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Guest Blog

What’s happening to our turkeys?

Mon, April 07, 2014

daniels 2013 turkey

Thirteen-year-old Daniel Ryssman of Mt. Sterling harvested this 29-pound gobbler during the 2013 youth season. The bird had 1 1/2” spurs and a 12” beard.


It’s bad enough that our deer herd is in trouble due to poor IDNR management and viral diseases, but our turkey population is not far behind. Many of us would like to blame the rise in the predator population for fewer turkeys. Yes, raccoons, opossums and skunks raid nests and turkey pullets contend with hawks and owls…and now bobcats. These meat-eaters are definitely a part of the problem, but according to biologist, the increasing swarms of buffalo gnats may be the bigger culprit.

Also called the black fly, turkey gnat and bull gnat, this 5mm in length insect has a very short egg-to-adult cycle. It proliferates best around clean, running water. Though it’s generally black in color, it can also be gray, brown or shades of orange. They are most identifiable by their translucent wings, big eyes, eleven antennae, and humped back (thus “buffalo” gnat). This biting fly is more than well equipped to seek out and ambush prey.

And if you’ve heard that this little pest came to us from southern states and that warmer temperatures perpetuates its existence, you’d be only half right. The range of this nuisance gnat is continent in nature. It thrives well even in the artic. It has been around for centuries biting about any warm-blooded mammal. The female of the species is a blood-sucking vampire with teeth that can penetrate the thickness of human or cattle skin. A female buffalo gnat also thrives on nectar, which is almost sole source of the male’s food supply.

A female can lay up to 450 eggs, usually in flowing water; they cannot reproduce in ponds or stagnate pools. They either drop eggs from the air into water or lay them directly onto aquatic plants. When larvae hatch they fasten to vegetation or stones by way of a suction cup. Once hatched, larvae only require two weeks to develop into adults that fly away seeking hosts. The adult female lives and bites for only three weeks before laying eggs and repeating the cycle.

Though Illinoisans usually only notice one manic spring succession of this insect, they do exist to a lesser degree throughout summer and into fall. Gnat larvae can subsist through a tough winter quite well. It’s been discovered that some gnat larvae survives in 60 degrees below zero temperatures. Though the abdomen freezes solid and goes dormant at 25 degrees below zero, the head remains thawed even in super-sub-zero conditions as low as minus-60, therefore its ominous survival in the artic. Unlike fictional vampires, the buffalo gnat is a daylight-only creature, coming out at sunup to seek food—blood or nectar.

So the question you’re probably asking by now is “How does this tiny insect kill turkeys?” First, and foremost, swarms of these gnats drive hen turkeys off their nest, leaving eggs to rot instead of hatch. Though buffalo gnats prefer areas receiving sunlight, they will attack hens hiding in woodlots that are not yet canopied with the shade of leaf growth. Late nesting hens have less chance of being confronted with gnat mobs. Second, these insects can kill pullet turkeys, biting them severely and causing toxemia and blindness. Third, buffalo gnats carry viral diseases such as encephalitis which attacks a mammal’s brain. It’s a must that humans cover exposed skin with an insect spray during this gnat’s spring reign.

The next question you’re probably asking is “Why have these insects gotten so bad over the last decade?” Most of us had not even heard of buffalo gnats until the early 2000s. According to biologists and scientists there are two causes for the explosion of this bug, earth’s rising temperature and ever-changing practices in farming. Global trending toward warmer weather has definitely assisted the budding existence of many insects. Though this is partially the problem with buffalo gnats, the bigger contributor is agricultural tiling and ditch-building for field drainage.

Thousands—even millions—of agricultural acres that once held spongy earth, due to pooling, now have been tiled and dried out for more productive farming. The downside to this is that water runs into streams with more clarity than ever before, offering buffalo gnats ideal spawning conditions. The draining of the copious mini-wetlands of yesteryear keeps streams swollen longer into the spring, therefore creating a situation that ultimately helps a few wildlife species but hurts several others like turkey.

No one is faulting farming, mind you. It’s just that humans often better their own situations while hindering wildlife. When this happens, it’s the responsibility of Natural Resources departments of all states to counter wildlife deterioration through studies of any ongoing demise. These problems must be solved through environmental regulations, hunter permit allocation, and possibly through wildlife restocking programs.

