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The mystery of the vanishing turkeys

Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer • Updated May 27, 2014 at 11:29 PM

Wild turkeys, once thick in Giles County, have virtually vanished over the last few years, and the situation is so dire that the TWRA plans to suspend this year's fall season.

The fall season will also be closed in neighboring Wayne and Lawrence counties for the same reason -- the turkey population has nose-dived.

At one time Giles had a liberal six-bird limit during the fall season, and annually was at or near the top of turkeys harvested during the spring season.

About 20 years ago I started turkey hunting on a farm in Giles County and the birds were everywhere. It was common to see flocks of 100 or more. Every field on the farm and surrounding farms contained at least one flock, sometimes more.

At daybreak the ridges would explode with gobbling and yelping, and it wasn't uncommon to have three or four longbeards responding a call. Usually I'd bag a bird within the first hour or so after sunrise and be home in time for breakfast.

Those huge flocks of turkeys were prevalent for some 15 years. Suddenly, about five years ago, their numbers dropped drastically. Instead of seeing flocks of 100 birds, I'd hunt all day and see perhaps a dozen turkeys.

The following year I saw only one or two, then none.

Within two or three years the turkey population on the farm I hunted went from the hundreds to near zero, and stayed there. Today it's rare to see a single turkey on the farm.

Turkeys likewise abruptly disappeared from the neighboring farms. I used to see large flocks of turkeys in fields as I drove back to and from the farm on which I hunted. Now I seldom see a turkey anywhere in the area.

I informed the TWRA's turkey specialist about the mysterious situation four or five years ago after the turkey population plummeted from hundreds to zero. He shrugged it off. He said there can be lots of turkeys in an area and you simply don't see them.

I tried to explain that that wasn't the case. There was no gobbling and yelping, no droppings and feathers where the flocks used to roost, no trace of scratching in the leaves.

The farmer who lives on the land wasn't seeing any turkeys either. He used to look out his window during breakfast and see four or five flocks in the surrounding fields. Now he sees none.

It wasn't a matter me suddenly becoming an inept turkey hunter, or a case of the turkeys growing too wise and wary to be hunted. There were no turkeys there.

Gray Anderson, currently in charge of the TWRA turkey program, sent some biologists to Giles County at the start of the spring season to try to figure out what's going on. When I talked to him last, it was still a mystery.

The only thing that has been determined is that the turkeys have virtually vanished in Giles, Wayne and Lawrence counties.

It's not due to coyotes and egg-eating raccoons, because coyotes and raccoons were as prevalent on the farm back in the days of the huge turkey flocks as they are now.

Could it be the result of some sort of epidemic, such as the EHD disease that devastated deer herds in some Middle Tennessee areas a few years ago? Anderson says he's never heard of a similar epidemic hitting a turkey population, but he can't rule it out. But if there was a huge turkey die-off,  how come the carcasses -- by the hundreds -- weren't found, as were the deer carcasses?

Bottom line, the TWRA doesn't know what happened to the turkeys. All it knows is that they're gone.

Solving the mystery is imperative, because if it can happen in Giles, Wayne and Lawrence counties it can happen in other counties such as Wilson, which has a booming turkey population. Flocks of 100 birds can be seen on some Wilson County farms, just as they used to be in Giles County.

For some reason they suddenly vanished, and nobody knows why -- or where it might happen next.

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