Wild Turkey in Iowa
Turkey Hunting in Iowa

By the early 1900's, unrestricted market hunting and drastic reductions in habitat had eliminated wild turkeys in Iowa. For many years, the thunderous gobbles of the wild turkey were absent from Iowa's woodlands and forests.

This silence was broken in 1966 when the Iowa Conservation Commission, now the Department of Natural Resources, initiated a program to return the wild turkey to Iowa. Wild turkeys were released at several sites across the state, with the first release occurring in Lee County, Iowa. Since these early days, turkey populations have expanded across the entire state of Iowa.

Iowa Hunting and Trapping Regulations, Full Book
- Iowa Hunting Seasons and Bag Limits, Quick Reference Card

Coming to Iowa to hunt?
Check out our information for Nonresident Turkey Hunters.

Successful hunters, report your harvest online or by calling 1-800-771-4692.

Iowa's Hunting & Fishing License Online Portal:
[TIP] Turn in Poachers - iowadnr.gov/tip or call 1-800-532-2020
Turkey Hunting in Iowa - FAQ

Iowa’s wild turkeys are the Eastern wild turkey sub-species - Meleagris gallopavo silvestris.
Weight: males 17-30lbs; females 8-12lbs
Length: males 42-48 inches; females 32-38 inches
Flight and ground speed: 25mph (max ground speed); 55mph (max flight speed)
Habitat: woodland habitats mixed with agricultural fields
Foods: Insects, wild fruits and tree nuts, waste grains
Mating: polygamous, hens typically mate with dominant male
Nesting period: April - June
Nests: usually shallow depressions in the ground
Clutch size: average 11 eggs (range 6 - 18)
Eggs: Tan or buffy white, evenly marked with small reddish spots
Incubation: 28 days
Young: Precocial; leave nest immediately and can fly to roost in trees at 2 weeks
Number broods per year: 1; 30-60% will renest
Nest success: 40-60%

Wild turkeys numbered in the millions nationwide when the first settlers landed at Plymouth Rock and provided a readily available source of food for the table and the market. Like much of our native wildlife, turkey populations were unable to withstand unregulated hunting pressures during European settlement. A combination of year around indiscriminate hunting of all ages and sexes, and clearing of forested habitats to create agricultural lands all led to the extirpation of wild turkey flocks from their historical range north of the Ohio River and from most areas in the South and East. By 1920, approximately 250,000 eastern wild turkeys remained in the United States, occupying just 12% of their former range. Only 8 states still had a turkey hunting season, most in the mountainous terrain of the southeastern United States. Turkeys were virtually extirpated from Iowa by 1900; the last verified sighting was made in Lucas County in 1910.

Wild turkeys numbered in the millions nationwide when the first settlers landed at Plymouth Rock and provided a readily available source of food for the table and the market. Like much of our native wildlife, turkey populations were unable to withstand unregulated hunting pressures during European settlement. A combination of year around indiscriminate hunting of all ages and sexes, and clearing of forested habitats to create agricultural lands all led to the extirpation of wild turkey flocks from their historical range north of the Ohio River and from most areas in the South and East. By 1920, approximately 250,000 eastern wild turkeys remained in the United States, occupying just 12% of their former range. Only 8 states still had a turkey hunting season, most in the mountainous terrain of the southeastern United States. Turkeys were virtually extirpated from Iowa by 1900; the last verified sighting was made in Lucas County in 1910.

In the early 20th century, trends which lead to the demise of turkey flocks began to be reversed. Most states formed conservation agencies (counterparts to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources) and gave protection to vanishing wildlife. At the same time, unproductive farmlands were abandoned as industrial jobs in growing cities became more attractive. Purchase of state and national forests, reduction in cattle grazing on public forest lands, and wildlife management were factors which led to the development of new turkey habitats in regions where no turkeys existed to populate them.

Most states began turkey restoration programs in the 1920’s, first using pen-raised turkeys to produce large numbers of young birds which were released in the wild. These efforts were universally unsuccessful because pen-raised birds had lost their wary instincts which allowed truly wild turkeys to survive in their natural environment. In spite of expenditures of millions of dollars over several decades, no free-ranging turkey populations were produced. Pen-raised turkeys also carry domestic poultry diseases which can be transmitted to a variety of wild birds.