Though it is possible to ebb the tide of buffalo gnats with insecticides near suspect streams bordering turkey nesting and roosting areas, it can only be done professionally and with major funding. None of this is likely to come soon from our IDNR that has no budget or ambitions to be proactive. If our state hunting, trapping and fishing fees, outdoor equipment taxes, and federal wildlife assistance does not start aiding Illinois wildlife soon, Prairie State kids will have no cause to put down their smart phones and go outside to enjoy The Great Outdoors. All the warning signs are prevalent! Hunters and nature lovers alike need to start organizing to be heard. We need to vote for politicians who are in favor of wildlife—those who walk the walk and not just talk the talk!


I never considered the fact that buffalo gnats were wiping out the turkeys where we hunt.  But it was brought to my attention in the past year.

We have 3 properties available to turkey hunt.  All three had abundant populations of birds 10 years ago.  Only one of those properties has since developed a robust population of gnats, and the population of turkeys has disappeared in the past 5 years.

The gnats on that property will sometimes make you want to put the gun in your own mouth and pull the trigger.  And 10 years ago we never saw a single gnat.  I never realized the correlation in the rise of the gnat population and the fall of the turkey population.  But now it makes perfect sense.

Seeing first hand how they will crawl into any orifice or nook and cranny they can get into, I can see how they could kill turkeys.  If they can get into your ear or nose….they will try and crawl straight to your brain it seems like.  And since they don’t shoo away like flies with the movement of your hand (requires physical contact usually) I can see how they could get in a turkeys nostrils or ears and cause some real damage.

Who would have thought that a couple of tiny bugs could do so much damage to our deer and turkeys?

Posted by bw on April 07

My son and I went out youth season, this is the first time in years i have not seen so much as a hen let alone to hear some gobbling, never heard a gobble cluck purr or putt both days and these places we hunt were loaded with Turkeys five years ago. Our state keeps falling farther and farther behind on quality hunting weather it’s Deer or Turkey. Very concerned that future generations of hunters won’t be the least bit interested if we don’t start taking care of the flocks and herds. Got a first season permit I will keep you posted on what I see. Sure can’t blame it on the wheather the conditions were perfect for Turkey hunting.

Posted by cuttnstrut on April 07

So let me get this straight…moving water is good for buffalo gnats, but bad for mosquitoes; however, stagnant water is bad for buffalo gnats, yet good for mosquitoes.

Sounds like we are damned either way!

Posted by mountain man on April 07

The turkeys have definitely taken a beating by us in Fulton county. Sure there are still turkeys, but not like 5 years ago. We would see turkey nearly ever time out in the field and sometimes groups of 30 or more. The last two years we were luck to see a few about every 4-6 times on stand during bow season. We have only taken a couple each year but the populations have dwindled dramatically. Although I have two tags this year I do not plan on taking any turkeys until they recover. I am worried about our youth and their opportunities in the years to come. My son will be going on his first hunt next year if there are any left that the flock can sustain. I think that the state should start limited these tags and managing them. There are to many guys with multiple tags in their pockets who won’t be willing to eat them like some of us.  Cold springs, predators, and gnats certainly have played a part in the destruction, but hunters can make a difference by limiting harvest. The DNR does not seem to be concerned about much these days including deer and turkey populations. I assume that if turkeys caused car accidents they would already be extinct!

Posted by JDBowhunter on April 07

The Northern Hemisphere has warmed an 1.5 degrees over the last 130 years, but temperatures have actually decreased over the last decade and it has been cooler. (Which is why global warming must now be referred to as climate change). Since the decline in the turkey population has apparently taken place in the last ten years, I think the reason could actually be cooler temperatures, not warmer temperatures, makes sense to me.

Posted by yellowstone on April 07

Great article Les.  You know I was hearing the last few years that it was the bobcats hurting our turkey poulation and I was believing that was our problem. I think you are spot on with gnats being a big part of the problem now that I think about it.  It is no secret that our turkey population is declining and we can’t expect DNR to realize it. Bottom line is our DNR doesn’t know how to recognize problems.  Permits need to be reduced just like the deer permits.  Folks it looks like it is up to us to manage our hunting land and spend the time to get your neighbors on board.

Posted by hunter4life on April 07

Took my son out for the youth hunt and never heard or saw a single turkey in 2days of hunting till 1pm….

Posted by WhitetailFreak on April 07

During he entire period of the decline time since the peak…. 1) The DNR went from 3 seasons to 5; 2) Increased the number of permits sold; 3)Never placed any restrictions on shooting hens in the fall; 4)Sold unlimited numbers of Fall archery permits (poke and hope permits)5) Used the new counties opening up to prop up the statewide numbers; 6)Never looked at the individual counties drop in harvest and saw the problem 7) Never looked at the hunter success rate drop and saw a problem 8) Even this year send out press releases that claim the population is “stable” 9) Blame any drops in harvest on “WIND RAIN COLD”- the only part they leave out is crops in the field.
Do you see any parallels between turkey and deer management in IL.?

