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Setting of Spring Gobbler Season

Spring Gobbler



The fourth Monday of April spring gobbler season opening date was designed to protect the wild turkey hen resource in West Virginia and to permit spring hunting recreation on bearded wild turkeys.  The date of the season was based on the earliest time a season could be opened and still provide some protection of wild turkey hens.  The season also coincides with the peak in gobbling that occurs in late April. 


This report summarizes biological and other data collected in West Virginia and other states that substantiates, justifies, and explains why the current spring gobbler season format was the chosen management strategy.


Biological Data




The average peak of incubation in West Virginia by Julian date is 120 or April 30 (Fig. 1) based upon the incubation period of 28 days and from aging 3,381 juvenile turkeys (Knoder 1959). West Virginia’s wild turkey hen population dynamics study conducted from 1989-94 measured time of incubation of hens wearing radio transmitters.  This study supported the juvenile aging data and indicated less than 50% of the hens are incubating eggs prior to May 1 (Fig. 2).  Therefore, the fourth week of April was selected as the earliest date to open the spring season because it was the earliest week to encompass the period when an acceptable number of hens would be nesting and less vulnerable to illegal killing.  This opening or a later date became the standard opening date from the time the spring season was initiated in 1966 except for 1984 when the season opening was the third week of April.


Illegal Harvests


Data on hen survival collected during the nesting season from West Virginia’s population dynamics study showed that the average survival of nesting hens was higher all 5 years of the study (Table 1).  These results were surprising because one would expect nesting birds to have lower survival because they are hesitant to take flight from potential predators (including man).  Research indicates that the higher illegal harvests of non-nesters during spring gobbler seasons is the best known explanation why non-nesters do not have higher survival rates than nesting hens. Illegal harvests of wild turkeys are a major mortality factor in comparison to legal harvests (Wright and Speake 1975, Fleming and Speake 1976, Williams and Austin 1988, Little et al. 1990, Vangilder and Kurzejeski 1995, Davis et al. 1995, Pack et al. 1999).  Various research studies have shown that illegal harvesting of wild turkey hens increases if a season begins before the peak of incubation.  Kimmel and Kurzejeski (1985) found that illegal killing of hens was higher during years when spring gobbler seasons begin before the peak of incubation in Missouri. Vangilder (1992) reported that illegal harvest rates of hens were higher during late springs than early springs suggesting absence of normal plant growth (less cover) and delayed breeding results in higher illegal harvests of hens. The rate of illegal killing of hens in West Virginia and Virginia increased the earlier a season opens prior to the peak of incubation (Fig. 3). 

What Other States are Doing


States vary widely in regard to the opening date of the spring gobbler season.  Northeastern states generally open their seasons near the peak of the incubation period when more hens are on nests while southern states have season openings prior to the peak of incubation.  Some southern states have gobbler seasons running through most of the breeding season.  With this wide array of seasons, it is understandable why some argue that an earlier season has no impact on wild turkey populations. States with an earlier opening date have been shown to have wild turkey populations that are expanding so why not have an earlier opening?  Conversely, an opposing view is that these states would have higher wild turkey populations and higher harvests if they had a later opening date?  In cooperation with North Carolina State University, survival data from West Virginia and Virginia was used to construct a population model (Brooks et al. 2002). A change in survival of -0.038 if the season was changed to a mid-April opening shows that West Virginia’s wild turkey population would be 5,000 birds lower in four years and nearly 25,000 birds lower in 9 years (Fig. 4).


Recent research in Kentucky (Wright and Vangilder 2000) depicted a very significant impact of spring gobbler hunting on the male segment of a wild turkey population.  Annual survival rates of adult gobblers were only 0.26.  Human-caused mortality from illegal and legal hunting was very high (62%) for adult males but only 23% for juveniles.  Kentucky has a 3-week spring season with all-day hunting opening before the peak of incubation. The researchers concluded that further liberalization of the season would cause a decline in the quality of spring hunting. Unpublished West Virginia and Virginia gobbler banding data suggests that human-caused mortality may be high for not only adults but also for juvenile gobblers.  West Virginia spring gobbler harvest patterns show that spring harvests are dependent on production two years prior to the season and indicate little carryover of 2-yr old gobblers (Fig. 5).  Spring hunting has generally been assumed to not have a negative impact on wild turkey populations because gobblers were considered expendable after mating, and hens were protected by law.  The Kentucky and West Virginia research findings indicate that biologists need to learn much more about spring hunting regulations and the gobbler segment of our wild turkey populations. 




Hunters that propose earlier spring gobbler seasons generally believe earlier seasons will result in better gobbling.  Some suggest that outlaws are hunting prior to legal hunters, and an earlier season will “level the playing field”.  Other hunters believe birds are gobbled out with a later opening, and vegetation growth makes it more difficult to kill a gobbler. The fact of the matter is that the present spring gobbler season does correspond with the peak in gobbling.  It agrees with data in northern states and even with a state as far south as South Carolina. Bevill (1975) determined the peak in gobbling in South Carolina was April 26.  Virginia conducted gobbling counts prior to having a gobbler season, and their peak in gobbling was the fourth week in April  (Norman et al. 2000). Taylor et al. (1995) determined the peak period of gobbling in West Virginia occurs between April 22 - May 1 (Fig. 6) and that gobbling rates are not highly correlated with harvests.  There are factors other than gobbling that enter into killing a turkey. Table 2 illustrates gobblers killed/1000 hours from 11 years of gobbling survey data, and illustrates that 4 of the 5 best killing dates for gobblers were April 28 or later.  In addition, except for the first few days at the beginning of the season, the harvest of gobblers per unit effort does not change much during the remainder of the season (Fig. 7).


