Episode 3: Mike Chamberlain, Wild Turkey Expert

The “Wild Turkey Doc,” a University of Georgia wildlife biologist, is one of the world’s top turkey researchers and an avid hunter. He has more than a few thoughts on how to conserve this incredible bird

A man sits with a turkey

Photo: Matt Addington

Chamberlain with a turkey.

About Episode 3:

Dave and Eddie talk with wild turkey biologist Mike Chamberlain about threats to the birds’ populations and the ways regulators, conservationists, and sportsmen and sportswomen are working to keep their numbers healthy. They also discuss ethical quandaries they and others face as turkey hunters. The episode is an edited version of a conversation held before a live audience at the G&G offices as part of the 2023 Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. The Wild South is presented in partnership with Duck Camp.

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Sites mentioned in Episode 3:

Chamberlain’s Instagram: @wildturkeydoc

Chamberlain’s website: Wild Turkey Lab

Wild Turkey Lab on YouTube: @wildturkeylab

Wild Turkey Lab on Instagram: @wildturkeylab

Chamberlain’s Foundation:  The Austin Hunter Chamberlain Memorial Foundation

Youtube videos featuring Chamberlain:

Inside the Mind of the Wild Turkey Doc

NWTF: Cocktails and Conservation

Mentioned organizations/sites:

National Wild Turkey Federation

Southeastern Wildlife Exposition

Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources

Pittman-Robertson Act

Natural Resource Conservation Service

Woodhaven Custom Calls

Tom Kelly, Inc.

Primos Hunting

photo: Matt Addington
A tom in full strut.

Transcript of Episode 3:

Mike Chamberlain (00:00): 

I’m the first to admit if I’ve gone to the same place year after year and I’ve taken two birds or three birds, or whatever it is, do I want to just suddenly take one? The turkey hunter in me says no. And then the scientist and the passionate person that loves this bird says, yeah, why do you need more than that? Take that bird and go home. 

Dave DiBenedetto (00:33): 

Welcome to the Wild South Podcast. I’m Dave DiBenedetto, editor-in-chief of of Garden and Gun Magazine. 

Eddie Nickens (00:40): 

I’m Eddie Nickens, contributing editor for Garden and Gun. 

Dave DiBenedetto (00:43): 

Together, we are talking with the most interesting outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen in the South and beyond. 

Eddie Nickens (00:51): 

Quail hunters and duck hunters, trout anglers and redfish fanatics, musicians, scientists, writers, wild game cooks, and frankly, a few wildcats we dig up along the way. 

Dave DiBenedetto (01:02): 

We’re talking to legends and legends in the making. 

Eddie Nickens (01:05): 

All with unforgettable stories of life way beyond the sidewalk. Man, I am stoked about today’s conversation. Dave, we got Dr. Mike Chamberlain in the house. If you’re a serious turkey hunter man, you know, you know this guy’s name and you know, I’m not gonna tell too much about his bio ’cause you’re gonna, you’re gonna tee him up here in just a moment because this is a special edition of the Wild South Podcast coming at you for no additional cost. We actually taped this, Dave and I did, in Charleston at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE), where Garden & Gun has a presence there. David and I typically interview a conservation person of note, Chamberlain certainly fit that bill and, man, what a chat we had. 

Dave DiBenedetto (01:52): 

Yeah, and before you go on, if listeners aren’t familiar with it, SEWE is an amazing event down here, three day event that celebrates wildlife art, sporting art, and artists, and generally the sporting lifestyle. I mean, it brings 30,000 plus people into town. And as you mentioned, we’ve been doing these conversations at the Garden and Gun headquarters for I think about 10 years now and we bring in about a hundred or so people. Certainly when Eddie’s around, we pack the house and we try to have some fun. And in typical G&G style, there’s always bourbon to be had while these talks are going on. 

Eddie Nickens (02:31): 

And look, Mike Chamberlain, he’s a recognizable figure. He’s a scientist, he’s a hunter, he’s an advocate. I mean, he’s up there with, with noted turkey luminaries like Tom Kelly and Will Primos and frankly our own David DiBenedetto. You know, I mean, he’s one of the finest turkey hunters in the South. 

Dave DiBenedetto (02:51): 

Finest but least successful. Anyway, hey, speaking of luminaries, Mike mentions Wayne Bailey during the talk, and I think it’d be good for listeners to also just get a tiny bit of background on Wayne so they know where Mike’s coming from. Do you mind? 

