill the most turkeys. We will divide them into three classes: nest raiders, poult predators, and adult predators.
After we look at the predators, I will go into how to protect our wild turkeys from these other animals. Be sure to scroll down as my solution might be different than what you might think.
Nest raiding turkey predators eat the unhatched eggs of turkeys. These turkey predators are likely the most detrimental to the turkey population (with an honorable mention to poult killers).
While some hens may re-nest if their clutch is destroyed, not all hens will re-nest. Older hens are more likely to re-nest than younger hens. Even if a hen re-nests, there is no guarantee that her second laying will fair any better.
Additionally, more laying and incubation means more vulnerability for the adult hen herself. Therefore, nest raiders play a dual role in the depredation of the turkey. So who are the most guilty parties when it comes to taking turkey eggs?
If you have a deer feeder and a trail camera, you are probably well aware of how many raccoons are out there. A decrease in raccoon hunting and trapping means more of these little critters roaming the woods these days.
Raccoons are omnivores that will eat almost anything. They prefer food that comes easy to them such as garbage, turkey eggs, or deer from your feeder. They eat a lot from spring to fall to build up fat reserves for the winter when they are more dormant.
Raccoons have a sharp sense of smell. They will follow a hen back to her nest to locate the eggs. Hens give off a stronger smell when they are wet, which is one reason that turkey populations will dip after a wet spring.
While raccoons primarily prey on turkeys via the egg, they are also capable of eating poults and even killing a grown hen.
Infamous for its stench, the skunk is also an omnivore. During the spring and summer, a skunk’s diet will be heavier on animals than plants.
Skunks spend the majority of their time wandering around looking for food. The skunk’s keen sense of smell makes him a deadly predator on turkey eggs.
Opossums are freaky-looking little animals. I would rather a bear or a pack of wild hogs walk past me in the pre-dawn darkness when I’m waiting on the turkeys to wake me up. They just bother me.
While they’re not actually going to mess with a grown man sitting under a tree, they will mess with turkey eggs. Like the raccoon, opossums will eat about anything. They are master scavengers who won’t hesitate to eat a batch of eggs if they find them.
You may have seen crows stalking turkeys around the woods. If you hear a crow nearby, keep your eyes open for a turkey coming in as well.
I don’t know why crows harass turkeys (and other wildlife) as they do. But if they are keeping such a good eye on the turkeys, they probably know where they are nesting at.
This is bad news for turkey populations. A study by Haemish I.A.S. Melville, Warren C. Conway, Michael L. Morrison, Christopher E. Comer and Jason B. Hardin published in the Southeastern Naturalist found that crows were the most common nest predator followed by raccoons.
5) Wild Hogs
Many have noticed that areas with high wild hog populations do not usually have high turkey populations. This could be for several reasons.
A Texas study in the early 90s found that hogs will eat turkey eggs. They can severely limit successful wild turkey nesting. This could make them one of the worst turkey predators out there.
Another reason you may not find turkeys in the same places as hogs could be that they compete for food sources. Hogs and turkeys both eat a lot of the same things. A pack of wild hogs eats a lot of food. Turkeys may just move on from that area if they can’t find food.
Poult Turkey Predators
Newborn turkeys can’t fly for their first week and a half to two weeks of life. It’s at this time that they are extremely vulnerable to predators.
A tasty, easy meal? There is no shortage of turkey predators lining up for that. That’s why a study of Merriam’s turkeys by Chad P. Lehman, Lester D. Flake, Mark A. Rumble and Daniel J. Thompson, found that only 33 percent of poults made it to four weeks of age. In fact, 54 percent of poults were killed in their first seven days of life.
Let’s look at some of the most likely poult-eating culprits.
Hawks will prey on small mammals and birds. It can eat birds as big as pheasants. You can imagine how easy a young turkey poult is for it to catch.
I was once watching a hen who was trying to find the hussy making all the racket in the area (me). As the hen searched for the other “hen,” a red-tailed hawk kept swooping down at her. The hen would jump out of the way with some annoyance and carry on her activity.
