Techno Turkeys: Radio-Tagged Turkeys Studied On Georgia WMAs

Researchers on Di-Lane and Alexander Tract WMAs are gearing up for a second season of following radio-tagged wild turkeys. Already, the work is turning up interesting results.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | March 1, 1999

A unique and interesting wild turkey research project is in its second year at 8,000-acre Di-Lane Plantation WMA and 1,300-acre Alexander Tract WMA, both in Burke County. Wild turkeys have been trapped and fitted with radio transmitters and then followed through the mating and nesting season—and the results so far are bound to be interesting, perhaps useful, to any turkey enthusiast.

The study is part of the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Pineland Stewards Project, a three-year research and education initiative designed to improve wildlife habitat while enhancing the economic return of pine forests in the Southeast. Both the Georgia and South Carolina DNR, the University of Georgia, Clemson University and the National Resource Conservation Service are partners in the project.

John Morgan is the graduate research assistant from The University of Georgia who is heading up the study. He said the study has several goals, but the main one is to look at habitat use and nesting success in relation to Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) planted pines. On Di-Lane and Alexander Tract, small “treatment areas” of varying densities of pines have been established, and part of the study is to look at what density of pines is the most used and most beneficial to wild turkeys for cover, nesting and feeding.

The back-pack transmitter worn by the turkeys weighs a little less than half a pound. It can tell researchers if the bird is inactive, which means one of two things: it’s sitting on eggs or it’s dead.

However, the first year of the study has already yielded interesting anecdotal results in a lot of areas not related to CRP pines. 

“We had some profound movements throughout the season with respect to gobblers,” John said. “We had one mature bird that moved over a mile in a day. A lot of people think that they tend to stay in one particular area during the breeding season, in what might be their territory supposedly, but we didn’t see that at all. We had a lot of birds moving all over the place throughout the season.”

Beginning last January, John began the effort to trap and tag turkeys. The goal was to have 40 birds combined on Di-Lane and Alexander by March, though by that time only 33 had been successfully captured under rocket nets at bait sites: 15 gobblers and nine hens at Di-Lane and one gobbler and eight hens at Alexander. Each was fitted with a small backpack transmitter tuned to a unique frequency for each bird, so that individual birds could be tracked. Also, the transmitter could tell researchers whether a bird was active or inactive. An inactive bird was either dead or was a hen incubating eggs. Turkeys were also fitted with a leg-band.

Bobcats ambushed and ate at least three of the 33 turkeys wearing transmitters last spring. One of the birds was a mature, healthy gobbler. Bobcats were also identified among the many nest-robbers that hurt reproduction in last year’s study. A bobcat’s signature is shown above: a small hole in the egg, with all the goodies licked out.

Tracking began as soon as the first birds were fitted with transmitters and released, in late January. It continued through August. Each bird was located three times a week, and at a different period of the day each time: morning, mid-day or evening. Once nesting began, hens were monitored carefully and when the broods hatched, radio-location increased to twice a day, three days a week. Eventually, after 14 days had passed following the hatching of a brood, hens would be called in using a poult-in-distress call, or either flushed, so that a count of surviving poults could be made. Sadly, the researchers did not spend much time counting poults. More on that later.

Right off the bat, John and the technicians tracking the birds suffered a drop in their sample size—and the local predator population got a taste of electronic turkey. Three hens and two gobblers were killed by predators within two weeks of being fitted with a backpack. Of the five, three were listed as confirmed bobcat kills when researchers located stashed remains, hidden in typical bobcat style.

John said that with trapping, handling and collaring turkeys, it is generally assumed that death in the first two weeks is related to the stress of being handled and getting used to wearing the backpack. However, a mature gobbler with a 9-inch beard was later killed by a bobcat three weeks after release, and was apparently ambushed while feeding.

“I know that gobbler was a healthy bird and should have been able to escape,” John said. “It definitely happens… I definitely think that healthy birds get taken by bobcats.”

Tracking went on, and it was relatively easy at first. Gobblers and hens were hanging together in groups. When March came, bringing the breeding season with it, things got tougher.

“When spring hit the hens started breaking up and it was mayhem,” John said. “They’re going every which way and we’re trying to keep up with them, and it was a real difficult time for us.”

All of the gobblers separated, as well. All of them, that is, except for two. On Di-Lane, two younger gobblers (estimated at 2 years of age) could be found in very close proximity to one another throughout the breeding and hunting season. According to John this is fairly common for two “brothers” of the same brood to remain together as a pair even as young adult gobblers that could be breeding. Chances are, though, the two were probably not breeding as much as more mature, more dominant gobblers in the area, which is one reason they were tolerating each other’s company.

When hunting season opened in late March on both Alexander and Di-Lane WMAs, several of the 12 gobblers that were still active at that point made a suprising move: they left the WMA. Throughout the spring and summer, as many as five to seven of the 12 were off the WMA property at any given time, John said. One gobbler moved almost a mile off the property during the hunting season, and then moved back. But John can’t say whether any of the movements were due to hunting pressure.