Eddie Nickens (03:05): 

Yeah, that’s a good point. R. Wayne Bailey, he’s passed away, he was one of the very, very first wild turkey biologist in the South. He’s credited with developing and pioneering many of the trap and transplant methods of capturing turkeys, moving them to areas that didn’t have turkeys and letting ’em go. I mean, this is what led the great restoration of wild turkeys. So he’s not a critical part of Mike’s conversation, but it’s helpful to know that when he talks about Wayne Bailey, this is one of the scientists whose shoulders Chamberlain and everyone else stands on. And he was an amazing guy. 

Dave DiBenedetto (03:43): 

And I mean, think about it, if you’re a Southerner and you’re hunting turkeys every time one gobbles, there should be a little nod to Wayne Bailey. But like you said, Mike Chamberlain is who we are talking to, and there’s nobody that the turkey world wants to hear from more now, and he’s a Georgia boy. So let’s get to the show. Alright, we are here because Mike Chamberlain, Dr. Mike Chamberlain. I’m gonna run through his bio and then we’re gonna get into some fun talk. Dr. Mike Chamberlain is the Terrell Distinguished Professor of Wildlife and Ecology and Management at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia. He has conducted research on wild turkeys for the past 30 years during his time at UGA, LSU, and Mississippi State University. Mike is extremely passionate about spreading the word on turkey conservation and the plight of wild turkeys today. I know that’s why a lot of you are here to hear about that plight and what’s going on with wild turkeys. His website,, he curates and shares a massive database on wild turkey research. He’s got a huge social media presence, which I mean, you don’t really say that often about a professor of wildlife science. He’s known as the “Wild Turkey Doc”, and he’s written a mind-boggling array of Turkey Tuesday blog post about everything from the, am I saying this right, caruncles? 

Mike Chamberlain (05:19): 


Dave DiBenedetto (05:20): 

Caruncles on a turkey’s head and why they change colors, to what the heck a caruncle is in the first place, and how landowners can manage their properties for these birds. So the man knows turkeys, my cell phone’s been pinging for a week. Like, oh man, I didn’t realize you had Mike Chamberlain. Can we get in? Can you get me in? I’m like, we haven’t talked since kindergarten. So anyway, we are delighted. 

Mike Chamberlain (05:43): 

Thank you, Dave. 

Dave DiBenedetto (05:45): 

Alright, let’s get into it. Let’s lay some groundwork though, Mike, in terms of wild turkeys, right? We know primeval times around the South, turkeys were abundant, right? And then we get into the forties, fifties, I’ve seen numbers that say they were reduced from 90% of their range. Take us through the timeline of recovery there. 

Mike Chamberlain (06:10): 

Yeah, so basically what happened was in the late 1930s when you started seeing legislation passed that was wildlife friendly Pittman-Robertson Act, and some of these other pieces of legislation, you started seeing people like Wayne Bailey that were employed as agency biologists, took the onus to start trapping wild birds and translocating them to other parts of the, where they had been, right? And they were extirpated and releasing those birds into unoccupied habitats. And at the same time, there was a lot of game farm releases occurring, which were total failure. And that trap and transport took hold. And it was because of people like Wayne Bailey, who moved these birds from spot to spot, put them out in vacant habitat, and their populations exploded. And it took about 50 years for that to happen, for the target 2000, which was basically the let’s restore this bird to all of its former range by the year 2000, that was a target that many agencies set, and they achieved that. 

Dave DiBenedetto (07:18): 

How quickly before 2000 did they achieve that? 

Mike Chamberlain (07:21): 

To be honest with you, it was in the mid 1990s, ’cause NWTF and, and some of the state agencies had actually gotten cooperative agreements with some of the Canadian provinces to release birds into Canada in areas where they had never naturally occurred. So it was actually ended up being beyond target 2000, yeah. 

Eddie Nickens (07:43): 

With the trap and transplant. How many turkeys are we talking about? 

Mike Chamberlain (07:45): 

Tens of thousands. 

Eddie Nickens (07:47): 

Tens of thousands. 

Mike Chamberlain (07:48): 


Eddie Nickens (07:48): 

Who paid for all this? 

Mike Chamberlain (07:49): 

State agencies? Hunters have footed the bill for the restoration of this bird from the start. I mean, it’s people like me and many people sitting here that are willing to buy licenses and support their state agencies. And those monies are the economic engine that made this happen. If you look at some of the stories of restoration, it’s actually bizarre. They released turkeys out of planes. 

Dave DiBenedetto (08:12): 


Eddie Nickens (08:15): 

Out of planes? 

Mike Chamberlain (08:16): 

Out of planes. In fact, 

Eddie Nickens (08:17): 

Little, little parachute backpacks? 

Mike Chamberlain (08:19): 

No, no. They literally opened the back of the plane and threw the bird out. In fact, as part of the social media stuff that I’m doing, I’m archiving historical information about the bird that’s sitting in a museum right now in boxes. And I actually found some photographs of birds being punted out the back of planes. And it was in South Carolina as a matter of fact. 

