Wild Turkeys in The Delta:
What We Yearn and What We’ve Learned
By Adam B. Butler
Wild Turkey Program Coordinator
Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks
If you ask any Mississippi native where the outdoor heart of our state lies, they’ll almost assuredly point a finger over toward the Delta’s deep, dark soils. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time afield there because the Delta offers so much for a dedicated sportsman to enjoy. Take Delta dove shoots, for example. If you’ve never participated in one you probably wouldn’t believe the stories. Then there’s the unparalleled waterfowling that comes with being the pinnacle of the Mississippi Flyway. Not to mention that Delta dirt can grow white-tailed bucks on par with the Midwest’s best. There is all this and more, and so if you love Mississippi’s outdoors, the Delta offers just about everything you could ever want.
Well…almost everything. There is one missing ingredient, and it’s a doozy. It’s an absence that causes a deafening silence on clear, blue mornings in March and April.
History of Delta Turkeys
It’s not that there aren’t any turkeys in the Delta. The narrow ribbon of timber along the Mississippi River offers some of the best turkey hunting in the nation when Ole Man River behaves himself for a few years. There can also be strong turkey populations on some of the region’s well-timbered public lands. Nonetheless, for all intents, the bulk of Delta’s interior is mostly void of the wild turkey’s thunderous gobble.
This wasn’t always the case. Historic writings suggest that early settlers encountered scores of the big birds when the original bottomland forests towered over the region. On one of the first surveys of the lower Mississippi River in the 1680s, the French explorer Nicolas de La Salle remarked that the plains adjacent to the River were “stored up with turkeys.” Later accounts stretching all the way into the early twentieth century confirm this abundance. Unfortunately, the pre-settlement treasure did not last. Delta turkeys were overhunted while their woodland habitat was simultaneously felled. Populations plummeted. By the 1940s most of the original big woods was gone, and so were the birds.
Much has been written about the restoration of the wild turkey throughout North America. Beginning in the 1950s, trap and release programs allowed state wildlife agencies to successfully repopulate the species throughout its range. A review of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks’ (MDWFP) records shows that properties behind the levee were some of the first to be restocked as part of the state’s turkey restoration program. In the interior Delta, the Bear Lake Woods in Tallahatchie County were restocked in 1967. O’Keefe Wildlife Management Area in Quitman County received south Mississippi turkeys in 1971-72. Shortly thereafter in 1974-75, Catfish Point and Merigold Hunting Clubs donated a combined 26 turkeys to reestablish Delta National Forest’s population. After that, turkey releases in the interior Delta slowed because the availability of mature timberland was insufficient. Turkeys need wooded acres; in their absence reintroductions simply wouldn’t persist. This situation remained mostly unchanged throughout the ensuing decades.
Hope on the Horizon
The 1990 Farm Bill afforded agricultural producers provisions to voluntarily protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their properties. Landowners up and down the Mississippi Alluvial Valley soon began utilizing these programs to artificially reforest marginal agricultural lands back into bottomland hardwoods. Not only did these efforts help maintain and restore wetland functionality on working lands, they were also a first step toward reimagining the Delta’s landscape. The newly planted young hardwood seedlings gave reason to believe that turkeys and other forest-dependent wildlife might be granted a second chance. Patience and time were the only missing ingredients.
By the mid-2000s, many of the earliest hardwood plantings began reaching sapling timber stages. While they were not yet the grandiose bottomland forests so closely associated with wild turkeys, they were beginning to provide a semblance of the forest structure coveted by the birds. It became clear that at some point in the future, a major turkey restoration campaign would be warranted. The only question was when.
Restoration and Research
In 2008, the MDWFP began planning a large scale project to evaluate the feasibility of restocking turkeys into the interior Delta. The project would require multiple partners and eventually became a true work of applied research and management. Turkeys were ultimately caught from donor sites around the state, then transported to study sites in the interior Delta and released. Each bird was fitted with a radio transmitter, worn like a backpack, so their movements and survival could be evaluated. The MDWFP coordinated all the trap and restocking, while Dr. Guiming Wang, a professor within the College of Forest Resources at Mississippi State University, and his team of graduate students were responsible for collecting and analyzing the field data. The project was sponsored as a Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration grant, and both Delta Wildlife and the Mississippi Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation provided additional funding to ensure the undertaking’s success.
