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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Science Proves that Turkeys Make People Happy

State-employed biologists often suffer insomnia and facial tics caused by cranky hunters demanding more deer and bigger bucks.

But before agency supervisors suggest some R&R or group counseling to prevent burnout, they should establish this protocol: Appoint the struggling soul as the agency’s “Chief Wild-Turkey Biologist,” and inscribe the title on their breast badge and desk placard. After serving a year as turkey overlord, even the most shattered biologists will emerge perky and self-confident, their spiritual and scientific integrity restored.

Why? Because wild turkeys generate joy, pleasure and general warmth. But don’t take my word for it. Scientific surveys prove it.

Each summer the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources randomly selects thousands of turkey hunters for a postseason survey. And each year, Wisconsin’s turkey hunters tell the DNR the same thing: “Everything’s good! Don’t ever change!”

After the Spring 2020 season, 42% of turkey hunters rated their hunt’s quality “very high” or “fairly high,” and 26% rated it “fairly low” or “very low.” On an overall satisfaction scale of 1 to 10, they judged it a 7.

That’s pretty good for a season in which turkey hunters had a 20% success rate, notching 44,963 of the 224,452 permits issued. That success rate ranked the 2020 season 26th in the state’s 38 spring hunts. It was also the ninth highest kill since turkey hunting resumed in 1983.

For perspective, consider the “Happy Index” 20 years ago after the November 2000 deer season. That season’s post-hunt survey documented systemic grumpiness. Despite shooting a record 528,494 deer and a second-best 171,753 antlered bucks (138 fewer than the 1995 record), only 28% of hunters rated the gun-deer season’s quality as “high” while 31% rated it “low.”

Tough crowd, eh? Sigh.

Turkey hunters remain grateful for every opportunity. In contrast to deer hunting’s perennial complainers, they seldom claim the DNR overshot the flock 15 years ago, when success rates averaged 25% for a decade. In fact, we bagged over 52,400 jakes and gobblers each spring from 2007 to 2009, including a record 52,880 in 2008.

We’ve never killed 50,000 turkeys since. The spring harvest fell below 48,000 in 2010, and its high the past decade was 45,501 in 2016. In fact, the turkey tally fell short of 40,000 in 2013, 2018 and 2019.

Likewise, no one ridiculed or questioned the DNR’s numbers when its former chief turkey biologist, Mark Witecha, issued a press release in June 2020 announcing the season’s nearly 45,000-turkey harvest. That was Wisconsin’s highest kill in four years and second highest since 2010, evidence of “a healthy and robust turkey population entering the spring season.”

Witecha also said: “Good weather and enhanced opportunity for hunters this season likely contributed to the increased harvest, but ultimately Wisconsin continues to have one of the healthiest turkey flocks in the nation."

Meanwhile, no governor-appointed goofs on our seven-citizen Natural Resources Board are directing the DNR to conduct 5-year studies to assess the nest-raiding impacts of opossums, skunks and raccoons on turkeys. Maybe NRB vice-chair Greg Kazmierski will commission an independent turkey czar, and demand the DNR trap hundreds of owls and hawks, fit them with GPS transmitters and tiny cameras, and log how many poults and roosted turkeys get whacked annually by birds of prey.

But seriously, that’s not likely. We also don’t expect a Southern turkey biologist to fly into Madison and promise to make turkey hunting fun again. All the evidence in the 24-question 2020 turkey-hunting survey suggests Wisconsin hunters are doing fine.

No one can even fret that we’re spoiling youngsters by granting them a youth-only weekend hunt three days before the regular season. Nor can anyone claim we’re setting kids up for lifelong disappointment if they shoot a record-book gobbler during their special season.

That’s because the survey found only 8% of hunters participated in the youth turkey hunt last year, and the success rate for kids who participated was 20%. Lest you forgot, that’s the same rate achieved during the regular season.

Hmm. How about this, then: Maybe turkey hunters are happy because so few of them irritate puritans by hunting with crossbows. The 2020 survey found that 95% of successful turkey hunters used a gun, 2.1% used a bow, and 1.2% used a crossbow. Only 1.1% killed a turkey with a gun and another with a bow, while 0.5% doubled up by killing a turkey with a gun and another with a crossbow.

And when the survey asked respondents which weapon they used most to hunt turkeys, 95.5% said gun, 2.7% said bow, and 1.9% said crossbows.

In contrast, you’ll recall that Kazmierski tried but failed to curtail crossbows during deer season after claiming with no evidence that crossbows reduced deer-license sales once legalized for archery season in 2014.

Yep, the 2020 survey basically suggests that turkey hunters are go-along, get-along types. When asked if they felt much competition from other hunters, 85% said “no” or “not much.”

When asked if another hunter interfered with their chance to bag a turkey, 88% said "no" or "not much."

And when asked if the DNR should change the number of turkey permits where they hunt, 90.5% said the allocation should stay the same or increase.

The survey also found most turkey hunters feel welcome across the state. When asked how hard it was to find a place to hunt turkeys, 77% said “very easy” or “somewhat easy,” and only 9.4% said “very” or “somewhat difficult.”

But a mystery remains: Most turkey hunters also hunt deer, so why do the same people who generally count their blessings in spring mostly count their curses in fall?

Maybe we’ll never know that answer, but here’s some advice: If your kid asks about studying wildlife management in college, share this secret to long-term job satisfaction:

“Follow the science, kid. Study turkeys. They make people happy.”

Patrick Durkin’s daughter Leah shot this gobbler in May 2005. — Patrick Durkin photo

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