Fortunately, this hen survived that encounter (at least while she was still in my sight). Still, the experience left me with little doubt that raptors take many of our turkeys.
As most turkey hunters know, snakes are just starting to get active in the springtime. That’s why snake-proof boots are the footwear choice of so many.
Snakes commonly eat rodents, birds, and bird eggs. That means that they are trouble if they come across a turkey nest whether the eggs are hatched or not.
Adult Turkey Predators
While most hunters generally imagine turkey predators killing adult birds, it is not terribly common. Adult turkeys are very cautious, have good senses, and roost in trees. That doesn’t mean they are invincible though.
Most of the adult turkeys killed each year by non-human predators are hens on the nest. Obviously, this is the most vulnerable time for the hen.
Bobcats are master hunters. They are one of, if not the most, lethal adult turkey predators (and poults predator too).
Many hunters have experienced either a bobcat or coyote coming into their calling or pouncing on their decoys. This is one reason that bobcats and coyotes get such a bad rap.
When they are not feeding on turkeys, they will eat other birds and rodents. There are reports of them eating domestic dogs and cats as well as other livestock.
Coyotes now live in every US state, but Hawaii. They have adapted to many different environments and ecosystems. They are eating everything from Aunt Betty’s Yorkshire terrier to Old MacDonald’s calf.
Both deer and turkey hunters have it in for the coyote. And while a coyote will eat deer and turkeys, they are actually omnivores. Put a trail camera on a fruit-bearing persimmon tree and you may find a coyote cleaning up this highly desired food source.
Coyotes are not as skilled at hunting as bobcats. They may eat a few adult turkeys here and there, but they are probably more likely to eat poults if they come across them. Like most living beings they take the easy route, and killing a wild adult turkey is no easy task.
The fox has similar hunting skills to the bobcat. The grey fox also has the ability to climb trees. This makes them well suited for killing turkeys.
While a fox can probably kill adult turkeys in some situations, they probably kill more as poults or eggs.
Great Horned Owls are common across the country. They eat mostly rodents, but also reptiles and other birds.
A Mississippi study of turkeys using transmitters revealed that owls killed a lot of turkeys. In fact, six of the 20 birds being tracked were believed to be killed by owls.
An owl can negate one of the biggest defense mechanisms a turkey has. Turkeys roost in trees at night to stay above most of their predators. Owls hunt primarily at night and can take a turkey right out of its roost.
Minimizing Turkey Predation
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably scheming up a predator hunting or trapping plan for your property. Save more turkeys by taking out their predators. But is that the answer to our declining turkey numbers?
After reading numerous studies by turkey researchers, I have come to the conclusion that turkey predator control is probably not the best solution. There are several reasons for this.
For one, you can never control all the turkey predators. While you can trap and hunt raccoons and coyotes, you can’t legally control birds of prey or non-venomous snakes.
Let’s say you are very effective at taking out coyotes. Coyotes don’t just eat turkeys. They also eat foxes and raccoons. If coyote populations go down, but fox populations go up, you end up robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Most hunters are not going to have the time it takes to trap enough to make a difference either. Trapping takes a lot of time and effort. Many hunters don’t live close enough to the grounds they hunt to run an effective trapping program.
Then what should we do instead of predator control? How about habitat enhancement?
If nest/poult survival is the most important factor for turkey populations, we need to create suitable habitat for nesting and brooding.
Start by removing some of the mid-canopy in mature hardwoods to allow more sunlight and denser vegetation on the forest floor. Timber stand improvement is the process of removing less desirable tree species such as sweet gum, beech, and maple that do not provide as many benefits for wildlife as some other tree species such as oak. Turkeys will use the new growth as nesting habitat.
Many farmers and hunters will mow right up to the edge of a field. That leaves no buffer zone between the fields and the woods. If you let an area grow up naturally between the fields and woods you create more nesting and fawning habitat for turkeys, quail, and deer. It also makes it harder for turkey predators to find and destroy the nest.
By catering our land to provide more nesting and brooding habitat, we make it harder for turkey predators to destroy eggs and poults. Ultimately, this will likely be more effective than trying to control the predators themselves.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like to learn about turkey breeding behavior.