DNR went 8 years without a Turkey Biologist, then put one in that was not a turkey specialist. He was in there for a couple of years until retirement and the best that he could come up with was “it’s a habitat problem”. News flash for him and a history lesson. My farm provided the trapping location of several hundred of the turkeys that were used to stock new counties in IL. in the 70’s and early 80’s. The habitat has only improved and in fact is listed on the USDA National Timber Registry. It is not a habitat problem, it is a population recruitment problem. I will point out that back when I had the winter flocks of over 175 birds, bobcats were present on the property, and are still present so I am very hesitant to blame long term or widespread declines o the bobcats.

Gnats are a big problem on the nesting hens. Coons, possums, and skunks (egg eaters all) destroy the nests. I can trap them down, and hunt them during the season, but by the time nesting occurs, the farm is re-stocked from the surrounding outfitters lands. Even the toms are under so much pressure from all of the hunters chasing them around, that I believe that in some areas, hens go without breeding. Last year I watched and listened as one tom sounded off and 3 different hunters closed on him on an adjacent property. Turkey calling, peacock screaming, owl hooting, crow calling….. there was no boom but the last time he was seen was streaking across my north field. It is like that day after day, kind of hard to do your thing for the ladies with that type of pressure.
    The decline in our turkeys is just like almost all wildlife management issues. It is usually a multitude of factors and one fix does not usually correct the problem.

Posted by The Colonel on April 08

Excellent post Colonel. Thanks! So this begs the question, why does not DNR get it? 

Posted by Cooper on April 08

Governor Quinn and IDNR Director Miller use blame-game for incompetency:

“The Illinois Department of Natural Resources may never recover from the reign of terror imposed by former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich.

Both Ryan and Blagojevich ended up in prison for financial improprieties. What they did to the IDNR should also be considered a crime.

Money was diverted from the agency to fund other areas of state government. As a result, programs were eliminated, budgets were slashed and dedicated biologists and site superintendents fled the agency.”

Here is the truth: Governor Quinn has been in office since Blago was ousted in 2009, five years! Things have only gotten worse for Illinois wildlife management and parks since Quinn and Miller have taken over. These two wildlife-unfriendly politicians are destroying what took decades to build. Let’s vote someone in who can start the reversal process. If the state protects mt. lions, wolves and bears…we’ll soon have more of them than deer and turkey…and Farm Bureau will have real cause to lobby when livestock start disappearing.

Posted by loveofthehunt on April 08

COOPER, I honestly think that Miller gets nothing but hand picked info from some of his staff. Rome is burning and they tell him the citizens of Rome are having a BBQ not to worry. Unlike the staff that was there in the past- they do not spend any time in the field. For example, John Kube was in the Forest Game Section his whole career and I believe he spent all or part of every firearm deer season at either the Adams or Pike County check stations. He was there talking to hunters and collecting first hand data. He was always spending time at turkey check stations doing the same. That is not the case today it is all computer screens and telephone data. I believe the techies call that GIGO.. garbage in garbage out

Posted by The Colonel on April 08

“It’s the End of the World” the turkey population stable article in the banner head…WTF?

Posted by jpphish on April 09

Les, in your article it said humans should protect against gnats. I do quite a bit of camping and have notice the past few years that the gnats are terrible in the spring. How do you suggest protecting your skin. I have tried everything and the only thing I have found that help keep them away is vanilla. No repellent has worked. Any suggestions?

Posted by deer&turkey; on April 15

Vanilla works, but I’ve had good luck with something called Skedattle. I got it online at

Posted by riverrat47 on April 15

There are almost 250 biting flies, of which Buffalo Gnats are just one. Thirty-plus of these biters are known to inflict various diseases in humans. My experience is that buffalo gnats shy from the smell of vanilla until body sweat distills it to a point where they will land long enough to bite. Deet-laden products, in my book, are best. Gnats may still hover around you with either vanilla or Deet products, but Deet on the skin seems to keep them from biting hours later even after sweat dilutes it. Of course, apply whatever you use every couple of hours when outdoors, especially if your activity causes profuse sweating. Buy quality bug spray with Deet, not cheap brands with minimal amounts of Deet.

Posted by loveofthehunt on April 16

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