Dave DiBenedetto (08:46): 

Not surprising. 

Mike Chamberlain (08:48): 


Eddie Nickens (08:51): 

You know, we got to this target level right in the Southeast and across the country where there were as many turkeys and in many areas more than there had ever been. 

Mike Chamberlain (09:01): 


Eddie Nickens (09:01): 

How long did the good times last? And as just about everybody in this room knows we’re facing a time of some very concerning turkey decline. So give us a sense of regionwide, what that decline looks like in the South. 

Mike Chamberlain (09:18): 

So basically we kind of took our foot off the pedal around 1995, ’96, ’97. And what I mean by that is turkey populations had exploded, and we thought everything was great, and unfortunately, people like me were not really paying attention because the data that were being collected across states was already showing a decline. In other words, we had reached apex levels, historical highs, and as soon as those populations reached that high, they started declining right under our noses. And it was actually 2008 that myself and several other agency biologists were standing in a room and had a conversation about the data that we were looking at across all of the southern states. And it was showing very clear declines in the number of young birds that we were producing. 

Dave DiBenedetto (10:13): 

I mean, how’s that recorded? 

Mike Chamberlain (10:14):

Yeah. So that, you may participate in some of this. So many states will do poult per hen ratio counts. They’ll ask participating hunters or observers to record how many birds you see in the summer, and then they’ll ask you how many males, how many females, and how many poults that you see. And what the data clearly showed was from, in many states, South Carolina being one, from around say 2000 to 2010, 2011, there were dramatic declines in productivity. In other words, the number of hens observed that didn’t have any babies was much, much higher than it had been. And now you fast forward now to 2024 and those declines have continued annually. 

Dave DiBenedetto (11:02): 

I mean, the graph, just so everybody knows out here, I mean, it’s going down. 

Mike Chamberlain (11:05): 

Well, no, I mean, you see these upticks. 

Dave DiBenedetto (11:09): 

Oh, okay. 

Mike Chamberlain (11:09): 

But people like me, I try not to look at what happens this year. 

Dave DiBenedetto (11:13): 


Mike Chamberlain (11:14): 

I wanna know what’s happened since 2000 to now. 

Dave DiBenedetto (11:17): 

Right, right. 

Mike Chamberlain (11:18): 

The trend is what matters. 

Dave DiBenedetto (11:19): 


Mike Chamberlain (11:20): 

When I’m trying to predict out where are we going to be 10 years or 20 years from now, the trend is telling that year to year variation is not. 

Dave DiBenedetto (11:28): 

So you and I have spoken before, you know, I asked, of course, being the annoying journalist. So what’s the cause? And you said this is kind of like pointing to the wide receiver on a football team when the team loses and saying that’s the cause. 

Mike Chamberlain (11:41): 

That’s right. 

Dave DiBenedetto (11:42): 

It’s not that simple. Right? 

Mike Chamberlain (11:44): 

I use the analogy, turkey populations every year function like a football game. Imagine a, you know, a 16 game season, each game is a year. Let’s just, so let’s just say it’s a 16 year time period. In any given year, there’s always positions on the field that influence the outcome. The offensive line, the quarterback, the defensive line that in one county in South Carolina, there may be three or four positions on the field that most influence the outcome that year. And then next year, another position rears its head. Maybe there’s a lot of disease and virus issues we don’t understand in turkeys. When you go through time, you realize there are key positions on the field that are always driving what’s happening. But there’s a lot of year to year variation and there’s a lot of variation from where you live, to where you live and that creates a lot of complexity for agencies because we’re trying to manage this bird on literally at a regional scale, but certainly a statewide scale. And when you recognize all of this complexity it creates challenges. And that’s why I have a job, is to try to provide answers to what is the complexity and can we solve it. 

Eddie Nickens (13:02): 

So we know the causations for the turkey decline are interrelated. We’re gonna just fire off a few ideas that we’ve heard, that you’ve all heard about things that are causing that. So we want, sort of respond to this as whether it’s a real problem. And if so, how much of a problem is it? Habitat destruction, just outright development issues, forest and fields vanishing from landscape,

 Mike Chamberlain (13:26): 

Huge. Primary driver of the declines are loss and degradation of habitat. Without question. 

Dave DiBenedetto (13:35): 

I know they’re a bird that can adjust to so many sort of situations. But in your mind, what is that optimal habitat? 

Mike Chamberlain (13:42): 

For turkeys they have to be able to see? 

Dave DiBenedetto (13:43):


Mike Chamberlain (13:44):

So, you know, imagine the average hand weighs 10 pounds in South Carolina, and she stands about this tall. So her entire life, except for when she’s sleeping at night in a tree, is right here. And if she can’t see over the vegetation she’s walking through, then it benefits things that eat her rather than her. 