With the development of the rocket net trap in the 1950’s, the history of the wild turkey underwent a dramatic reversal. For the first time, large numbers of wild turkeys became available for transplanting to unoccupied habitats and turkey populations began the long road back from near extinction. By the early 1980’s, wild turkey numbers increased to 1.8 million birds in 47 states. Today, there are an estimated 7 million wild turkeys in all the states except Alaska, with over 3 million turkey hunters in the United States.

In Iowa, an aggressive restoration program using wild trapped turkeys from Missouri and Shimek State Forest (Lee County) and Stephens State Forest (Lucas County), resulted in transplanting 3,523 Eastern wild turkeys to 86 different counties at 260 sites between 1965 and 2001. Turkeys from southern Iowa were originally introduced from Missouri in the mid 1960’s. This restoration program was paid for by the Iowa sportsman through revenues from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and an excise tax on the sale of arms and ammunition. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) also aided Iowa in the restoration efforts.

Eastern turkeys adapted so well to habitat conditions in Iowa that by 1980 the DNR decided to start trading turkeys for other extirpated wildlife. From 1980-2001, 7,501 Iowa turkeys have been traded for 356 prairie chickens, 596 ruffed grouse, over 180 river otters, over 80 sharp-tailed grouse, and over 3.2 million dollars to purchase Iowa habitat with 11 states and 1 Canadian province.

Wild turkeys are primarily birds of the forest. The eastern subspecies found in Iowa and most of the United States east of the Missouri River thrives in mature oak-hickory forests native to this region. Turkeys primarily eat nuts, seeds and berries (collectively called mast) produced in greatest abundance in middle-aged to mature stands of oak trees. Turkeys are large, strong-walking birds capable of covering a range of 1-2 square miles in a day, searching for suitable food items by scratching in leaf litter. These “scratchings” – piles of leaves adjacent to a small plot of bare earth – are characteristic in good turkey habitat and indicate that turkeys have been feeding in the immediate area.

In winter, turkeys rely primarily on mast for food, although in Iowa and other agricultural states they are capable of substituting waste grain in harvested corn and soybean fields, where it is available adjacent to timber. When snow covers their native foods, or mast crops fail, corn fields supply an important supplemental food capable of carrying turkeys through winter stress periods in excellent condition. Turkeys are often seen in crop fields during the winter taking advantage of the waste grain in the fields in Iowa. Large flocks of turkeys observed in crop fields have raised concerns of crop depredation by agricultural producers. Wild turkeys are actually beneficial to crop fields, since they primarily consume insects out of fields during the spring and summer. To address these concerns, a crop depredation pamphlet was developed by the DNR. For more information on crops and wild turkeys, download the crop depredation pamphlet or stop in your local DNR wildlife office.

In spring and summer, a turkey’s diet switches to a wide variety of seeds, insects and green leafy material. Protein derived from insects is especially important to rapidly growing poults during their first weeks after hatching and to adults replacing feathers after their annual summer molt. Hayfields, restored native grasses, and moderately grazed pastures are excellent producers of insects and are heavily utilized by turkey broods where they are interspersed with suitable forest stands. These grassy areas also provide suitable nesting sites.

Turkeys roost at night in trees year around, except for hens sitting on a nest. Any tree larger than 4 inches in diameter at breast height may serve as a roost tree, but larger, mature trees are most often used. Eastern turkeys shift their roost sites almost daily, seldom using the same tree two nights in succession. Certain areas of their home range (area a turkey occupies throughout a season) may be used more heavily than other locations (e.g. a ridge of large trees near a feeding area or a stand of large evergreen trees during very cold weather).

In Iowa, the abundance of food and nesting areas in non-forested habitats (corn fields, pastures, hayfields, restored native grasses) has allowed turkeys to survive in areas where forests are limited. In traditional turkey range, minimum timber requirements of 10,000 continuous acres of mature forests are commonly thought to be necessary for wild turkeys. Research indicates that areas with a 50:50 ratio of forest with properly managed non-forested habitats is ideal turkey range, and a minimum of 1,000 acres of timber is ideal to allow a turkey population to thrive. Since the restoration of wild turkeys to Iowa, turkeys have been found in small 2-3 acre woodlots, much to surprise of wildlife managers.

