USA–– Wild turkeys are on the decline in the Southeast, and a team of University of Georgia researchers is trying to figure out why.
Using big rocket-powered nets they can catch more than a dozen turkeys at a time theyve caught and tagged more than 100 turkeys with radio transmitters in two big wild tracts in Southwest Georgia.
The transmitters let the researchers track the turkeys movements and to know where to find them when theyve stopped moving.
And the researchers may be close to clearing one suspect in the turkey decline fire.
Like many other creatures, the wild turkeys numbers declined alarmingly in the late 1800s and early 1900s as Americans hunted them and cut down the vast forests of the eastern United States.
By about 1959, only an estimated half million wild turkeys remained, according to UGA graduate student Meg Williams, part of a team in the universitys Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources studying the life and times of the bird. By about 1930, the turkey had vanished from 19 of the original 39 eastern and Midwestern states it once roamed.
The turkey made a dramatic comeback in the second half of the 20th century as forests slowly grew back in the second half of the 20th century, and wildlife managers helped the wild turkey back into states where the bird had been extirpated. Today, the wild turkey population is estimated at about 7 million including more than 5 million Eastern turkeys, the subspecies in Georgia and other eastern states.
But for about 10 years, state wildlife agencies across the Southeast have been seeing declines, said Richard Chamberlain, a professor in the Warnell school.
We dont know exactly why, he said. It has prompted turkey folks to kind of stand up and try to figure out not just whats causing this, but how much further are we going to see the decline? Is there a way to reverse it? Do we even need to reverse it?
Chamberlain and Williams are trying to tease out answers to some of those questions, along with Warnell wildlife researcher Bob Warren and graduate students Drew Ruttinger, Christina Perez, Derek Colbert and Andy Little.
Theyre learning where gobblers, the male turkeys, like to roost at night, and where hens like to nest in the 30,000-acre Joseph Jones Ecological Research Center in Southwest Georgia and a nearby site, the Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area southwest of Bainbridge.
Theyve learned a few surprising things, too like whos literally knocking off gobblers in the middle of the night.
Periodically, theyve found decapitated gobblers.
They figure great horned owls looking for a meal are taking off the turkeys heads, said graduate student Christina Perez.
It seemed like the owls took them right off the roosting tree, Perez said.
But their early results show that fire may not be much of a factor.
Since the 1990s, state and private land managers have increasingly used prescribed fire as a management tool in pine forests like their study sites in Southwest Georgia.
The fire mimics more natural conditions of centuries ago, when frequent lightning-caused forest fires shaped the landscape.
The fires help kill off young hardwoods and invasive plants, and actually seems to boost the populations of bugs and greenery that turkeys like to eat.
But the researchers also wondered if fires set in the spring might be destroying nests and killing baby turkeys, or poults, that are abundant at that time of year.
So far, theyve found little evidence of that, said Williams and Perez.
Of about 50 nests Williams studied earlier this year, seven were in the path of fire, and six were destroyed. But most of the hens whose nests were destroyed built new nests and laid more eggs, Williams said.
Researchers are looking beyond fire for answers to the turkey decline.
Turkeys live across the entire United States, and live in all kinds of habitats, Perez said.
And the reasons behind the decline may vary from place to place.
Whats causing it seems to be anything from loss of habitat through the encroachment of civilization to changes in forest communities, Chamberlain said.
The amount of forest acreage in industrial forests is increasing, he said. And chemical herbicide use and forest thinning could also be factors, according to Perez.
A growing predator population could also be eating up more turkey eggs and baby turkeys.
Everything eats a baby turkey poult, Perez said not just carnivores like bobcats, hawks and owls, but even fire ants, she said.
And like the turkey, some predator animals have bounced back as Eastern forests grew back in Georgia and other states from the 1930s up to the 1990s.
Chamberlain suspects raccoons, which find turkey eggs tasty, may be an important part of the wild turkeys recent decline.
Theres growing evidence that there are more of those animals than ever, he said. The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.