Dave DiBenedetto (14:06): 


photo: Matt Addington
Chamberlain in the field.

Mike Chamberlain (14:07): 

So vision is absolutely critical. All you have to do is drive around the southeastern United States right now and look out your window. And if you can’t see through the force, they can’t either. Now, will they use it? Yes. Do they survive? Not as well. Do they produce as many poults? No. Number two is hardwoods. Turkeys are inextricably linked to hardwood forest in the South. And what’s happened to our hardwood forest over the past two decades, they’re being cut. They’re being converted to softwood plantation. And collectively that’s removing a key habitat for turkeys because acorns most influence body condition right now. In the bird world, I would love to be in this world, being fat is great, so fat girls, fat hens are more fit. And if they’re fatter, if they’re breast sponge, you’ve kill turkeys and you get toms in the spring and they don’t have that breast sponge anymore because they’ve been acting like a fool for weeks. But if you catch a hen right now and you start pushing on their breast, you can feel a layer of fat and that’s good. And if they don’t have abundant acorns and they have to burn a lot of energy to intake fat, they don’t go into the nesting season as fit. And that’s a problem. 

Dave DiBenedetto (15:33): 

Lack of fire on the landscape. 

Mike Chamberlain (15:34): 

Huge in the Southeast. Pine forest that are not managed with fire, are not quality turkey habitat. So reductions in fire and suppression of fire, the smoky bear mentality has done as much to detriment turkey habitat as anything else in the Southeast. 

Eddie Nickens (15:54): 

And you know what, why don’t you fire off? What else is imperiled by that? ‘Cause it’s not just wild turkeys. 

Mike Chamberlain (15:59): 

Oh, I mean every species that lives in early successional habitat that’s stimulated by disturbance, which is a suite of species, many of which are in global decline, all benefit from that disturbance, including white-tailed deer and species that many of us are interested in. But if you go and look at the decline in shrubland and grassland birds globally, there’s a direct link to fire. We’re just not disturbing pine forest in the way that we should as a society. 

Eddie Nickens (16:30): 

The other thing we hear about a lot is predators. Whether that’s coyotes that were non-native to the Southeast. 

Dave DiBenedetto (16:38): 


Eddie Nickens (16:38): 


Mike Chamberlain (16:39): 

So yes, predation is part of the problem. I would say that turkeys are dealing with predator communities now they’re at apex levels. Species that kill adults, coyotes, bobcats, great horned owls, hawks are at historic levels. Some of that because of legal protection, some of that simply because there’s no fur market, there’s no effort on the landscape to trap these animals. One of the reasons that wild turkeys are so incredibly wary is because they’ve been dealing with predation forever. But yes, we do see predation rates that are a bit higher than they were historically. And I would say, I kinda look at predation as being conflated with habitat. All things being equal, if we manage habitat, they can make it work. I was asked this question yesterday, and if you own a drip torch, just recognize this. There has been a wide body of research and some of which I did it, and published it, showing that coyotes, bobcats, they don’t like prescribed fire. Raccoons will completely avoid areas the year that you burn it. And the reason is, is you create habitat that things can escape from them. And when you do that, they go somewhere else to look for an easier dinner plate. So the conversation I had yesterday is even if you don’t think about managing your property for turkeys or deer, whatever it is, think about it from a predation standpoint. What could I do to benefit one species and detriment the other? And fire is one of those that many mammalian predators are going to avoid areas that are actively burned. 

Eddie Nickens (18:28): 

Society, and this is my opinion, an English major’s opinion, society is never gonna support a broad scale anti raptor, much less anti, right, whatever. And so what are you left with with the predator issues by and large, and I guess it’s the habitat. 

Mike Chamberlain (18:45): 

I mean, the habitat is your number one tool in the toolkit. Yeah, you know, I can remember as a child visiting my family’s tobacco farm and there was a foothold trap on every fence post. 

Dave DiBenedetto (18:56): 

Well, you know, I’ve had discussions like this with friends. I mean, you talk about the sixties, seventies, you know, there was a 410 by the screen door. 

Mike Chamberlain (19:04):


Dave DiBenedetto (19:04):

And if a hawk came down towards the chicken coop, grandma was taking a swing at it. So I know people come up to you and say, but the turkeys on my place, we got tons of ’em. I mean how do you explain it to ’em? 

Mike Chamberlain (19:17): 

Well, without being rude. 

Dave DiBenedetto (19:19):


Mike Chamberlain (19:20):

I usually just say I’m glad that you have turkeys on your place, but I don’t think about turkeys on your place. 