“I can’t say for certain, because I didn’t know where the hunters were all of the time. There’s also a number of factors in there that can’t be measured, such as other gobblers and predators.”

One is thing is certain: despite moving around, some of the gobblers still couldn’t elude the hunters.

Of the 33 birds initially released, seven “escaped” the study when their backpack fell off. This was due to a problem with the hardware that John has since fixed. Five of the seven were gobblers, and two of these five were later harvested by hunters during the season on Di-Lane. The hunters notified the researchers when they discovered the leg-bands. Both of the gobblers were 3-year-old birds with 10-inch beards and 1-inch spurs.

The sole gobbler at Alexander, a 2-year-old bird with average spurs and a 12 1/2-inch beard, was apparently harvested by a hunter on April 2. However, John said he doesn’t know if it was a totally legal kill or not. When technicians tracked down the inactive signal of the transmitter, they found only the backpack, which had been removed from the bird. Nearby was a bloody, camouflaged glove.

Overall, out of 16 gobblers initially captured, three were harvested by hunters, three managed to shed their transmitters, three were killed by predators, and seven were still active and being tracked when radio-locating stopped on Aug. 31.

The sample size in the first year of this study is too small to draw solid conclusions, but John said he would not hold with any rule that says gobblers set up a territory in the mating season and stay there.

“A lot of guys say that they’ve been hunting the same bird in the same area all season,” John said. “In some cases they might be right, and in some cases they’re definitely not. I can say that for sure. I’ve seen birds move a number of miles over the season, and other birds move into the area they once inhabited. I think a lot of times people are hunting different birds, they just don’t realize it.”

One reason that some gobblers move a good bit during the breeding season could be that they are following hens. Some of the hens being tracked also did some walking.

“We had one hen that walked this tremendously huge circle, about a 2-mile circle, and it took her a week to walk it and she came right back to where she started. I don’t know what to say about that. Typically, most of the hens got into an area after the break-up and stayed there for awhile, and I’m assuming they stayed because they were starting a nest.”

As for where the birds hung out, John reports that on Di-Lane, gobblers and hens throughout the study could be found in hardwood drains 75 percent of the time, and in fields and pines the rest of the time. However, Di-Lane has abundant quality hardwood habitat. At Alexander, turkeys were found in hardwoods about half the time, and in pines the rest of the time, but Alexander is largely made up of young pine stands. A good summary would be to say that when present, hardwoods are somewhat preferred, but turkeys aren’t averse to planted pines either.

Another interesting thing that John noticed was that the birds were most likely to be found in open fields during rainy or windy weather.

“I’ve heard that before,” John said, “that when it’s noisy in the woods they feel more secure out in the open.”

As spring progressed, John and his assistants began to strengthen their focus on the hens and their nesting activities. But from the beginning of the nesting period, it was obvious that the hens being tracked were having a tough time, mainly with predators.

Of the six hens being tracked at Di-Lane when nesting began, one attempted a single nest, and two made first and second attempts at nests. Not a single egg from any of the hens hatched.

Of the five hens at Alexander, all attempted nests, two of them twice. One hen managed to hatch two eggs, one hatched eight, and one hatched 11. Only the hen that brought 11 eggs to hatch raised poults that lived beyond 14 days. Two of them survived. They were the only two poults successfully produced by a total of 11 hens on the two areas. According to John, this may be a result of working with a small sample size.

“I don’t know whether we just had a bad sample, or what, because I know that Di-Lane had a decent hatch last season. We didn’t get a single poult out of our Di-Lane hens.”

Nests had been monitored carefully, and when they were broken up or abandoned, the researchers moved in to investigate. In some cases, scattered egg fragments were all that remained, evidence of a nest-robber like a raccoon or possum. In some cases, a hole had been popped in each egg and the inside licked clean: evidence of a bobcat raid. Still other nests were just empty, raided either by a snake or possibly a bobcat, which will sometimes carry eggs off and bury them.

John hopes that this year, with more hens added to the sample, greater nesting success will be witnessed. As you read this, John is setting up bait sites and cannon nets to capture more turkeys for this year’s study.

This spring, John will add a new dimension to the research: an assistant will be focusing exclusively on roosting behaviors, something that was not examined in 1998. What are the preferred roosting trees and roosting areas? How often do gobblers and hens use the same roost night after night, or how much do they hop around? Answers to those questions could be forthcoming.

As for the original goal of the study, determining densities of pine plantation that most benefit turkeys, that will have to wait for more turkeys and more data.

“Right now it’s common sense,” John said. “If you thin these stands out, you increase the herbaceous vegetation and you increase the number of invertebrates, and it’s obviously going to be better for turkeys.”

Hunters who head to Di-Lane or Alexander this season stand a chance of becoming a statistic in this study: with more gobblers hopefully wearing backpacks this season, some are sure to end up under the gun. If you kill a turkey with a leg-band or backpack transmitter at either of these areas, notify the personnel at the check-station or call (706) 437-0186.

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