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Ohio and 3 other states are doing first wild turkey study in nearly 20 years

two turkeys standing in a grass field
Sterling Lanier

Wild turkey in Ohio are thought to have been doing well since being reintroduced into the state in the 1950s and '60s. However, scientists and wild turkey aficionados concerned about population declines want an updated status assessment.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio State University are partnering on the first wide-scale study of hen survival in nearly 20 years. The work is funded, in part, by a local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, a nonprofit focused on wild turkey conservation and hunting. The data will be shared and aggregated with researchers conducting similar studies in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

"This study is essentially an examination of wild turkey hen reproductive success and survival," explains Mark Wiley, ODNR forest game bird biologist.

Beginning this month, ODNR staff will capture and band turkeys in two regions. They'll then collect GPS and other data to track nesting activity and movements. They're specifically focusing on female turkeys (hens) and when they begin incubating during the spring nesting seasons.

The researchers will be looking at nest success and failure as well as overall mortality rates, movements and activity. The results will help the state set hunting season dates, which haven't been adjusted in some 17 years.

"The timing of nesting is important because we try to set the spring turkey season at or near the medium date of incubation and initiation. When approximately half of our hens have initiated incubation, that's generally the recommended time when hunters could begin pursuing wild turkey without negative impact on the population," says Wiley.

The median date for incubation was set at May 1 in the early 2000s. Researchers say it's clear that incubation starts vary in different parts of the state now. Weather and habit changes may be affecting nesting behavior, too, as well as changes in predator populations that prey on wild turkeys.

Poult (young turkey) survival and overall mortality rates are then used to set the fall turkey hunting season.

The study is expected to run through the end of 2024 with results published in 2025.

Ohio's wild turkey population

"Wild turkeys were extirpated from the state of Ohio at the start of the 20th century — so in the early 1900s [they were] absent from the state of Ohio — largely due to forest loss at that time, so forest clearing for a variety of reasons," Wiley says. "But, also, unregulated harvest was a contributing factor."

He makes it clear the wild turkey population is still strong in Ohio, though there has been inconsistency. ODNR puts the estimated population in 2022 at 160,000-180,000 turkeys. Poult numbers declined in 2017, 2018 and 2019 but rebounded in 2021 and 2022, he says.

"We've just seen some fluctuation, which has been concerning to a lot of folks."

According to the ODNR, turkeys usually lay 8 to 16 eggs, with 12 being the average. Eggs are then incubated for 28 days.

Wild turkey is the most popular game bird in the Buckeye State, he notes, with approximately 75,000 hunters annually.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.