Talking turkey in Illinois: A wide-ranging interview with Luke Garver

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Roscoe Moyer photographed these turkeys in Lake Villa earlier this year.

With wild turkeys showing up around around the suburbs and Chicago more often, my usual spring interview with Luke Garver, wild turkey project manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, had a broader relevance than for just hunters.

Reintroduction of wild turkeys in Illinois began in 1959. Now wild turkeys are in all 102 counties.

Turkey hunting in Illinois for 2019 began April 8 in the south zone and on Monday in the north.

Here is the emailed interview with Garver. His responses are unabridged. A few tangential questions I asked were deleted.

Luke Garver.<br>Provided/IDNR

Luke Garver.

Have we reached the leveling off point for wild turkeys in Illinois? And the corollary, are we near a plateau in turkey harvest by hunters?

As is common with most game bird populations, we’re always going to see ebbs and flows in the turkey population from year to year. But by and large, wild turkeys in Illinois have occupied all the available habitat in the state. The years of rapidly expanding populations are over. It’s one of the great conservation success stories of our state, and even our nation. We’ve seen a similar plateau in harvest over the years as well. The years of record harvests occurring year after year are behind us. We have a robust turkey population, however, and when high production matches up with favorable and consistent spring hunting weather, a record harvest total is possible in any year.

Where do you expect (or hope) harvest will be this spring overall?

I expect this year’s harvest to be above the five-year average, and certainly higher than last year’s harvest. One indicator is that production estimates from the summer of 2018 were much higher than 2017, which was a record low. We’re also off to a great start to the season, especially compared to last year. More birds on the landscape and nice turkey hunting weather have resulted in above average harvests in both zones so far this spring.

Any sense of what nesting or broods from last year might mean this spring?

I touched on this in the last answer, but specifically the improvement in production last summer means there will be more birds on the landscape overall, and likely a higher proportion of jakes in the harvest. Given the record low production numbers from 2017, however, hunters will also likely see fewer 2-year-old birds this year.

Will the tough winter or later spring weather impact calling or hunting this spring in your opinion?

I expect there to be little impact from this year’s winter on our 2019 season. Turkeys are hardy and adaptable birds, and although there may have been some winter mortalities, it is unlikely there were any population-level effects. Youth Season saw an above-average harvest total despite cooler-than-average temps, so I don’t think spring’s late arrival had much of an effect either.

Beside us as hunters or vehicle drivers, what are predators on turkeys in Illinois?

Anything large enough to get its claws and teeth on a turkey is going to take advantage of that situation when it presents itself. They’ve got a number of predators to look out for throughout the year: great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, coyotes and bobcats all eat turkeys with regularity. However these predations events are infrequent enough to almost never have a negative impact overall populations, especially when adequate habitat is available. Nest and poult predators arguably have the largest impact of any predator on the landscape. Raccoons, opossums, and skunks frequently seek out turkey nests and eat eggs. Turkeys have lived with all of these threats since long before we’ve been around, however, and, as long as quality nesting and brood rearing habitat is available, populations will withstand predation.

I don’t think I ever asked this, but how many turkeys have you taken in Illinois?

I started hunting turkeys when I was 15, in 1999. I wasn’t successful that year, but the next year I shot my biggest bird to date. I honestly don’t know how many birds I’ve taken, but I can say I am successful taking a bird most years, I’m rarely able to harvest a second bird, and have never gotten three in one year in Illinois. I lived in southern Texas while in graduate school and was fortunate to have the opportunity to harvest a number of Rio Grande wild turkeys. Two years ago I bought my first ever Fall Gun Season tag. I’ve yet to harvest a bird in that season, but will definitely buy fall gun permits as long as I’m able to hunt.

Spring when turkeys do what comes naturally.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Spring when turkeys do what comes naturally.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

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