Prior to beginning field work, the entire Delta was examined to determine restoration sites which offered the greatest chance of success. Three sites, running a gradient of habitat quality based primarily on the availability of mature hardwoods, were ultimately chosen. Each site represented a 10 to 20-thousand-acre area with a unique landscape. The best site, located in northern Quitman County, was comprised of 22% mature hardwoods, 51% eight to twenty-year-old hardwood plantations, and 27% row crops. The middle tier site, in central Quitman County, was similar in its availability of hardwood plantations (59%) and row crops (29%), but had half the amount of mature timber (11%), which was isolated into much smaller stands. The poorest quality site was located in Coahoma County. It had the most area in row crops (65%) and the least in hardwood plantations (18%). Approximately 15% of its landscape was comprised of mature hardwood timber. These key differences in landscape composition were important factors that ultimately predicted how turkeys responded to each landscape.
The MDWFP began trapping turkeys at various donor properties throughout Mississippi in January 2009. By March, 107 total turkeys had been relocated to the three Delta restoration sites. Each of the three Delta sites was deemed sufficiently stocked after receiving 30 to 35 individuals; this was a larger stocking than the MDWFP historically used because more individuals were needed to ensure sufficient scientific rigor for the project’s research and monitoring component. Relocation efforts resumed the following winter to help bolster existing numbers. From January to March, 2010, an additional 59 turkeys were relocated to two of the three Delta restoration sites.
By tracking each turkey at least three times per week, important patterns in survival, movements, and habitat use were determined. The habitat deficiencies of the poorest quality site in Coahoma County became clear almost immediately. Within a few months, a majority of its turkeys had either died or left the study area. In fact, one gobbler was harvested the following spring nearly 20 miles from the release site! Given the Coahoma population’s rapid crash, its restoration was assumed to be a failure, and the research team elected to abandon it in order to more intensely focus on the two remaining areas.
Although a few individuals initially made large exploratory movements, all released birds stayed on the two Quitman study areas. A flurry of deaths occurred shortly after the releases, but eventually losses stabilized. Gobbler survival outpaced that of hens since the fledgling populations were unhunted. Hen survival was 57% during the study’s first year, and 51% during the second, which is similar to studies of wild turkeys elsewhere. As expected, most hen deaths occurred during the nesting season as a result of predators. Bobcats were the primary culprit.
The availability of mature hardwood timber was the primary determinant of habitat selection, movement, and home range size. The greater availability of mature hardwoods, in larger stands, at the higher quality site in northern Quitman County allowed those birds to have smaller, more concentrated home ranges than turkeys at the central Quitman site where there were fewer, more scattered mature stands. More mature hardwoods also meant that turkeys on the higher tier site moved less during the day and stayed closer to their release location throughout the duration of the study. In fact, the further a given location was from mature woods, the less likely turkeys were to utilize it at any point during the study. While mature hardwood timber was the most preferred habitat type, young hardwood plantations were the least favored. Turkeys avoided using the developing plantations throughout most of the year. The exception to this was that hens nested in young hardwood plantations more often than anywhere else. Overall, the project soundly demonstrated availability of mature woods as the primary factor which should be considered when evaluating Delta sites for turkey restoration. Hardwood plantations can provide some habitat value for nesting, but are mostly avoided otherwise, at least until they reach 25 to 30 years of age.
Implications for Tomorrow
Our restoration and research project provided a real-world experiment in which turkeys showed us when and where population restoration is possible in the interior Delta. We learned that while developing hardwood plantations can be a component of turkey habitat, they are no substitute for mature timber. We also demonstrated the scale at which landscapes should be evaluated for successful restoration is very large. Our study sites all encompassed nearly 20,000 acres and spanned multiple ownerships. For the best chance of success, potential restoration sites should minimally have several thousand acres of mature hardwoods scattered throughout a landscapes of this size. Many population parameters we measured were similar to wild turkey populations studied elsewhere, at least for two of the three sites. Unfortunately, flood events prevented us from being able to definitively compare the reproductive rates of these newly established populations to other flocks. Nonetheless, seven hens nested successfully during the two years of our research. While that number may seem slight, it was enough to allow those populations to gain a firm foothold in the region.
Although nearly a decade has passed since the first release, turkeys are still persisting at both of the Quitman County sites, once again reaffirming the wild turkey’s resilience. The research project’s final component was to measure the availability of other areas in the Delta which offered habitat conditions similar to our successful release sites. These results suggest that currently only about 4% of the Delta is highly suitable for turkeys based on the availability of mature hardwoods. Therefore, future restoration potential is dependent upon hardwood plantations becoming old enough to function as mature forests from a turkey’s perspective. Based on the habits of the birds we studied, this does not occur until a stand nears 30 years of age. In the last few decades, nearly 280,000 acres of hardwoods have been planted in the Mississippi Delta. The oldest plantings are approaching this age, with many more acres slated to become turkey woods in the not too distant future. Given these realities, the interior Delta’s springtime silence may soon be over!