The eastern wild turkey offers one of the most challenging hunting experiences available and appeals only to the most dedicated outdoorsmen. Wild turkeys have extremely keen senses of sight and hearing and are normally able to avoid human contact so successfully that hunters often do not detect their presence. The instincts for survival are most highly developed among adult gobblers, making them among the most sought after trophies in North America today.

Turkeys are hunted during two seasons – spring and fall – which are differentiated by styles of hunting and the primary quarry. Spring gobbler hunting is most widespread because shooting males has no impact on the future growth or dispersal of turkey populations, even at the new release sites. Turkeys are promiscuous, with only the largest, most dominant males obtaining harems of a dozen or more hens. Non-breeding males are thus available to hunters at no cost to the population. Even heavily hunted areas seldom sustain hunting losses of as many as 50% of the adult males. The principal spring hunting method is to locate toms gobbling from the roost at daylight and attempt to call them to the hunter by imitating the yelps, clucks, cackles and whines of a hen ready to mate. Hunters wear camouflage clothing and sit completely motionless for as long as several hours to escape detection by keen-eyes gobblers. Success rates for resident spring hunters is 20% (non-resident hunters 40%) due to the good turkey densities found in Iowa. Because 10% of the hens also have beards (the hair-like appendage hanging from a tom’s breast), any bearded turkey is legal game in the spring.

Fall turkey hunts usually are allowed only in states with well established turkey populations. In Iowa, turkey populations and a decrease in fall hunting demand, has allowed a 2 bird bag limit, until the quota is filled. More young poults are produced than survive the rigors of winter and escape from predators to reach the breeding season, thus allowing limited fall hunting before much of this natural mortality takes place. The most common fall hunting technique is to locate a flock of turkeys, scatter them as widely as possible, and call back broods by imitating the assembly yelps and clucks of the adult hen or kee-kee of lost poults. Gobblers are not particularly interested in finding hens in the fall, making them extremely difficult to call and shoot. Inexperienced young turkeys return readily to the hen and commonly make up 60% or more of fall harvests. Fall hunters also use complete camouflage.

Because of their dependence on variable mast production for food in areas where large tracts provide typical turkey habitat, good populations normally average about 10 turkeys per square mile of forest over much of eastern turkey range. In agricultural states like Iowa, the presence of abundant food contributes to densities at least twice this great, and may reach 20-30 turkeys per square mile in the best habitats.

Turkeys breed only in the spring. Hens join harems attached to a dominant gobbler, but may breed with any available male. Nests are poorly formed bowls completely on the ground and contain 6-18 eggs (average 11 per clutch). Hens of all ages attempt to nest , but yearling hens are seldom successful and 80% of the poults will be produced by 2 year old or older hens. Nests have been found in most habitat types from dense forest, brush, grown up pastures, fence lines, to alfalfa fields.

Hens incubate 28 days before the eggs hatch. Typically 30-60% of hens will attempt renesting after losing a clutch to cold, wet weather or predators, with about 40-60% of the adult hens will eventually hatch a clutch. Hens do all the brood rearing, and life is precarious for newly hatched poults with over half dying in the first 4 weeks. Of the poults surviving to fall, 35% of the young hens will be lost to predators, primarily coyotes. Few young or adult turkeys are lost during the winter in most of Iowa, but starvation may occur where deep snows for a prolonged period keep flocks from moving to food sources. Spring is a major mortality period for both sexes, many hens are lost to predators after winter flocks break up and breeding activities begin, and toms fall prey primarily to hunters. Annual survival rates average 57% for females and 35% for males.

Iowa's forested habitat totals 2.1 million acres (30% of pre-settlement acreage, up from 1.6 million acres in 1974) and are separated into 4 reasonably well defined regions – unglaciated northeast Iowa’s deep river valleys and steep, high ridges; southern Iowa’s rolling hills; western Iowa’s narrow belt of sharp, loess hills running along the southern two-thirds of the state, and several isolated river drainages in north and east-central Iowa (Little Sioux, Raccoon, Des Moines, Skunk, Iowa, Cedar, Wapsipinicon, and Maquoketa Rivers). Restorations by the DNR have returned wild turkeys to about 95% of suitable habitat in the state. All the major river corridors in Iowa support turkey populations, and small pockets of wild turkeys exist sporadically throughout the state in small woodlots.

