Researchers believe Kentucky will have more wild turkeys in its fields and forests this year than at any other period in modern times. Last year’s dry weather and moderate temperatures helped newly hatched turkeys (poults) survive their first summer.
But the buzz heard throughout much of the state late last spring also played an important role in this year’s turkey boom. Cicadas, which emerged by the bushel last May through June, provided the food young turkeys needed at exactly the right time to boost the birds’ chances of survival.
“The turkey poults had a six-week buffet of cicadas just when they needed them the most,” says Steven Dobey, wild turkey biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Cicadas come in two basic flavors: those that emerge every year, and those that may take several years before they emerge out of the ground again. The annual variety don’t emerge early enough and in large enough numbers to make much difference to young turkeys struggling to survive.
However, last year’s emergence of the cicadas that only come out once every 17 years could have made a difference to poult survival. As many as 200-250 of these 17-year cicadas emerged within a square yard in some areas. Cicada expert Gene Kritsky, a professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, says the insects are packed with protein—just what a young turkey needs to grow and survive.
Cicadas “have high nutritional value as compared to other insects,” Kritsky says.
All kinds of birds and other wildlife feast on cicadas. That’s one of the reasons cyclical cicada emergences are so huge—it’s difficult for animals to eat them all. Did these cicadas really make a difference in the turkey population or was it just a coincidence?
It’s interesting to note that the number of poults spotted with a hen in eastern Kentucky tripled last year, as compared to 2007. The number doubled in central Kentucky. However, the number of poults with every hen in western Kentucky stayed about the same in 2007 as it did in 2008.
Last year, western Kentucky did not experience a major emergence of 17-year cicadas, while central and eastern parts of the state had their biggest emergence of the past 17 years.
Cicadas by themselves can’t make turkey populations boom. But under the right conditions, cicadas can give turkey numbers a major boost.
Hunting and fishing licenses expire this month. Be sure to renew yours before taking to Kentucky’s woods and waters in March. Purchase online at Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, www.fw.ky.gov, or at most sporting goods stores.