BANGOR, Maine — Each year, in addition to conducting actual research on many of the state’s bird species, biologist Brad Allen pays close attention to the bird activity around his house. Those anecdotal observations, he finds, can sometimes help explain what certain birds — such as wild turkeys — are up to.
Allen, the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, has some good news for turkey hunters, who will start heading afield on Saturday.
“By my own observations of the birds around my house, I’m seeing the lone hens crossing the road, doing their nesting thing,” Allen said. “I’m seeing the gobblers running the whole length of my field, looking for girls and gobbling every 20 yards. They look lonely.”
And when male turkeys are lonely, hunters benefit.
“All that’s going to translate into a real receptive, good hunting interaction,” Allen said.
Wild turkey hunters depend on that interaction, as they head into the woods dressed in camouflage clothing, intending to call to the male turkeys in order to draw them within shooting range.
Add in a hefty population of wild turkeys, and hunters should have a great season.
“It’s been the second mild winter in a row, and I think turkey survival was very, very good this year,” Allen said. “Anecdotally … in September, I had a flock of really little guys, a real, real late hatch. I looked at those in September and thought, ‘They’re going to struggle. I’d be surprised if any of those make it through the winter.’”
But come spring, those birds had grown from about 8 inches tall to a foot and a half, and Allen said the entire flock seemed to have survived.
This year’s spring wild turkey season kicks off Saturday with Youth Turkey Day, open to youths who have not yet turned 16 years old. The opening day for all hunters is Monday, May 1. In most of the southern half of the state, the season runs until June 3, and hunters are allowed to take two bearded turkeys — typically males — during the season.
In northern Maine, the season is split into sessions, with those born in odd-numbered years allowed to hunt May 1-6, May 15-20 and May 29-June 3. Those born in even-numbered years can hunt May 8-13, May 22-27 and May 29-June 3. Hunters in the northern zones — Wildlife Management Districts 1 through 6, are limited to taking just one bearded bird per season. The same restriction applies to hunters in WMD 8, which is west of Moosehead Lake.
A fall turkey season is also staged in some WMDs from Oct. 1 through Nov. 7, with a one-bird, any-sex limit.
Allen said that over the years, hunters have told biologists they think Maine’s season starts too late, because they’ve been seeing mating activity during April, and other suspicious behaviors even earlier than that. Allen explained the season is actually timed perfectly and is planned to occur about 14 days after the mating behavior begins.
“We really want the first week of the season to be timed so the girls are initiating nesting, so the girls go away and sit on their eggs for the first time,” Allen explained.
Because Maine’s spring hunters are only allowed to target bearded birds, which generally are male, starting the season during a time when most adult females are sitting on nests reduces the possibility of them being shot by hunters.
“In mid-April when you’re seeing some breeding and you’re seeing a lot of [males] displaying, people call me and say, ‘You’ve got to move the season up because they’re displaying now,’” Allen said. “They are breeding then, but it takes almost two weeks for a hen to lay her 14 eggs — 1 egg per day. So if you start in mid-April and you lay an egg every day, that puts you laying your last egg right about now. And then they’ll be incubating [by sitting on the nest] during the first week of the season. What that does is it keeps hens out of the hunting picture.”
The female turkeys wait until all 14 eggs are laid before she starts sitting on the nest. That way, all 14 eggs hatch at roughly the same time.
They’ll sit for about 26 days, which will put them on nests for most of the month of May, when the bulk of the hunting takes place.
Allen said the state’s wild turkey population has remained pretty steady over the past five years or so and is estimated at between 50,000 and 60,000 birds. That’s a rough estimate based on past research that shows that about 20 percent of male birds are typically taken by hunters in a given year. In Maine, between 5,000 and 6,000 male turkeys are shot each year, meaning there are between 25,000 and 30,000 males on the landscape. Doubling the number to include the females accounts for the final estimate.
Allen said the department hopes to mount its own population study next year, which would help biologists improve the accuracy of their estimate.
And as spring turkey season approaches, Allen — an avid hunter himself — said new hunters can make themselves safer by avoiding the temptation to stalk noises that sound like the calls of a male turkey.
Those hunters might be actually stalking another turkey hunter, Allen explained.
“Turkeys aren’t worth shooting somebody over, obviously,” Allen said. “You really have to see the whole bird [before you shoot], and in the spring you have to see the beard.”