How old is my turkey?
To differentiate between adults and juveniles, examine the tip of the last 1 or 2 primary (large) wing feathers. Adults have rounded tips with white barring extending all the way to the tip. Juveniles have narrow pointed feathers with no white bars on the last 2 inches. In addition, the tail fan on an adult has a regular contour of tail feathers, while a juvenile has an irregular contour.

To further estimate the age of your (male) turkey, examine the spurs on the leg and the turkey’s beard. Generally, 1 year-old turkeys have a spur length of 1/2” or less and a beard length of 2-5”; 2 year-old turkeys have spurs between 1/2” and 7/8” and a beard between 6” and 9” in length; 3 year-old turkeys have spurs between 7/8” and 1” and beards over 10” in length; turkeys 4 years-old and greater have spurs greater than 1” and beards over 10” in length.

What sex is my turkey?
Males have black tipped breast feathers, beards and leg spurs, although spur length varies with age. Female turkeys have buff-tipped breast feathers and no leg spurs. Females may have a small beard present, but it not typical.

Measuring Beards
Beards must be measured from the center of the beard (where beard is attached to the skin) to the longest portion of the beard tip. Pull the beard straight out when measuring and measure to the longest beard strand.

Measuring Spurs
Measure each spur in inches and report the longer of the two measurements. Spurs must be measured along the bottom curve, from where the spur protrudes from the leg to the tip of the spur. A flexible tape provides the most accurate measurement.

Scoring Your Wild Turkey
Information on measuring spurs, beards and scoring your turkey and entering your turkey into the record books can be found on the National Wild Turkey Federation's site under " How to Score Your Wild Turkey."

Hunters may determine their drawing status online. Please do not call the DNR as your drawing status will not be provided over the phone. To look up your drawing status information, you must now go to the online purchasing site. After logging in, please click on the ‘View Application Status’ option on the right side of the page. For more information regarding Season Dates/Info, Application Dates, License Fee and Requirements, Application Instructions, Group Info, Landowner Info, Zones, etc please take a moment to view our Nonresident Turkey Application Guide.

If any license quota has not been filled, the excess licenses will be sold online or through the telephone ordering system, until the quotas are filled or the last day of the respective season, whichever comes first.

What are the season dates?
Currently we have one youth season (9 days prior to season 1) and four regular seasons which are 4, 5, 7, and 19 days in length (35 days total). The first season always begins on the Monday closest to April 15. For current season dates please review the Hunting and Trapping Regulations.

How do I obtain a permit?
Iowa residents can purchase licenses through license vendors or through the telephone ordering system (800-367-1188) or the online ordering system. Nonresidents may apply online or call 800-367-1188.

How much does a permit cost?
Resident permits cost $24.50 and nonresident permits cost $102.00. Note: A $13.00 habitat stamp fee and a general small game hunting license is also required for both residents and nonresidents. General small game hunting licenses are $19.00 for residents and $112.00 for nonresidents respectively.

How many permits can I get?
Residents may purchase up to 2 permits (one permit for the youth season for those under 16, or season 1, 2, or 3; and a second permit for season 4). Both permits may also be purchased during season 4. Nonresidents may purchase one permit for any of the four seasons, but not during the youth season. For more information please review the Hunting and Trapping Regulations.

Are decoys legal?
Yes, commercial decoys are legal, however, live decoys are not legal.

What are the restrictions on weapons and shot size?
The only legal firearms for turkey hunting are: shotguns and muzzleloader shotguns not smaller than 20-gauge. Permitted shot sizes are: No. 4, 5, 6, 7 1/2 or 8 in lead, or non-toxic shot in sizes 2 through 8. Lead shot larger than No. 4 and non-toxic shot larger than No. 2 is illegal to possess while turkey hunting.

In addition to firearms, archery equipment including longbows, recurves and compound bows can be used to hunt wild turkeys in Iowa. Arrows must be at least 18 inches long and must be tipped with broadheads, or with bluntheads with a minimum diameter of 9/16 of an inch.

