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Alabama’s snapshot of wild turkey research

By Steven W. Barnett

-- Wild turkey research in Alabama has undergone a transformation in objectives and equipment used over the past 30 years.

In the early 1980s, Auburn University, under the leadership of Dr. Dan Speake, investigated habitat requirements of wild turkeys. At that time, radio telemetry was a fairly new technology. It allowed researchers to attach transmitters to gobblers, hens and poults and track movements and habitat use throughout the year.

These studies provided insight on habitat needs specific to the season. For example, turkey broods were found to use grassy openings near the nest site for foraging on insects. Successful hens tended to select openings with herbaceous vegetation of sufficient height that did not restrict movements but afforded the brood protection from predators.

Results from these studies enabled the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) wildlife biologists to offer proper habitat recommendations to landowners and to improve management practices on wildlife management areas to be more beneficial to turkeys.

New wild turkey research has shifted gears from habitat requirement needs to additional factors that affect population dynamics. The advancement of the game camera, a popular hunting aide, has proven to be an effective research tool. Game cameras literally offer a snapshot of what is going on in a population at any given day or time. All that is needed is for the critter to step in front of the camera to provide a photo.

Under the guidance of Dr. Barry Grand, Auburn University has partnered with WFF to explore factors that influence wild turkey population changes.

The turkey population increase in the state has led to a corresponding and significant increase in harvest levels of gobblers. Biologists are beginning to look at the sustainability of this harvest over time. Recruitment of broods into the fall population has a tremendous influence in total population numbers and is best measured over time to provide trend data. In the current study, game cameras are being placed on public and private land to capture photo images of turkey broods. Standardized methods are being tested to measure productivity of juveniles into the fall population.

Other potential studies linked to productivity may include research on quantifying gobbler harvest rates in Alabama. The data resulting from current and future studies will provide direction regarding recruitment, hunting seasons and bag limits. The main goal is to ensure a sustainable wild turkey population while providing a high quality hunting experience for future generations.

The current estimated wild turkey population of 500,000 birds in Alabama is a testament to the fact that many landowners follow a responsible and forward-thinking land ethic. Proper habitat management for wild turkeys, embedded in research, has played a significant part in this phenomenal growth. Biologists seek to ensure sound investigations guide decisions to maintain the turkey population.

-- For more information, contact Steven W. Barnett, wildlife biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, 30571 Five Rivers Boulevard, Spanish Fort, Ala., 36527 or call (251) 626-5474.

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