Clarks Hill WMA’s High-Tech Gobblers

For more than a year, radio-equipped gobblers have been tracked across Clarks Hill WMA. Here's a look at what the research has revealed so far.

Mike Ielmini | March 1, 1990

Clarks Hill WMA has one of the oldest and best established turkey populations in Georgia. There is a good number of birds on the area and even more hunters. The estimated hunter success last year on the WMA and surrounding area was estimated at a respectable 20-30%

Since December 1988, the University of Georgia has been conducting a gobbler mortality study on Clarks Hill WMA. The project is funded by the Georgia Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (Georgia turkey hunters in action). Dr. Sydney Johnson of the University of Georgia School of Forest Resources is the director of the study, and as a graduate research assistant I am the primary field investigator.

Our research is designed to investigate the causes of turkey gobbler mortality (death) and particularly the impact of hunting on the turkey population. The research is ongoing, but the results from monitoring the first group of radio-banded birds have been surprising. During the 1989 turkey season, for instance, 47% of the gobblers carrying radio transmitters were bagged by hunters and hunting accounted for all mortality.

Last winter beginning just after the end of deer season, we used cannon nets to capture a total of 20 turkeys, 18 gobblers and two bearded hens. All other hens captured were released. Each bird was measured, weighed and banded, and each bird had a radio transmitter strapped to its back. The transmitter, about half the size of a deck of cards was attached to the birds in backpack-style with a nylon cord. The plastic-coated transmitter rides on the turkey’s back and does not interfere with any movement, including flying.

Through the 1989 hunting season, hunting was the No. 1 cause of mortality among the radio-equipped gobblers on Clarks Hill.

The age structure of the turkeys captured in 1989 was five jakes, eleven 2-year-olds and two 3-year olds. At the beginning of the 1989 season, 17 of the 20 birds (15 gobblers and two hens) were still alive. Two others died shortly after release from capture myopsy; the third bird, which was in poor condition when it was captured, died shortly thereafter of avian pox.

Tracking of each instrumented gobbler began immediately after it was released. Each bird is located at least once a day and sometimes several times daily by triangulation of azimuth readings taken with a directional antenna. Each bird’s location is recorded so that a home range can be mapped. Preliminary data shows widely varied and mostly random daily travel patterns. A gobbler may travel only a few hundred yards one day and then for no apparent reason will show up several miles away the next day.

Activity sensors built into the transmitters allow us to know if the bird is still alive. If the transmitter does not move for a long period, the radio signal changes to a “mortality” signal and we try to locate the bird and determine the cause of death. We were following the birds during hunting season, and I had surprised hunters when they came out of the woods with their gobblers and found me waiting at their pickup truck. Hunter support for the project has been very good.

Hunting was the single cause of mortality in our study. Eight of the 17 instrumented turkeys in our small sample, or 47% of the sample population, were killed by hunters during the 1989 season (53% if you disallow the bearded hens). Only three of the radioed birds were killed on Clarks Hill WMA. The total number of birds killed on the WMA was 16.

Obviously, gobblers are most likely to be where the hens are during the spring breeding season, and hens will search out nesting areas. Because the best turkey nesting habitat is located off the WMA, that may account for a high percentage of the study birds being killed in the surrounding counties.

Interestingly, none of the instrumented jakes were killed. It could be that the older birds are involved in most of the breeding activity and are thus more likely to be called into a waiting shotgun. On Feb. 15. this year, while attempting to capture more birds for the study, I watched a flock of 31 gobblers, 27 jakes and four mature gobblers at a baited site. Incredibly, the four adult birds dominated the jakes and kept the 27 immature birds away from the bait.

Each of the hunters who killed an instrumented gobbler was interviewed. None of them reported seeing the transmitter, and they noticed no abnormal behavior by the instrumented turkey before they shot.

The instrumented gobblers were killed in a variety of habitat types ranging from hardwood bottoms to dry, piney ridges to fields. Our tracking has shown that the birds are highly adaptable, often moving to avoid disturbances and then returning to the area later. During the managed deer gun hunts on Clarks Hill, many of the gobblers left the busy WMA for less congested areas nearby, including flying as far as a quarter of a mile across Clarks Hill Lake either to escape pressure or simply to travel in another area.

Conversely, when the WMA was closed to deer hunting and the surrounding counties were open, the turkeys moved back to the WMA. This was particularly noticeable on the weekends when high numbers of deer hunters were in the woods.

Another observation I made during the 1989 season was that many gobblers were seen, and some were killed long after most hunters had left the woods. Many gobblers never made a sound until about 11 a.m., and we frequently hear birds gobbling in the mid-afternoon.

Rainy days usually turn off hunters but can turn on turkeys. If you hunt on a rainy day, your odds of seeing gobblers will go up if you concentrate your efforts near pastures or food plots. Turkeys and fields just seem to go well together when it starts raining. One of the reasons for the attraction to open areas during the rain is that the woods get very noisy with dripping rain and the birds can hear better out in the open. Try staking out a field when it rains.

The bearded hens were equipped with transmitters because, while they are illegal during turkey season, they might be mistake for gobblers by an inexperienced hunter. Both bearded hens survived the hunting seasons and nested last spring. Both nests, however, were destroyed by unknown predators and the hens did not renest.

The variability of turkeys is one of the most remarkable observations thus far. Most hunters think turkeys roost exclusively in mature pines. We have found them roosting in hardwoods, pines 15 to 20 feet high and thick as hair on a dog’s back, and even 8 feet up a dogwood tree.

Because of habitat loss, we have seen turkeys adapt, at least initially, to pine forests.

Our sample size was relatively small compared to the number of birds on the area, but we were surprised that hunters were the No. 1 cause of mortality.

The 1990 turkey trapping season has been a poor one. Warm weather and an exceptional water oak crop in the area have combined to make trapping difficult. With plenty to eat, the birds aren’t interested in staying on the cracked-corn bait. As of last Saturday, we had attached transmitters to only two additional gobblers. The seven gobblers that survived the 1989 season are still transmitting strong signals.

When the 1990 turkey season begins, at least nine gobblers with radio collars will be roaming the woods in and around Clarks Hill WMA. The 1990 turkey season begins March 24 statewide and March 28 on the WMA. Posters informing hunters that the high-tech birds are legal game and including the phone numbers to call if you kill an instrumented bird have been put up on the WMA and at stores in the area.

By being in the woods every day, we have seen a lot of turkeys and some tremendous gobblers. We expect a good turkey season, and if you hunt Clarks Hill WMA, let us know how you did.

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