Few animals can negatively impact a healthy wild turkey population, but one animal to keep an eye on -- for the sake of turkeys and other wildlife -- is the feral hog. These non-indigenous omnivores have spread into a couple dozen states, with their most recent conquest being the Finger Lakes region of New York. Hogs have significant impacts on their environment, and research suggests there is a negative effect on turkey nesting success.
Take, for example, a study conducted in Rio Grande turkey country, the Edwards Plateau of central Texas in 1993. There, researchers used chicken eggs to simulate turkey nestings and found that hogs destroyed 28 percent of them. On the other hand, some researchers debate the hog's effectiveness at nest predation, arguing that they are merely "haphazard" nest predators. Hog research V.G. Henry states that hogs are "not additive to nest predation, but only replaced that which would have occurred by other predators either driven off or preyed upon by feral hogs, especially snakes."
Research conducted on other ground-nesting animals, including reptiles, may shed some light on the potential for hogs to harm turkey nests. In Georgia, for example, 80 percent of sea turtle nests were lost on Ossabow Island due to hog predation.
"There is no doubt that feral hogs have a negative impact on their environment and research certainly suggests that they can and do destroy the nests of turkeys and other ground nesting birds," said Rick Taylor, feral hog specialist with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
Of all state agencies, TPWD has had the most experience dealing with hogs, and they are seeing them increase in numbers, especially in areas where turkey populations are most sensitive. The Pineywoods of East Texas has seen more than 20 years of restoration efforts bring huntable populations of eastern turkeys back to the region. At the same time, feral hog populations have skyrocketed there in the last five years.
"East Texas has had a tremendous increase in feral hogs and there are some concerns as to how this might impact the Eastern turkeys," Taylor said.
I witnessed hogs' impact on Eastern turkey nests in 2005 on a 25,000-acre hunting club along the Sabine River corridor in Newton County, Texas. While scouting for (ironically) an area to hunt hogs, I came across a turkey nest. A few days later, I returned with a camera to capture photos of the nest and found it destroyed by the snouts of feral hogs that rooted the area to the point of looking like a tilled field.
What is interesting to note is that the only area in East Texas turkeys have not successfully colonized is in the extreme southern portion where hogs are the most numerous. The Tony Houseman State Park and Blue Elbow Wildlife Management Area sits on 5,000 acres of some of the most pristine bottomlands in the state -- and it is currently devoid of turkeys. Feral hogs, however, are so numerous that they frequently feed in broad daylight along Interstate 10, which divides the area, and have moved into the nearby city.