PREDATORS OF THE WILD TURKEY
The wild turkey faces a diverse array of predator species, and these predator species vary in their mode of search and capture. True predators or carnivores, actively search and kill living prey. These include bobcats, hawks, owls, eagles, and all snakes. However, many predators of turkeys are more generalists (omnivores) and consume non-animal matter such as plants, seeds, and insects as well as meat secured from stalking and killing prey. These include coyotes, gray and red foxes, rodents, ravens, and crows. The most significant nest predators include opossums, raccoons, and skunks. Finally, predators such as feral dogs and cats, under certain conditions, may be more harmful to turkeys as a natural predator. Regardless of the predator, most (carnivore and omnivore alike) are opportunistic; they detect prey by sight, sound, or smell during their normal travels and searches for food, and their capture of wild turkeys is usually incidental to pursuit of any suitable prey.
Population densities of many of the more adaptable predators of wild turkeys, including coyotes, hawks, owls, raccoons, crows, skunks, snakes, and rodents, may be as high or higher today than previously in both historic and expanded turkey range. Additionally, increased urbanization has resulted in more feral cats and dogs. Predation is an important component of a turkey’s life cycle.
Larger predators such as the bobcat, coyote, fox, and eagle kill adult hens and even gobblers; however, losses of adult turkeys generally do not significantly affect turkey population dynamics. In contrast, smaller predators, including skunks, raccoons, opossums, and snakes, are the primary nest and poult predators. These may significantly impact turkey populations, but it is questionable whether this impact is significant. The wild turkey has flourished in the presence of predators. Turkeys deal with predators by having large clutch sizes, by having a large body size, by using flocking behavior, and by roosting in trees at night.
Studies have demonstrated that high turkey densities are achievable even with high predator densities. However, the adaptations of turkeys for predation do not consider losses by hunting or habitat degradation and loss. When predation, hunting, and habitat change mortalities are combined, predation of nests and poults may have a significant impact on rate of increase of the turkey population. Whether predation significantly impacts a turkey population is a function of many interacting variables. Some include hunting pressure (including poaching), habitat availability and management, climatic variables (winter severity, etc.), and disease.
Most predator-turkey encounters are random. The impacts of predation upon turkey populations vary by season, location, and land use patterns. Predation may significantly impact turkey populations when populations are low (especially during reintroductions), nesting cover is poor, food and/or water scarcity forces turkeys into unfavorable range, number of other prey species (buffer) is low, birds are exposed to severe weather for prolonged periods of time, and predator populations are abnormally high. It should be noted that these six conditions are true for predation on other animals as well.
Predator control remains controversial. Under specific situations it may be warranted, such as when introducing or reintroducing turkeys to former range. However, this should only continue until a viable turkey population is established. Studies have shown that viable turkey populations can generally withstand predation and that often predator control in the long term is ineffective and not cost-justified. Studies concerning other wildlife species (also ground nesting species) generally agree including ring-necked pheasants, waterfowl, and bobwhite quail. The position of the wildlife profession on predator control is cautious and only supports programs that are the minimum required and are justified, encourages use of efficient, safe, economical, and humane methods of control, as well as research to improve control methods, and encourages federal and state regulation of control programs.
An alternative to predator control is maintaining quality habitat, which is important in wild turkey management and has been demonstrated to have an impact on predation rate of turkeys. For example, providing adequate herbaceous cover allows hens and poults to better escape detection from predators. Additionally, density of vegetation and thus habitat structure affects predation rates either by providing the hen and poults with more cover or perhaps not being suitable for predators because of low prey abundance (rodents, etc.). Such habitat conditions would reduce the probability of predator-turkey encounters. The concept of managing habitat to minimize predator-prey encounters is not new. An alternative to predator control may be management that is directed at creating conditions for minimizing predator-turkey encounters while simultaneously enhancing nesting and brood habitat. Predation of the wild turkey is a complex process, and it will require more complex (and extensive) research designs to examine the process of predation.
Innumerable studies have indicated that it plays an important role in wild turkey dynamics. However, an equal number have demonstrated the reverse. The wild turkey has existed and survived with predators and predation for millennia. Management should center as much around managing man’s impact upon turkey populations as managing predators of the turkey. A recurring theme in most studies of turkey ecology is that proper management of habitat, and the people utilizing that habitat does more good for the resident turkey population as the predators do harm.