The American wild turkey is the most sought after, legally protected small-game species in New York State. In fact, come this May, more than 100,000 New York turkey hunters will set out in pursuit of a legal “bearded” turkey.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) limits spring season hunters to harvesting only bearded turkeys for good reason. Beards, which may look like hair, are actually clumps of coarse feathers, which are characteristically used to determine the sex, age and condition of individual birds. Although a small percentage of females (hens) grow them, they are generally characteristic of males (toms or gobblers).
Research has shown that, in most cases, you can maintain a healthy turkey population even after eliminating a large percentage of toms from the flock. Since the spring season occurs after most hens have been bred, and almost all bearded turkeys are toms, the spring turkey harvest has very little impact on the next generation. In fact, a recent Virginia Tech study looked at the timing of turkey hunting seasons across the northeast and found that New York’s spring season was perfectly timed based on available data for breeding and nesting turkeys in our region.
DEC wildlife managers remain committed to safeguarding the long-term health of wild-turkey populations and to providing ample opportunities for turkey hunting while preserving a sustainable harvest. They know that the long-term security and maintenance of our state’s wild-turkey population is directly tied to minimizing the risk of overharvesting. They know as well that a particularly cold or snowy winter can appreciably affect wild-turkey populations, especially when it comes to the survival of young birds (jakes and jennies) and that populations may also be dramatically reduced by predation, disease and poaching. But more study is needed to fully understand trends in turkey abundance and distribution and how weather, habitat, changing landscapes and various other factors affect turkey populations and impact harvest.