Dave DiBenedetto (19:28): 


Mike Chamberlain (19:29): 

I’m thinking about turkeys at a scale that covers the entire species range. 

Dave DiBenedetto (19:34): 


Mike Chamberlain (19:34): 

And yeah, if you’re doing well, great, but most people in your region are not. 

Dave DiBenedetto (19:40): 


Eddie Nickens (19:41): 

So there’s another way to deal with this. And that’s the regulatory frameworks. And a lot of people in this room are dealing with that, states are changing, opening days for seasons, bag limits for seasons, trying to tweak how humans interact with these creatures and maybe mitigating some of our effects. So talk to us about the science behind that kind of thinking and where we’re moving in terms of sort of hunter impacts and what individual hunters can do. You know, you and I have talked about this before. I remember in the eighties when duck populations were so, so low, there was a push to like, shoot drakes only, you know, you got a little patch if you agreed to only shoot drakes. Are we, are we moving towards something like that with hunters? But kind of set that framework of seasons and regulations. ‘Cause things are, I mean, South Carolina is one of ’em there, you know, they’re really thinking about some significant changes. 

Mike Chamberlain (20:36): 

Yes. This is a contentious topic because I don’t wanna change my behavior. I don’t, I don’t wanna hunt less. That being said, agencies only have one lever that they can trip at the scale at which they manage the bird and that’s harvest. And I’m not defending state agencies, I’m just telling you the reality of the world they work in. They only have that lever. They can’t control habitat at a statewide scale. They can’t change predator communities. They, and I hear it all the time, and I get it. Let’s do predator bounties, the agency, by God, you need to manage better. But the state agency only can, they only have auspice over their lands. And most turkeys live on private land. So unfortunately, if you’re a turkey hunter like me and you live for the next couple of months, the lever has been switched. And with these ongoing declines, you have agencies that are changing bag limits. And you may say, well, why would you change bag limits? Well, the science very clearly shows that if you don’t shoot a tom this year, he’s going to be there next year. This notion that they’re a doom surplus, that if you don’t shoot ’em something else will. That’s nonsense. We just published the largest study ever conducted on this topic just a couple weeks ago. The reason they’re moving seasons is because we’ve known for 45 years now that the time that you shoot these birds matters that early intensive harvest can disrupt breeding and potentially affect reproduction. How that works, we’re not exactly clear on, but there’s clear data showing it. So that’s why you see agencies like the agency here in South Carolina, they’re trying to open seasons a little bit later to allow birds to breed without being disrupted. And in so doing, they’re trying to get nesting started before we start taking toms out of the population. The other thing that agencies recognize, I was in a room with a bunch of state directors yesterday for several hours, it seemed like days, but it was a few hours. And one of the state agency directors who’s a close friend of mine, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for his opinions. You know, he said, look, if you’re a turkey hunter today, look at the tools available to you. You have incredible camouflage, incredible realistic decoys, pop-up blinds, cell cameras. I mean, a tom walks out on a food plot at four o’clock in the afternoon. You can be there at four fifteen. The way that we as turkey hunters I’m gonna say we as if I do all this too, I’m not casting any fingers. The way that we hunt and can hunt is so fundamentally different than it was even 10 years ago. That agencies are looking at what can we do? And what they can do is they can restrict our harvest. Is it going to get us out of the hole? No, not a chance. We’re not going to regulate ourselves out of where we are. We’re going to have to identify other ways to prioritize this bird and the other species that inhabit the same habitats to benefit the landscapes the bird lives on, or we’re going to continue to see populations lower than where we want ’em. 

Dave DiBenedetto (24:07): 

Right. So this was a question, jumping ahead that I wanted to ask. And this is a hot button issue, but fanning, you know, I’m not saying it shouldn’t be allowed or full strut decoys, you know, do we need to pull back on the technology? I mean, you know, I talked to somebody yesterday deep into this and they were saying in their mind, when you’re holding up a fan, which is when you go into the woods and you’re using an actual turkey fan to attract another wild gobbler, it increases the success rate by 70%. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but TSS shot, I mean, you know, you can shoot a turkey now from 85 yards. Like, have we gotten ahead of ourselves, I guess? 

