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As Turkey Hunting Begins, Officials Work To Conserve Population In NC

Fred Cox, a retired Rockingham County teacher, is also a champion maker of turkey calls. His signature call is made out of bones pulled from turkey wings. Hunters use them to imitate female turkeys and attract male turkeys into shooting range.

"What they gobble to today they might not open up their mouth to tomorrow," he explained while holding a turkey call he has named the Widowmaker II. "They’re just real finicky, you just don’t know what they’re going to want to hear."

Cox remembers his first turkey hunt, back in the 70s, like it was yesterday.

"I got out of the blind and when I did, a turkey got up from right behind me and took off flying," he said. "I mean, it sounded like a plane crashing, going through the limbs and everything. It just excited me when I heard that."

Wild turkey hunting season began last week in North Carolina. Last spring, hunters killed a record number of the birds. Some experts attributed the uptick to stay at home orders in place during the hunting season. Although local turkey populations have been robust in recent years, the bird was previously brought near extinction.

"Turkeys have evolved for thousands and thousands of years, being chased and eaten by essentially every predator known in the wild," said Chris Kreh, an upland game bird biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. "So literally their entire life they are being pursued by predators."

When in eggs or just after hatching, wild turkeys face snakes and screech owls, foxes and raccoons. As grown birds, they’re chased by coyotes and bobcats and great horned owls.

Their well-earned wariness has made the birds a great challenge for hunters.

Hunting nearly brought wild turkeys to extinction half a century ago. And hunting was one of the driving forces behind the bird’s comeback, too. In the 1930s Congress passed an 11% tax on firearms and ammunition to fund wildlife management.

"That’s been millions and maybe billions of dollars over the decades," Kreh said.

Here in North Carolina, proceeds funded trapping and relocating turkeys to areas in which they had disappeared. Officials also limited the take to two males a year, and moved the season from fall to spring.

The result: the wild turkey population has grown from 2,000 to around 270,000.

But there's more work to be done.

A research effort at N.C. State University hopes to tag and track hundreds of the birds across the state.

"Typically first thing in the morning before the sun’s even up we are crawling into the blind, setting up the equipment," said David Moscicki, a researcher at NC State. "We sit there and wait and, some days, it goes like textbook. Other days we can be sitting in that blind from sun up until sunset and maybe not even catch birds."

The data collected will inform future conservation decisions. That’s after last year's record turkey harvest of 23,000 birds.

"Last year when we saw the pandemic ongoing, we knew people all across the state were under stay at home orders, or out of work or school and ballgames and everything was cancelled, so we realized very quickly that there’s going to be a large uptick in hunting effort," said Kreh.

Officials say the state’s short hunting season and bag limit protect against overharvesting. Out in the field, waiting to trap turkeys, Moscicki said he’s not terribly concerned about the uptick, but they will need more data to be sure.

"We got this year and next year to do this research, that’s really where we’re going to know if there was some sort of impact," he said.

Back in Rockingham County, Fred Cox saw a flip side of those harvest numbers, having to do with his 14-year-old grandson.

"Last spring, and this is one of the few positives I can say for COVID, because they were stuck in the house and everything, he all of the sudden developed an interest in wanting to go hunting, and we got him out there, and he killed two," Cox said.

Cox kept the wing bones from those turkeys. He’s planning to make his grandson a new turkey call for his 15th birthday.

 The work desk where Fred Cox makes turkey calls.
Lisa Philip / For WUNC
The work desk where Fred Cox makes turkey calls.
 Two custom wingbone turkey calls.
Lisa Philip / For WUNC
Two custom wingbone turkey calls.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Before joining WUNC in October as the station's new education reporter, Lisa Philip covered schools in Howard County, Maryland for the Baltimore Sun newspapers. She traveled from school playgrounds to the state legislature, writing about everything from a Girl Scout friendship bench project to a state investigation into local school officials' alleged hiding of public records.