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How Bad Does Winter Have to Get to Affect Turkey Populations?

We've had some pretty harsh winters in Wisconsin lately, and our spring harvests have decreased. Are the trends related? How bad does winter have to be to harm turkey populations? — John Roberts, Baldwin, Wis.

Turkeys are much more adaptable and resilient than we used to believe, and they can withstand some pretty rough winter conditions.

Here's what Lovett Williams, noted turkey biologist, said in 2009 about winter turkey mortality.

“Prolonged deep snow the turkeys can’t scratch through is much worse than cold temperatures,” he said. “If they can get enough to eat, turkeys can stand extreme cold indefinitely. It’s when they can’t get to any carbohydrate foods that they die. Icy, crusty snow might prevent them from scratching through to the ground. In deep snow, turkeys sometimes congregate around spring seeps, if they can find one.

“(Biologist) Wayne Bailey, when he was in West Virginia, was of the opinion that turkeys can endure four or five weeks of deep snow if they are able to obtain some food.”

In agricultural areas of the Midwest and prairie states, turkeys often key on crops during winter.

“Ag practices can help turkeys in deep snow, depending on what the practices are,” Williams said. “Grain farming and cattle — with grain coming through their feces — would be helpful.”

Some research indicates how much turkeys can tolerate before they start to die.

“There was a study … about starvation of game-farm turkeys,” Williams said. “Two birds, at 0 degrees with the wind at 5.8 mph, survived seven and nine days without food. They lost 25.75 percent of their body weight. Two other birds in a calm atmosphere at 0 degrees survived 11 and 16 days. Their loss of weight was 67.8 percent. The conclusion was that a turkey can endure a week of severely cold weather without food.

“It points up the effect of wind. Evidently, the wind and cold had an independent effect that killed the turkeys before they actually starved to death.”

Northern turkey flocks typically suffer some winter mortality, but does that explain Wisconsin's decreasing spring harvests? Probably not. Those are likely the direct result of below-average reproductive success and, in the case of Spring 2011, poor spring weather.

- Brian Lovett, T&TH Editor

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