The South Texas Turkey Standard
Article by Nate Skinner
Photos by Larry Ditto
The drumming sound of a strutting tom pierced the silence of the calm, serene morning. It caught me completely off guard. Immediately my heart began pounding, with nearly the same deep, cadence as the turkey’s cadence. The beating noises seemed to shake the ground under the tree I was tucked under.
He was approaching from behind me, and although I couldn’t see him, I knew the turkey was pretty close. Gripping my shotgun, I anticipated his arrival into my line of sight.
Seconds later, the tom came strutting in from the left, putting on a glorious display for what he thought would soon be his mate. Unbeknownst to him, the hen was a fake; and, as the show progressed, my appreciation for lifelike decoys continued to increase.
As he closed the distance to his lady, he realized a challenger stood between him and his prize. Sizing up the jake decoy that was positioned just past the hen, the tom’s neck and head turned blood red.
Instantly, the strutter jumped on top of the jake and commenced to giving the look-alike a good beating. He spurred it and slapped it with his wings until he was sure he’d won the fight.
The jake decoy now laid on its side, and the tom returned to strutting and drumming for the hen. As the scene continued to unfold, I realized I could’ve harvested the long beard several minutes ago. The show, however, was much more exciting.
Springtime in South Texas and wild turkeys go hand in hand. These creatures put on their Sunday best during this special time of year that falls within their peak breeding season. Their actions and gorgeous arrays of feathers are sights that hunters, outdoor enthusiasts and all Texans appreciate.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) Small Game Harvest Survey suggests there are approximately 15,000 turkey hunters in South Texas, and they harvest around 10,000 birds annually across the fall and spring seasons. According to the TPWD Turkey Program Leader Jason Hardin, recent wild turkey banding efforts in the region show that these harvest rates are extremely low in comparison to the rest of the country.
Wild Turkey Management
Hardin said the key to wild turkey management, or survival and recruitment of new birds, is timely rainfall and average to below average summer temperatures. These factors are obviously out of landowners’ hands.
Landowners are responsible for managing grazing pressure and making sure brush management practices are meeting the wild turkeys’ needs. According to Gene T. Miller, a wildlife biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), this is especially important for nesting cover.
“Planned or rotational grazing practices are a necessity,” he said. “Otherwise, herds of livestock may completely wipe out the precious nesting cover in an area needed by turkeys to hide and protect their clutch.”
Surface water is another key component in wild turkey management. Miller said surface water availability is important for turkey hydration and vital for producing greenery and insects that make up a turkey’s diet.
Hardin said the primary goal of land managers should be protecting existing roosting habitat, since that is the most limiting factor for wild turkey distribution in South Texas.
“The tallest available trees make prime roosting sites for turkeys,” he explained. “In the South Texas region, these are typically hackberry trees and live oaks which are usually located along rivers, creeks and other drainages, as well as in the oak motte country of the Coastal Sand Plains.”
If landowners have noticed a loss of historic roosting habitat, Hardin suggested they consider replacing known roost sites with artificial roosting cover.
“This is a temporary fix, and should coincide with the management of future native roosting cover,” he said. “Property managers should be continually planting native roost trees and protecting the natural regeneration of those species.”
Hardin warned that camps, lodges and houses should not be built under or adjacent to existing roosting cover.
In addition to preserving roost habitat, landowners must ensure that there is adequate herbaceous cover that can hide young poults while still allowing them to move around easily.
“Open, bare ground under an umbrella of herbaceous cover is the silver bullet scenario,” Hardin said. “This cover should be tall enough to hide poults, but short enough for adult turkeys to see over.”
It is also important that this type of cover surrounds roosting sites. Brush-choked roost habitat will quickly lose its appeal to turkeys. The birds must be able to see their surroundings in order to stay away from predators, and they must have some open areas to take off from and land on when flying to and from their roosts. Planned disturbances and brush management practices will prevent brush encroachment around roosting sites.
The Current State of Wild Turkeys in South Texas
Hardin estimated there are approximately 150,000 wild turkeys in South Texas this year.