An analysis of gobbling data from Virginia and West Virginia shows the opening date of the spring gobbler season in West Virginia normally is closer to the peak in gobbling than the earlier opening season in Virginia (Fig. 8 and Fig. 9).  Because the largest number of hunters are afield the first week of the season, West Virginia hunters are more likely to experience the best gobbling of the season than Virginia hunters.


One factor proponents of an earlier gobbler season forget is that hunting pressure does depress gobbling (Kienzler et al. 1996).  Hunters listen to gobbling prior to the season and believe these same gobbling rates will occur when the season is changed to an earlier date.   However, hunters need to remember that there will then be approximately 140,000 additional hunters afield the new opening time and that these hunters will depress gobbling to a level lower than what they are presently observing.


The belief that gobblers are gobbled out with West Virginia’s present season format is not supported by data.  Gobbling rates remain fairly constant under the present format until the last week of the season (Fig. 6).  As illustrated in Fig. 8 and Fig. 9, the peak of gobbling has been known to be as late as 18 days after the opening of the season in West Virginia and 20 days after in Virginia.




Some also think that hunting would be safer with an earlier season because there would be less vegetation to impede vision.  The West Virginia Hunting Safety Task Force study of spring gobbler accidents did not detect a relationship of accidents to visibility and cover.  In fact, the task force determined that 90% of 94 hunting accidents studied occurred when the weather and visibility were good, and fatalities under dense cover conditions were actually lower than light cover conditions.  A strong relationship was measured between distance and accidents with 74% of the accidents, where the distance was known, occurred at distances greater than 40 yards.




There are other miscellaneous factors that should be considered if the spring gobbler season is opened earlier in West Virginia.  The earlier the season the greater the risk of having snow which can have a severe impact on hunting in the northern part of the state.


 West Virginia has had a good ratio of adult gobblers in the bag (70%) which suggests that a later season results in more adult gobblers in the bag because it is more difficult for the gobblers to attract hens with more of them nesting.  Based on conversations with other turkey biologists, it is suspected a higher percentage of adult gobblers may be the characteristic of a later season versus an earlier opening.


The West Virginia Gobbler Survey revealed that other activities while gobbler hunting are an important part of the enjoyment of gobbler hunting in the spring  (Igo et al. 1990). It is doubtful that an earlier opening date will be as aesthetically pleasing to hunters because there will be fewer wildflowers and other plants for them to enjoy.


Alternative Spring Gobbler Season Dates


Various alternative seasons have been proposed for the spring gobbler season. A sample of some alternatives and impacts are as follows:


Open the season the first Monday after April 15. This opening will have the advantage of an earlier opening on the average.  An examination of this option over a 10-year period would result in less than one-half as many hens on the nest.  This season format would have an average of 15% of the hens setting on the nest versus our present season format, which has 34% of the hens nesting (incubating). Therefore, illegal killing of hens would increase, population growth and size would be impacted, and mid-April season opening would result in a season similar to Virginia with an opening further from the peak of gobbling.


Another option that would result in as many hens, on the average, setting on nests and less vulnerable to illegal hunting would be to open the season every spring on April 24.  The advantage of this season is that it has the potential of the same safeguards as our present season and hunters would learn that the opening is the same every year.  The only problem is that this format could result in some problems: a Saturday opening would occur in some years, and this would reduce the quality of spring hunting.  West Virginia already exceeds the accepted quality-hunting rate (4 hunters/sq mi) in many areas, and over 40% of hunters reporting interference while hunting.  No doubt hunter pressure and interference would increase if a Saturday opening was in effect.  An exception could be made for Saturday by bypassing it when the opening occurred on Saturday, but this would make the opening date more complex for us and hunters.  In addition, an opening other than Monday would not allow non-residents a full 6-days of hunting before a Sunday interruption in the season occurred in most of the State and could affect their participation in hunting in WV.  It is also likely the closer the opening date is to a Saturday, the greater would be the increase in hunter pressure on opening day.


Another option that would have an even greater biological benefit to wild turkeys would to be open the season even later than our present format.  This could be an opening the first Monday after April 24.  This would result in a season more likely to have an opening at the peak of gobbling and improve the quality of hunting.  However, this season would further agitate those wanting an earlier season.  The current season format does allow an opening as early as April 22 during some years, and this would no longer be the case.


