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Banded WMA Gobblers Part Of 53% Increase In Public Land Harvest

Hank Holder killed a pair of UGA research turkeys this week, and he’s not the only one to do it.

Brad Gill | April 10, 2020

Hank Holder, of Porterdale, connected with a pair of B.F. Grant WMA 2-year-old gobblers on Monday, April 6, and both of them were wearing leg bands and had GPS transmitters on their backs.

“I’d hunted 17 straight days, miles and miles from Redlands to Oconee National Forest to B.F. Grant,” said Hank.

This was Hank’s first two gobblers of the 2020 season, and he was elated when he walked up on the toms and saw leg jewelry after shooting them. Both were part of an ongoing turkey study with Dr. Mike Chamberlain at UGA’s School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

 

After killing his gobblers, Hank figured UGA researchers would want to know the location of his kill. Hank got in touch with Sara Watkins, a graduate research assistant master’s student working under Dr. Chamberlain.

“She gave us an anatomy class, she showed us the spleen, pancreas, heart and lungs, everything,” said Hank.

According to Hank and close friend Tommy Walton of Tom Teaser turkey calls, Sara came out to collect the testes from both birds.

“They are doing a pile of research, but as far as what Sara is doing, she is really intrigued with the breeding,” said Hank.

Sara Watkins, a UGA graduate research assistant master’s student working under Dr. Chamberlain, collects data from Hank Holder’s B.F. Grant WMA turkeys.

According to Dr. Chamberlain, the turkey research project, which started banding and equipping birds with GPS units at B.F. Grant and Cedar Creek WMAs in 2017, can be broken into two main areas of study: gobbling activity and reproduction. To get a better handle on both areas of study, UGA is also looking at how turkey populations react when you throw hunter pressure and predators into the mix.

“Because batteries in the transmitters go dead and hunters may not call us with their harvest, we don’t know exactly how many turkeys are out there banded right now, but we’re talking about dozens of gobblers and about 150 hens between both WMAs that we have monitored,” said Dr. Chamberlain. “These birds could be anywhere in Putnam or Jasper counties. We trapped them on the WMAs, but we’ve had them go 7 miles onto private land before.”

Hank was surprised how far his two gobblers had traveled in just six months. The day after he killed his birds, he got an email from Patrick Wightman, a Ph.D. student at UGA working on the turkey research project with Dr. Chamberlain.

Patrick wrote, “I captured both of these birds on B.F. Grant on Jan. 14, 2019, approximately 2.2 miles south of where they were harvested. Both birds were juveniles when I captured them, making them around 2-year-olds this year when you harvested them. These birds were likely brothers as they never left one another the entire time we collected data on them.”

Some of the original banded turkeys have a phone number on the bands that is no longer working. If you kill a banded turkey, call Sara Watkins at 407.443.6213 or Dr. Mike Chamberlain at 225.802.2762.

In addition, Patrick provided Hank with a map of all the locations where the GPS units recorded the birds’ whereabouts until Aug. 2 when the last unit’s battery went dead.

Interestingly, Hank killed the birds at the northern most point on the map where the two birds had ranged. Between January and August, they had traveled in an area that ranged 3.25 miles from north to south along Big Indian Creek.

Hank’s gobblers were killed 2.2 miles from where they were trapped and equipped with GPS tracking devices.

As amazing and unique as Hank’s accomplishment is, it’s not the first time one hunter has killed a pair of research birds.

“It’s happened several times,” said Dr. Chamberlain.

He added that hunters have killed their fair share of research birds just this week, something that could add proof that hunters are getting pretty stealthy when it comes to killing gobblers.

“They’ve killed six banded birds in five days,” said Dr. Chamberlain. “It’s not like it used to be. There’s a lot more hunters out there, some really good hunters out there and a lot more tools available to kill one.”

 

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He credits the COVID-19 virus for more hunters being in the woods this season, and it’s very likely an event that hunters will be feeling the affects of for future spring gobbler seasons.

“We’ve seen an increase in harvest without an increase in production,” Dr. Chamberlain. “I think we’re going to look back at this year and put an asterisk by it and wished we had practiced some self-restraint.”

Dr. Chamberlain, who is a fanatic about turkey hunting, has been steadily watching the WRD harvest numbers climb. He doesn’t necessarily want to be the alarmist just yet, but he admits that he is fearful for what the future for Georgia turkey hunting holds as a direct result of such a high increase in harvest due largely to COVID-19.

Emily Rushton, WRD’s wild turkey program coordinator, reported that as of April 9, public-land harvest is up 53% and private-land harvest is up by 30% compared to this time last year.

Seventeen days of public-land hunting and Hank Holder made it happen on April 6 at B.F. Grant WMA when he took this pair of UGA research birds.

GON will be following the UGA study and sharing the results as they are made public.

“For now it looks like the study will be ongoing for the foreseeable future,” said Dr. Chamberlain.

If you kill a banded turkey, Dr. Chamberlain and his associates really want to hear from you. In fact, Sara is collecting actual samples from the birds, and she’d be more than happy to meet you.

“You’ll be glad you called her,” said Hank. “We were like school kids learning, we were soaking it up. It was special to be a part of it and to see the thankfulness in her eyes. They put a lot of work into this.”

Some of the original banded turkeys have a phone number on the bands that is no longer working. If you kill a banded turkey, call Sara Watkins at 407.443.6213 or Dr. Mike Chamberlain at 225.802.2762.

Hank Holder (left) celebrates his double bands with close friend Tommy Walton with Tom Teasers turkey calls.

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