For the second year, the NWTF Oklahoma State Chapter is supporting a five-year wild turkey research project conducted by Oklahoma State University and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Turkeys were nearly eliminated from most of Oklahoma by the late 1930s. Like many states, successful trapping and transplanting programs by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, NWTF, and other partners resulted in result a huntable population, which is included in the 77 counties of the state.
Despite the remarkable return of our favorite game bird in Oklahoma, poult production has declined, indicating less than sustainable brood survival.
Pup survival is an essential indicator of a balanced and sustainable wild turkey population. The ODWC states that a chicken-to-hen ratio of less than two illustrates a population in decline.
An ongoing wild turkey research project is taking a comprehensive approach to understanding hatchling decline and survival on a deeper level.
“Given the differences in land-use practices, land cover, and climate within the two subspecies’ distributions in the state, other factors may be playing a role in the low recruitment,” said Colter Chitwood, Ph.D., assistant professor of natural resource ecology and management at Oklahoma State University. “Loss of genetic diversity and isolation of some populations could contribute to population declines, and our understanding of the population genetics of turkeys in Oklahoma is limited.”
The lack of information on the demographics and genetics of the wild turkey population in Sooner State limits the ability of ODWC wildlife managers to manage the state’s turkey population to its full potential.
“This information is vital for areas of high conservation concern in the southeast [Eastern subspecies] and southwest [Rio Grande subspecies] Oklahoma,” Chitwood said. “Specifically, an understanding of the specific cause of nest failure and chick and hen mortality is needed to guide decision-making that could facilitate better recruitment of turkeys.”
Chitwood’s research will gain insights into factors that contribute to low hatchling survival and recruitment, which will ultimately help managers make habitat management decisions to increase wild turkey production and survival.
Over five years (project is in its second year), Eastern wild turkeys will be captured by rocket netting and Rio Grande wild turkeys will be captured by drop-net traps and walk-ins in late winter and early winter. of spring, before the spring turkeys hunting season. Trap sites will be pre-baited in December and January with corn and milo that is certified aflatoxin-free by the USDA.
Once the birds are trapped, Chitwood and his team will keep them quiet by covering their heads and placing them in a cardboard shipping box. One by one, the investigation team will perform various tests and collect numerous samples, including blood and cloacal swabs for disease testing. A uniquely numbered riveted leg band will also be attached to the right leg of each turkey caught and will include a phone number to report recovered bands.
However, the essential information for the research project will come from data collected from the transmitters that will be attached to some of the birds.
“Female wild turkeys will have a backpack-style GPS-VHF transmitter attached,” Chitwood said. “We will immediately release the turkeys at the place of capture. We are working to maintain a minimum of 30 to 40 female wild turkeys monitored per site each breeding season.”
The chicken signals provide crucial information to Chitwood and his team. For example, once a hen remains in a localized area for three days during the breeding season, it is determined as a potential nesting site.
“If a hen is found to be out of the nest, the contents of the nest will be checked, the eggs counted and a location recorded with a GPS,” he said. “Once a hen has hatched or failed, determined by the presence of eggs or egg fragments, the contents will be collected for genetic analysis. For each nest, the number of hatched, failed or predated eggs will be recorded.
Additionally, the team will monitor hatchling survival by placing much smaller backpacks on poults.
“Within two days of successful hatching, we will locate the brooding hen at dawn and remove it from the brood,” Chitwood said. “We will search the entire area both visually and with a portable FLIR (forward looking infrared technology) and capture every poult. We will try to catch all turkey poults as estimated from the number of successfully hatched eggs. We will attach a very small, suture-style transmitter with an expected battery life of 60 days to the back of the poult.”
Once all turkey poults have transmitters, the entire brood will be placed on the ground adjacent to the capture point in dense cover. The researchers will leave the area to allow the hen to relocate and hatch the poults. At least three times a week, each brooder will be located using VHF.
“Once located, we will scan all poult frequencies to determine presence,” Chitwood said. “The poults present will be assumed to be alive, and the missing poults will be searched among the last locations of the hen to determine the fate.”
The project has five key objectives:
- Assess nesting ecology.
- Evaluate the ecology of the brood.
- Determine seasonal movement and habitat selection.
- Determine the survival of chickens and poults.
- Provide best management practices for handling wild turkeys to the ODWC.
Stay tuned for more updates on this state-of-the-art wild turkey research project.