“Early rains provided some nesting cover and early breeding during the spring of 2018,” he explained. “However, those conditions soon turned to drought, which stopped South Texas short of an average production year. Rain returned to South Texas in the fall of 2018 and conditions improved significantly, but it was too late for additional nesting and recruitment.”
Despite this scenario, Hardin said that autumn precipitation enabled wild turkeys to put on some much-needed fat that helped carry them through the winter, setting the stage for the upcoming spring and summer nesting season.
“Some timely rainfall this spring will promote recruitment and give wild turkeys in south Texas a chance to grow their populations,” he said.
Wild Turkey Restoration in South Texas
Over the past decade, there have been some tremendous efforts to enhance and restore South Texas wild turkey populations. Much of this work has e been headed up the Las Huellas Association.
The Las Huellas Association advocates for the benefit of South Texas wildlife and for the rights of South Texas wildlife managers, landowners and sportsmen in educational and wildlife habitat-related arenas. The organization is dedicated to educating people of all ages, especially South Texas youths, about the conservation, management and enhancement of wildlife and wildlife habitat to ensure the preservation of cherished resources for future generations.
Las Huellas President Rob Cackley said the organization restocks turkeys in portions of Cameron County every year.
“These efforts begin in January each year, when we trap birds in areas of South Central Texas,” he explained. “We are typically able to trap about 50 birds to transplant in the Rio Grande Valley along ranches in Cameron County.”
Cackley said that Las Huellas has teamed up with wildlife biologists at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI), Texas A&M University-Kingsville to develop guidelines for potential ranches to restock with turkeys.
“The folks at CKWRI help us examine a given ranch for certain aspects of wild turkey habitat to determine if restocking turkeys in the area will be successful,” Cackley said. “Once a property is chosen and used for restocking, biologists from CKWRI are available to revisit the ranch and provide the landowner with insight on how to continue to improve the success of wild turkey restoration across the terrain.”
According to Cackley, Las Huellas has experienced several successes with the ranches they have worked with over the past 10 years.
“One ranch in particular received birds from our restocking efforts about five years ago,” Cackley said. “Since then, we’ve heard nothing but positive reports from the landowner. Each year he informs us that the turkey population on his property continues to increase. He also claims that landowners from the surrounding properties are reporting seeing plenty of turkey activity in places that just a few years prior, were completely void of wild turkeys.”
Cackley said that there are numerous success stories from landowners that they work with just like the one he mentioned above.
“We are constantly receiving photos of both mature birds and poults running around on properties that we have stocked turkeys on,” he added. “This type of feedback ensures that we are helping restore populations of wild turkey in South Texas back to their historical numbers. We are continually trying to become more efficient and successful with our efforts each year, and we’ve got more work to do!”
To get involved with Las Huellas, access the “Contact Us” tab on their website at http://www.lashuellas.org.
In addition to partnering with Las Huellas, wildlife biologists, professors and grad students at CKWRI have conducted some other turkey restoration projects in South Texas. The majority of these have focused establishing artificial roost sites to help combat the loss of roosting habitat in the region.
CKWRI Executive Director David Hewitt, a TWA member, said that his colleagues have helped develop some remarkable practices for sustaining wild turkey populations in areas with significant roosting habitat loss.
“The artificial roosting sites that our teams consisting of biologists, professors and graduate students have helped create have been extremely successful,” he said. “The artificial roosts look similar to a telephone pole with artificial branches extending from their sides. We receive countless reports from landowners with artificial roost sites on their properties, informing us that the birds are regularly roosting on the structures.”
Wild turkeys face plenty of challenges in South Texas. From inconsistent weather patterns to habitat destruction and loss, population increases will not occur without the species clearing several hurdles along the way.
The right land and habitat management practices combined with population restoration efforts give turkeys a fighting chance. A collective, Texas-sized movement from landowners, hunters and all those that appreciate the outdoors to continually protect and preserve wild turkey habitat will ensure that strutting long beards will put on their springtime show for years to come.