A distinct subspecies of the North American wild turkey found primarily in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, and Nebraska, the Rio Grande wild turkey faces many threats, including habitat loss, urbanization, climate change, disease, and parasites, and these factors play a significant role in impacting the overall health of wild turkey populations in the Rio Grande. Recognizing its importance, a new study emphasizes the critical need to closely monitor the health of these populations to ensure their long-term survival.
To address this problem, a new research project is underway to monitor parasites and diseases in wild turkeys on the Rio Grande. Spanning four states (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska) within the Great Plains ecoregion, the scope of the project covers a wide area, encompassing 13 different NWTF focal landscapes. Researchers will conduct surveys to assess parasites and infectious diseases in these turkeys, establishing baseline health information for the subspecies. By gaining a better understanding of the prevalence and severity of infections and parasitism, this research will contribute to conservation efforts and the long-term well-being of wild turkeys in the Rio Grande.
Previous studies on wild turkeys in the Rio Grande have identified the presence of diseases, parasites, and viruses that affect populations, causing illness and mortality. In addition, in 2023, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was reported for the first time in wild turkeys. This highly transmissible disease can cause the death of infected birds, as well as a decrease in egg production in non-fatal cases. These findings highlight the importance of monitoring and addressing these health threats.
“The goal of this proposed study is to perform a comprehensive, wide-range health assessment for wild turkeys in the Rio Grande,” said Dr. Blake Grisham, an associate professor of wildlife management at Texas Tech University. “Our findings will help us make future recommendations for continued surveillance of parasites and pathogens of concern to the Rio Grande wild turkey at the study sites.”
Grisham noted that there are currently no formal studies specifically focusing on general health, susceptibility, disease and parasite prevalence and their underlying causes within Rio Grande wild turkey populations conducted at the subspecies distribution level. This means conducting research that spans the entire range or distribution area of the Rio Grande wild turkey subspecies, rather than focusing on specific locations or isolated populations.
The absence of standardized research has resulted in a limited understanding of health status and specific threats. A comprehensive study is needed to fill this gap, providing a clearer understanding of the health issues affecting these turkeys and providing valuable information for the conservation and management of wild turkey populations in the Rio Grande.
“This knowledge could lead to the implementation of new regulations or management practices to protect the wild turkey populations of the Rio Grande that can be collected while limiting the spread of parasites and disease,” Grisham said.
Field research will begin in the fall and winter of 2023, capturing Rio Grande wild turkeys with rocket nets or magnetic nets, baited with cracked corn and milo. Harvest of Rio Grande wild turkeys in each study area will continue through the fall and winter seasons until the birds disperse from non-breeding flocks to breeding individuals. This capture process will be completed by the end of the fall and winter season in 2026.
When a wild Rio Grande turkey is caught, it will be fitted with a uniquely numbered aluminum leg. A small amount of blood will then be drawn from your leg for testing and samples will be taken from the cloaca (cavity at the end of the digestive tract) and choanal (opening of the nasal cavity) to collect samples for disease analysis. In addition, several breast feathers will be plucked and the eighth secondary feather on each wing will be clipped for genetic analysis. These procedures allow researchers to collect important data and information.
Grisham, the study’s principal investigator, will collaborate with co-investigators from seven universities, the newly established Texas Tech University College of Veterinary Medicine, and four professional student organizations to complete panels of blood chemistry, blood counts, as well as disease, parasite, and virus tests.
“It’s extremely exciting that this research project is a collaboration between leading wild turkey researchers and scientists, working together across state lines to perform a nearly full-range disease analysis,” said Annie Farrell, District Biologist for NWTF for Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and the United States. Nebraska. “The implications and benefits are significant. By establishing a baseline health analysis, we can further help our state agency partners and other wildlife professionals better manage the Rio Grande wild turkey populations.”
Additionally, this research aims to help other scientists control parasites and disease in wild turkey populations by establishing standardized sampling methods. These findings can inform wildlife managers to guide regulations and practices to protect turkeys and their genetic diversity, generally supporting their long-term survival and enabling sustainable hunting.
“Investment in this project, as well as other research projects in the Great Plains states, will help guide the management of the Rio Grande wild turkey for years to come, so this resource will continue to exist for future generations.” Farrell says.
This project is one of 10 new research projects In nine states, the NWTF is funding, with $582,374 invested among these vital projects. These research projects are part of a nearly $9 million investment in wild turkey research by 2023, supported by the NWTF and its partners.