What is a legal bird?
Only male or bearded turkeys are legal in the spring season.

Can I call for someone else?
A resident hunter having a valid license for one of the spring turkey seasons may accompany, call for or otherwise assist anyone having a valid turkey license for any of the seasons. A nonresident may assist other hunters only in the zone and season indicated on their license. The person helping can not shoot a turkey or carry a bow or firearm unless they have a valid license and unused transportation tag for the current season. No one may shoot a turkey for someone else, or tag a turkey shot by someone else.

Why do I need a transportation tag for a turkey?
You must apply a transportation tag to the leg within 15 minutes of harvest, or before the turkey is moved, in such a way that the tag is visible and cannot be removed without being mutilated or destroyed. The transportation tag must bear the license number of the hunter, year of issuance and date of harvest. The tag shall be the hunter’s proof of possession of the turkey. The harvest report tag, with the confirmation number properly recorded, must be attached to the leg of the turkey after reporting the harvest and before the turkey is processed.

How do I register a turkey in the record books?
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources no longer registers trophy wild turkeys. However, the National Wild Turkey Federation invites you to register your turkey through their official wild turkey records program. Entry rules and an application can be obtained by visiting NWTF Wild Turkey Records site, writing the National Wild Turkey Federation, P.O. Box 530, Edgefield, SC, 29824-0530 or by calling (803) 637-3106.


Help us Count Wild Turkeys this July and August!
Each summer the Iowa DNR asks for volunteers to participate in the July-August Wild Turkey Survey.  It is a simple process: as you work and play in Iowa this July and August keep an eye out for wild turkeys.  If you see one, determine if it is an adult female or adult male (males have beards on their breast), and whether there are young poults (baby turkeys).  Count the number of young, make a note of the date and the county in which you saw the turkey(s) and then report your sighting to the Wildlife Bureau.




Information on annual variations in turkey productivity is needed to evaluate the status of turkey populations in various regions of the state. Because few reliable wild turkey census techniques have been developed, hunter success rates, turkey harvest levels, and age ratios of harvested birds are the best available indicators of relative turkey populations between hunting zones. Research has found significant correlations between both August poult:hen ratios, percent juveniles in the harvest, and total gobbler harvests in the subsequent spring, suggesting that an index to productivity would be useful in establishing hunting regulations. Compared to the more formalized census procedures used for more visible wildlife species, indices to eastern wild turkey productivity are generally based on random observations of broods.

Methods:
A list of cooperators has been established from Iowa DNR personnel and rural residents living in selected portions of Iowa containing established turkey populations. All rural residents living in designated survey areas are sent a form to be returned if they are willing to participate in the survey. Each cooperator is sent return-addressed postcards which are to completed and returned based on turkey broods sighted between 1 July and 31 August. Productivity indices are constructed from these returns.

2013 Turkey Brood Survey

We welcome anyone interested in future help with the survey, and thank all those who have helped in the past. We hope you will all continue to help monitor turkeys throughout Iowa. This information is crucial to successful turkey management in Iowa, and could not be accomplished without all of your help. We very much appreciate your continued cooperation and support.


For more information regarding wild turkey information, hunting seasons and zones in your area, contact your local wildlife biologist, conservation officer or call the Iowa DNR call center at 515-725-8200.

Safe Turkey Hunting

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Hunting Atlas
Hunting Atlas

The Hunting Atlas is an interactive map that features more than 600,000 acres of public hunting land that is owned by the state, county or federal governments.

Hunting Atlas


Turkey Hunting Seasons
2016-17 Fall Turkey Seasons
Gun/Bow Oct 10 - Dec 2
Archery Only Oct 1 - Dec 2
Dec 19 - Jan 10
2017 Spring Turkey Seasons
Youth 
(Gun/Bow)
Apr 8 - 16
Season 1 
(Gun/Bow)
Apr 17 - 20
Season 2 
(Gun/Bow)
Apr 21 - 25
Season 3 
(Gun/Bow)
Apr 26 - May 2
Season 4 
(Gun/Bow)
May 3 - 21
Resident Archery Apr 17 - May 21

Successful Hunters:
Report your turkey harvest online or by calling 1-800-771-4692