Comments And Recommendation


It is doubtful any opening day of the spring gobbler season will satisfy those that want an earlier opening unless it consistently has an opening date around mid-April or earlier. West Virginia’s present season already is a compromise with an opening about as early as one could have a season and maintain quality hunting, protect the hen resource, assure high gobbling rates, and provide good hunting success.  A preponderance of evidence shows a late opening of spring gobbler season has the best potential to assure survival of hens during a very critical time of the year and the best potential to assure higher recruitment into a population.


Unpublished forest inventory data indicates that wild turkey habitat is declining in West Virginia, and the wild turkey population will do likewise.  Our wild turkey resource should be managed as wisely as possible to not allow our management decisions to have any possible detrimental impact on the resource.  The spring gobbler season we have is one season that started out based on the best biological data available, and recent research has supported the season.  Any decision to initiate an earlier date will be based less on biological information and more on opinion or desire.  No doubt a majority of hunters would like to have the season open earlier, but these opinions can change from year to year (Taylor et al. 1998).  As long as there is a gobbler gobbling out there, someone is going to want to open the season earlier. 


In conclusion, West Virginia’s present season format is the best format that encompasses both protection of the wild turkey resources and quality spring gobbler hunting.  The present season format has allowed the hunting public to enjoy some of the best hunting in the nation considering harvest per square mile and a statewide wild turkey population.


Literature Cited


Bevill, W. V. 1975.  Setting spring gobbler hunting seasons by timing peak gobbling. Proceedings of the National Wild Turkey Symposium 3:198-204.


Brooks, E. H., R. Alpizar-Jara, K.H. Povock, D. E. Steffen, J. C. Pack, and G.W. Norman.  2002. An online wild turkey population dynamics model.  Wildlife Society Bulletin 30(1) 44-45.


Davis, J. R., H.R. Barnhill, D.C. Guyan, Jr., R.E. Larkin, and W.M. Baughman. 1995. Wild turkey nesting ecology in the Lower Coastal Plain of South Carolina.  Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 49:454-465.


Guynn, Jr., R. E. Larkin, and W. M. Baughman. 1995.  Wild turkey nesting ecology in the Lower Coastal Plain of South Carolina. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 49:454-465.


Fleming, W. J. and D. W. Speake. 1976.  Losses of the eastern wild turkey from a stable Alabama population.  Proceedings of the Southeastern Association of Game and Fish Commissioners 30:377-385.


Kienzler, J. M., T. W. Little, and W. A. Fuller. 1996.  Effects of weather, incubation, and hunting on gobbling activity in wild turkeys. Proceeding of National Wild Turkey Symposium 7:61-68.


Igo, W. K., C. I. Taylor, G. H. Sharp, J. E. Evans, P. R. Johansen, and J. C. Pack. 1990.  Spring Gobbler Survey.  West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.


Kimmel, V. L. and E. W. Kurzejeski. 1985.  Illegal hen kill - a major turkey mortality factor. Proceedings of the National. Wild Turkey Symposium 5: 55-65.


Knoder, C. E. 1959.  Morphological indicators of heritable wildness in turkeys (meleagris gallopavo) and their relation to survival. Proceedings of the National Wild Turkey Symposium 1:116-137.


Little, T. W., J. M. Kienzler, and G. A. Hanson. 1990.  Effects of fall either-sex hunting on survival in an Iowa wild turkey population.  Proceedings of the National Wild Turkey Symposium 6: 119-125.


Norman, G.W., D. E. Steffen, C. I. Taylor, J.C. Pack, K.H. Pollock, and Kuenhi Tsai. 2000.  Reproductive chronology, spring hunting, and illegal kill of female wild turkeys. Proceedings of the National Wild Turkey Symposium  8:269-279.


Pack, J. C., G. W. Norman, C. I. Taylor, D. E. Steffen, D. A. Swanson, K. H. Pollock, and R. Alpizar-Jara. 1999.  Effects of fall hunting on wild turkey populations in Virginia and West Virginia. Journal of Wildlife Management 63:964-975.


Taylor, C. I., J. C. Pack, W. K. Igo, J. E. Evans, P. R. Johansen, and G. H. Sharp, (1995).  West Virginia Spring Turkey Hunters and Hunting, 1983-93. Proceedings of the National Wild Turkey Symposium 7:259-278.


Taylor, C. I., G. H. Sharp, J. E. Evans, J. C. Pack, and W. K. Igo. 1998.  1997 Spring Gobbler Survey.  West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Bulletin 97-2.


Vangilder, L. D. 1992. Population dynamics. Pages 144-164 in J. G. Dickson, editor, The wild turkey: biology and management.  Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA.


Vangilder, L. D. and E. W. Kurzejeski. 1995.  Population ecology of the eastern wild turkey in northern Missouri. Wildlife Monographs 130.


Williams, L. E. and D. H. Austin. 1988.  Studies of the wild turkey in Florida. Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission Technical Bulletin 10.


Wright, G. A. and D. W. Speake. 1975.  Compatibility of the eastern wild turkey with recreational activities at land between the lakes, Kentucky. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 29:578-584.


Wright, G. A. and L. D. Vangilder.  2000.  Proceedings of the National Wild Turkey Symposium  8:187-194.


Prepared by: James C. Pack, Wildlife Resources Section, DNR (February 6, 2003)

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