Mike Chamberlain (24:49): 

Well, I mean, we’ve gone down a predictable path. When you have people that are passionate about doing something and you have an industry built around that multi-billion dollar industry, it’s predictable. And unfortunately, to your question about decoys and fanning, we don’t have any data to tell us what effect those tools have. Answering those questions is extremely difficult experimentally. And so we’re left in the dark. And at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if you’re not killing a higher percentage of males and you’re not killing them earlier because of whatever tools you have, then from a harvest perspective it doesn’t, it’s irrelevant. What my fear is, is that we are influencing our harvest rates with all of the tools and because of that, you’re seeing that we’re taking a percentage of birds that’s not sustainable given how many we’re producing. And that’s what we ultimately need to figure out. And we’re almost there. I mean, I literally have a, well, he’s a faculty member now at UGA that has worked for me for years as a student and a postdoc. He’s a month, two months from having this predictive tool done to where you can plug in our productivity metrics and it’s going to tell you what percentage of toms you should be harvesting every year. And my suspicion, strong suspicion is it’s going to be lower than what we thought. 

Eddie Nickens (26:30): 

I want us to talk about hunter choices. What are the choices that hunters have in terms of how they approach this passion knowing that it’s a diminishing resource, there are things hunters can do. 

Mike Chamberlain (26:45): 

Yeah, I was talking to a gentleman before this started, and our conversation centered around the fact that he tries to identify how many birds he has on his property, toms, before the season so that he harvests an appropriate number. I asked him, I said, well, what do your neighbors do? Do your neighbors kill any of your birds? And he goes, oh, yeah. And so the conversation started, he was saying, well, I usually kill about a third, which is ironically what we’ve, and he’s standing at the back and he’s glaring at me. So I’m gonna be very careful about this. He’s very, and he’s very large, big dude, big dude and that was not a fat joke, by the way. So the conversation was, well, yeah, my neighbors killed some too. So, well, if you’re killing 30%, your neighbors are killing another one or two, then you’re up around 50% of what you had. We know that’s not sustainable. We haven’t made that many turkeys in 25 years. So one thing you can do is try to figure out what your population looks like, preseason, and show some restraint. Try to figure out what your neighbors are doing. And if you know that you have a neighborhood where harvest rates are high, then you have two choices. You can either just continue to behave the same way or you can behave differently regardless of what your neighbors are going to do. The other thing I would say is if you don’t have the ability to manage your property from a resource perspective or you don’t have the expertise, there are people out there that can help you. I just had a conversation with a chief of NRCS, Natural Resource Conservation Service about the millions, tens of millions of dollars sitting in that agency right now that’s available to cost share habitat improvements. It’s so simple, in fact, he’s going, I hope he’s going to agree to do several podcasts that will tell us how simple it really is. 

Dave DiBenedetto (28:49): 

So this gets to a final question. Let’s just say you’re lucky enough to have 350 to a thousand acres. You’re an avid turkey hunter. You’ve had birds on it for a long time. What’s the five year plan? 

Mike Chamberlain (29:03): 

So the five year plan for me is identify your strengths. First of all, figure out where your strengths are. In other words, maybe you, you are attracting birds in the winter because you have hardwoods, you have a lot of intact hardwoods. And so birds show up in the winter. Maybe you have open pastures or fields or areas that are providing brood cover. Maybe you have primarily pine, you do a lot of prescribed fire and you start seeing birds, you never have birds in the winter, and suddenly they show up in March. If that’s you, you’re sitting on breeding habitat and you’ve gotta keep maintaining it because they’re going to go back to those breeding areas year after year after year. So the first part of the five years, figure out where your strength is and then figure out where your weaknesses are. And if, whatever your weaknesses are, figure out where the closest spot is on the landscape around you, where you can address that weakness. 

Dave DiBenedetto (30:01): 

What would be an example of a weakness? 

Mike Chamberlain (30:03): 

This is the most common scenario I see in the Southeast. I go to a property client invites me out, I look at it and I go, you’ve got exceptional winter habitat, but you have no spring breeding habitat. And the scenario, and this may be you, you can nod if this is you, we got turkeys all over the place October, November, December, January, February, and then they’re gone. That means you don’t have breeding habitat. And actually this week I’m going to post about this, those birds aren’t far right. On average, those toms are only 1.2 miles away, but that’s far enough if you only have three or 400 acres. So yeah, I mean, try to figure out, you know, where your weaknesses are. The other scenario I see is the reverse of that. I don’t see any turkeys in the winter ever. And then suddenly they show up in March. If that’s you, please give me your card and I would be happy to come look at your property for free. Because that means your turkeys are showing up, they’re living somewhere else during the winter, and they’re dispersed. They’re moving outta their winter ranges and coming to you. And the reason they’re doing that is because they’ve been doing that for decades. And you need to do whatever you can to keep them coming there, because that’s breeding habitat. A tom uses about 2000 acres during the spring. Okay? 6%, six to 8% of that are these breeding places they go to all the time. So think about how small that is. That could literally be a group of hardwoods that are a roost and some strutting areas where hens are coming to him every day and he knows it. So he is going there every morning between seven thirty and nine thirty, and then he starts, he leaves and goes somewhere else. So imagine, I mean, you got 2000 acres and about 8%, let’s say, is this spot or these two spots that are critical to this bird. And if you’re seeing them in March and April, you have one of those spots. So you have to figure out where that spot is and do whatever it takes to maintain that spot in the vegetative community that it is at that time, if that makes sense. 

