There’s a battle raging in Georgia between turkeys and raccoons, lawmakers say. They’re stepping in on the side of the gobblers, but some experts doubt whether their plans will do much to help the turkeys or hinder the raccoons.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Turkey hunters in much of the state are having a hard time bagging birds. Just ask Greensboro Republican state Rep. Trey Rhodes.

“There’s not many things in this world that I love more than turkey hunting,” he said at a recent committee meeting. “I’ve been doing it with my dad since I could walk, it’s just one thing we’ve always done together. And I can tell you, the last few years, our turkey population in our state, we do not have the number of turkeys that we used to have.”

The restoration of the wild turkey had once been a conservation success story. Thanks to restocking and anti-poaching efforts, Georgia’s turkey population grew from just over 17,000 in 1973 to 113,000 by 1984, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division.

But that trend could be turning around. Biologists determine the strength of the turkey population by averaging the number of poults, or juvenile turkeys, per mother hen, and that number is shrinking – it dropped 9% statewide between 2019 and 2020, with northwest Georgia seeing the steepest decline of 47%, according to the DNR.

“There’s multiple reasons for that,” Rhodes said. “One of the steps that we need to take, in some people’s opinion, is we’ve had a boom of population of our critters that like to eat our eggs, basically our nesting animals, our sea turtles, our turkeys and our bobwhite quail.”

Rhodes and others place the blame on the tiny shoulders of Georgia’s raccoons and opossums, who snack on the gooey poultry orbs whenever they get the chance.

Chickamauga Republican state Rep. Steve Tarvin said northwest Georgia’s turkey decline has coincided with a rise in raccoons.

“It seems a long time ago when I was 20, but if you had a real good dog in northwest Georgia, you’d tree 20 coons a year,” he said. “I could tree 20 a night now, almost, if I had a good dog, but 20 a week would be no problem.”

Part of the problem, Rhodes says, is hunters don’t really consider the little varmints as game animals anymore, preferring to focus on animals like deer and turkey.

“Last night, I was thinking, I counted 18 of my friends who used to coon hunt, all the time, that’s all they did,” he said. “And now, it’s only two of them left that coon hunt. People just don’t coon hunt anymore.”

Rhodes is hoping a bill he authored now awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature will give Georgia turkeys a break by eliminating some of the raccoons and opossums ransacking their nests.

House Bill 1147 passed the Senate last week with a 44-10 vote and passed the House last month 141-17.

The bill would allow year-round hunting and trapping of raccoons and opossums on private land and empower the DNR to change the length of the season on public land.

Georgia lawmakers shortened the turkey season last year to help the birds repopulate, and bringing Georgia’s raccoon hunting season in line with neighboring states like Alabama and Florida will likely further help, Rhodes said.

Other experts are less sure.

Disappearing turkeys

“What we don’t know is how, at a landscape level, if controlling these animals will, in fact, improve turkey populations,” said Georgia DNR wildlife biologist Emily Rushton at a committee meeting.

“The root problem is a habitat issue more than anything,” she said. “Raccoons and possums really exploit those urban and developed habitats, and we’ve created a lot of very good habitat for them in Georgia recently. Honestly, it’d be hard to say how long it would take to see an effect because it just depends so much on how much trapping is happening on a property, how many years they trap. There’s a lot of factors that go into play.”

Georgia Wildlife Federation President Mike Worley was more blunt.

“As best we can find, there is no science that backs up this bill,” he said. “There’s no science that indicates that where they’re going with this piece of legislation – no science that I found – indicates that it will be successful.”

If a property owner has a raccoon or opossum problem, they can already get a permit from the DNR to trap at any time, Worley said.

“Always the challenge is that that’s a very intensive operation, traps have to be checked daily, those kinds of things,” he said. “So it really turns into, from a management standpoint, if you’re going to trap enough to have an impact on the population, you have to work a long time and work at it very hard, and traps have to be checked daily. It’s a big undertaking. So my challenge with the bill is that you already have options for controlling these pressures on your individual property if you want to, and it just simply is not going to have an effect, I don’t believe, on the populations.”

There’s also the reality that most Georgia hunters seem uninterested in hunting raccoons for sport, Worley said.

“It’s a tradition that has gone on for generations here in Georgia, and the people who do it are passionate about it,” he said. “But there certainly aren’t as many raccoon hunters as there are deer hunters or quail hunters or turkey hunters. It’s sort of a niche group, if you will, and that’s also one of the other arguments, I’d say there just simply aren’t enough people that are interested in raccoon hunting out there to really make a difference in the population.”

It’s also not clear to what extent raccoons are responsible for the turkey population decline. Habitat degradation likely plays a big role, and raccoons and opossums are far from the only critters that enjoy a fresh turkey egg for breakfast, said John Eberhart, a member of the Wildlands Committee of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.

“Eggs are so nutritious that, in nature, anything that can get an egg will eat it, including snakes, all kinds of songbirds, everybody eats eggs because they’re ideal nutrition,” he said. “If there were no raccoons, this would be exploited by other species that eat these eggs. There are too many turkey hunters contending for too few turkeys, and the turkeys cannot just be generated by a machine.”

Blame corn

Another enemy of the turkey could be law-abiding deer hunters who inadvertently poison the birds.

Georgia allows deer hunters to use bait to lure the creatures, and for many, that means corn, but bait sold as deer corn can contain a fungus called aflatoxin, which can be deadly to birds.

“Deer hunters spread this corn, sometimes they just dump it out of a bucket onto the ground, and it gets rained on and gets wet,” Eberhart said. “It’s been warm, and that helps the fungus grow on the corn. Some of them use sophisticated automatic feeders, but the corn can still get wet that way, and it is the profusion of this bait for deer that is poisoning very many of the wild turkeys.”

Worley said aflatoxin poisoning could indeed be a contributing factor to harming birds, but the corn could also actually be helping the raccoons.

“It’s really going to be birds that will be affected by it,” he said. “Your mammals aren’t really going to be affected by that particular toxin, so it’s gonna be a bird issue. It might be turkeys. It might be quail, it might be your songbirds. If they’re eating the corn, it could cause some problems, but it’s primarily our feathered friends that are going to see a problem.”

“We are likely seeing an increase in the number of raccoons, rather than raccoons just organically popping up out of nowhere, due to the amazing amount of corn that’s being spread on the landscape these days,” he added. “Hogs are benefiting from it. Raccoons, those types of omnivores that eat everything. Our bear populations are being encouraged by the amount of corn being put out there.”

The bill will likely do little to save the turkeys, Worley said, and it will also probably not do much to deter the raccoons. Still, he worries it could be a bad PR move.

“The harm that I see is really more public relations than anything else,” he said. “When you’re allowing year-round hunting of raccoons or possums, those animals will have babies, they have little ones out there on the landscape in the May, June timeframe, April, May, June. It’s just an awkward time to allow hunting. The reality is, from a basic population standpoint, I don’t think the bill will impact the population of raccoons or possums at all, but it’s an optics issue as much as anything else.”

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Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business...