Collaborative Research on the Future of Wild Turkeys

a female wild turkey
A new collaborative study will examine wild turkey populations and reproductive ecology. Photo by NASA.

For more than a decade, wild turkey populations across the southeastern United States have been in decline – in terms of both production/recruitment and overall numbers, all while the number of people hunting turkeys has been increasing.

The Wild Turkey Reproductive Ecology research project is an effort to better understand the population dynamics of wild turkeys in South Carolina. The project is a cooperative effort between the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station, the University of Georgia, Louisiana State University, and the University of Missouri.

The study is being conducted by taking advantage of an “undisturbed” (i.e., un-hunted) population of turkeys on a large tract of land at the Savannah River Site, a 193,000 acre national environmental research park in South Carolina managed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

This study has multiple objectives, all of which are designed to evaluate different aspects of the reproductive ecology of a population of wild turkeys not exposed to hunting. Specific objectives will include:

  • Determining space use, habitat selection, and survival of male and female wild turkeys.
  • Assessing nesting and brooding ecology of female wild turkeys, with a focus on thoroughly describing nesting chronology and behavior of females during laying, incubating and brooding.
  • Describing vegetative and habitat characteristics associated with nest sites and areas used by brooding females.
  • Spatially and temporally describing gobbling activity and relating gobbling activity to nesting chronology of females and movement ecology of males.
  • Evaluating the genetic mating system of wild turkeys and describing patterns of parentage in clutches of females.

The work involves trapping gobblers and hens on the Savannah River Site, banding them, collecting DNA, and outfitting them with GPS backpack units. Data downloaded from the backpack transmitters will give researchers an amazing wealth of information about the nesting behavior of turkeys in a setting where there is no hunting pressure.

“The data sets generated by these backpack GPS units are incredible,” said Jay Cantrell, one of the SCDNR biologists in charge of the agency’s turkey program. “It allows for the monitoring of nesting activity, brood survival, and causes of mortality. We will be comparing findings, and in some cases raw data sets, from this study to findings from other studies that have previously occurred in SC and across the Southeast on hunted populations.”

This in-depth study will provide opportunities for assessments of how the presence, or absence, of hunting pressure influences various population parameters and behavior of wild turkeys. It’s a key piece of the puzzle sought for big game managers in the South who are responsible for setting harvest dates that lessen the impact of hunting pressure on nesting success.

After they are captured, tagged, and released, a handheld GPS unit is used to download the data collected from turkeys in the study remotely.

Each spring, more than 50,000 people hunt wild turkeys in the South Carolina woods. Photo courtesy of Jay Cantrell, SCDNR.

Unlike other game birds, wild turkeys are hunted during spring, a time frame coinciding with reproductive activities such as breeding and nesting. There is a delicate balance between the timing of spring gobbler season and the timing of nesting because hens must breed in order to successfully nest. Given this period’s biological importance, wildlife managers and legislators are challenged to avoid negative population impacts due to harvest while simultaneously providing quality hunting opportunities.

Most of the research funding is provided by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, through a modest ($5 for resident hunters) fee for annual turkey tags required to transport birds from the field to home. The tag fee provides SCDNR with a revenue source dedicated specifically to wild turkeys. The money generated by the tag fee funds research, monitoring, and management of turkeys by agency biologists on private and public lands in South Carolina, as well as habitat improvements on the state’s Wildlife Management Areas.

This story is excerpted from Call Your Shots, a feature article that originally appeared on the SCDNR blog, South Carolina Natural Resources.

For more information, email SRS research wildlife biologist John Kilgo at john.kilgo@usda.gov.

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