Dave DiBenedetto (32:14): 

Yeah, right. But so as a turkey hunter, maybe a greedy one. Am I saying, well, I also wanna hunt that spot. 

Mike Chamberlain (32:19): 


Dave DiBenedetto (32:19): 

Yeah. But you’re saying from a management perspective. 

Mike Chamberlain (32:22): 

From a habitat management perspective. Yeah, yeah. Try to figure out how to maintain that or sustain it three times. 

Dave DiBenedetto (32:27):

Got it. 

Mike Chamberlain (32:28): 


Dave DiBenedetto (32:29): 

Yep. Okay. So I’m just gonna interrupt here for a second. After we finished up with our questions for Mike, we had time for a couple of questions from the audience. And unfortunately those questions didn’t get recorded as well as Eddie and I did. So we’re gonna talk about a fellow that got up and had a, had a pretty sincere and honest question. Do you remember that first one, Eddie? 

Eddie Nickens (32:53): 

Yeah. This is the guy, he ranked wild turkeys as number four on the list of most important things in his life. Fortunately, his wife, his mom and the good Lord were one, two, and three. And I think his mother was nope, nope. It was his wife sitting right there. So, he was good with the strategy. I’d say. 

Dave DiBenedetto (33:12): 

Let’s hope you got that order right, but we’ll leave it at that. But anyway, this guy was worried about the number of turkeys he harvests. You know, he was essentially saying when he takes a turkey or fills his tag at home, he often travels outta state to get another, right? 

Eddie Nickens (33:30): 

Yeah. And he asked Mike if passionate turkey hunters like him were part of the problem. I mean, he literally, I was struck by what he said. He literally said, am I to blame? I think that shows a lot of selfawareness and Mike had some really good pointers for this guy and for that perspective, here’s what he said. 

photo: Matt Addington
Chamberlain with a turkey.

Mike Chamberlain (33:50): 

Yes, we are part of the problem. And I’m, I can look myself in the mirror and say that I’m as guilty as any, because my calendar for the next three months is nothing but me being gone chasing this bird. My wife has now decided she’s going to travel with me on some of these hunts, so I may not be going as much as I thought. Don’t interpret what I just said as hunters are part of the problem. Hunters are not part of the problem. I was a turkey hunter long before I was a scientist, and when I step away from this, which I will, I’ll still be hunting turkeys, God willing. So that’s why you’re seeing states limit non-residents. You’re starting to see states like Nebraska, Kansas, destination states, as we call ’em, places that, you know, I’ve been going to Nebraska and South Dakota for years. I love it. I look forward to it so much. And part of the reason is, is because I’m successful when I go out there, I can go out and in three days, fill my bird tag, all my tags, and in three days here I get my tail handed to me three days in a row, right? And so it’s, it’s very rewarding to be able to travel to these cool places and see birds. And with the explosion of social media, there’s so many people that are traveling to these destination states, you’re starting to see states that were never considered turkey hunting states, now being turkey hunting states. And what that does is it simply takes hunting pressure and harvest from one state and moves it somewhere else. That being said, as long as the regulations are appropriate and populations are productive, then what you’re going to see is agencies limit us from doing that. They’re, they’re going to try to cater to resident hunters in their own states, and they’re going to start limiting non-residents. And if you’re like me, just look out there this year. So Nebraska has now limited non-residents to two tags. You’re seeing Kansas actually started a permitting system this year where you have to apply to get drawn as a non-resident. You’re going to continue seeing that trend. You’re going to continue to see changes in non-resident regulations because of that, our zeal, our love to go and hunt this bird. 

Eddie Nickens (36:17): 

So what do you say to this fellow who cares about the resource, who does not wanna be that guy? 

Mike Chamberlain (36:23): 

I mean, I say, first of all, it’s kind of a loaded question, and you and I have talked about this from a moral standpoint. You know, I’m not going to impose my beliefs and my morals on you as long as you’re following the game laws. Who am I, you know, to judge what you’re doing? I will say that in my circle with some exceptions, but not many, as you can imagine there a lot of people in the turkey hunting community that are absolute goobers about it like I am. You know, we talk to each other a lot. We text string, we, where are you headed this spring? Where are you headed? I just booked a trip last night with a friend of mine that runs Woodhaven Game Calls because he has the same fanaticism as I do. What I’m seeing in a lot of those groups is, instead of applying for three tags because I can get them, we’ll go do one and move on, that type of thing. I’m not saying that’s what you should do. I’m just saying that I see a lot of that now that I didn’t a handful of years ago, including myself. And I’m the first to admit, if I’ve gone to the same place year after year and I’ve taken two birds or three birds or whatever it is, do I want to just suddenly take one? The turkey hunter in me says no, and then the scientist and the passionate person that loves this bird says, why do you need more than that? Take that bird and go home, type of thing. But again, I’m not telling you that’s how you should behave. That’s just where I’ve gone. 

Eddie Nickens (38:05): 

Mike took one last question before we wrapped up that day. 

Mike Chamberlain (38:08): 

So the question was, you know, how do you define a healthy habitat? You know, how many birds? There is no canned definition of that. What I generally look at is if I go look at a piece of property or multiple pieces of property and I’m seeing young turkeys, then you’re doing something, right? If you’re seeing production in your area, then you have the most critical limiting habitat factor that there is, and that’s brood habitat. Without exception, I travel all over the country looking at turkey habitat. We have plenty of nesting cover, turkeys will nest near anywhere, and they’ll make it work. What we don’t have is brood habitat. If you wanna know what brood habitat looks like, lay down on your stomach, and if you can see in front of you, so can they. The next thing you wanna do is roll over on your back and look to your left and right. And if you can see something that an animal that’s as big as this microphone tall could run and hide under, that’s check box number two. And then the last thing you wanna do is hop up on one knee. And if you can see over the vegetation sitting on one knee, so can mom, that’s what I see as being most limited. So if you’re seeing young turkeys, you’ve got something that looks like that on your property, then you need to figure out a way to sustain it. 

Eddie Nickens (39:29): 

And mom wants to see over that one knee. 

Mike Chamberlain (39:32): 

She has to see because what, and this is counterintuitive, but the poults run the ship. What turkeys do is they take their broods to spots and they let kids act like kids, and she just keeps ’em between the road ditches, right? But she lets them walk the path. So what she’s going to do, and if you watch brooding hens, they’re attentive all the time. And what she’s trying to do is kind of keep them within her eyesight and let them bug, let them do their thing, because they can’t pay attention to anything, and they’re idiots, right? But turkey poults work together. They flush insects to each other, and they disturb insects and other poults that are there see it. So they can’t be paying attention. They need to be able to eat because they, if they grow fast, their survival’s better. So yes, she has to be able to see, and if she doesn’t, she dies. 

Dave DiBenedetto (40:38): 

Man, I am glad I did not come into this world as a turkey poult, that sounds tough, but you know, Mike, he tells it like it is. And Eddie, when I was sitting there during that talk, I just kept thinking how lucky we are to have somebody like Mike Chamberlain on the forefront of the turkey population problem. 

Eddie Nickens (41:01): 

Yeah, you know, not just as a scientist, but I mean, he really cares about how hunters and landowners sort of intersect with this problem. He’s not sitting up in his ivory tower. And kudos to him for really being as solutions oriented as he is. You know, having said that, I was slightly ever so slightly disappointed that he never really discussed the small fleshy expressens that we all know is the caruncle. Or the snood. 

Dave DiBenedetto (41:32): 

The snood or the waddle? 

Eddie Nickens (41:34): 

The waddle. So much to say. 

Dave DiBenedetto (41:36): 

The caruncle, that’s the sexy part, right? 

Eddie Nickens (41:38): 

I mean, what hen doesn’t have it for a big old honking set of caruncles? 

Dave DiBenedetto (41:48): 

All right we are clearly done. The Wild South comes to you from Garden and Gun Magazine. This episode was produced and edited by Christine Fenessy, with music, by our longtime friends and terrific fishermen, Woody Platt and Bennett Sullivan. You can find us wherever you get your shows. 

Eddie Nickens (42:11): 

Yeah and leave us a review. I mean, for reals, we read these things. 

Dave DiBenedetto (42:15):

We’re readers. 

Eddie Nickens (42:16):

This is the most important thing in our life right now. 

Dave DiBenedetto (42:19): 

All right, from here in Charleston, I’m Dave DiBenedetto.

Eddie Nickens (42:23): 

And here in Raleigh, North Carolina, Eddie Nickens. We’ll see you next time on the Wild South.

Also see:

Feathered Friend: Mike Chamberlain

Declining Turkey Numbers Have Hunters and Biologists Worried

Video: G&G’s 2023 Champions of Conservation

Catching Up with Tom Kelly, the Poet Laureate of the Turkey Woods

Why Wild Turkeys Need Help

Wild South credits:

Producer and editor: Christine Fennessy
Music: Woody Platt and Bennett Sullivan
Artwork: Lars Leetaru
Transcripts editor: Katherine Jarvis