Alabama’s Turkey Research Efforts

Hunting Regulations Icon Alabama Hunting & Fishing

Over the past ten years, perceived declines in turkey populations across the southeast have caused concerns among both hunters and agencies tasked with managing the species. However, little or no scientific data exists to substantiate the decline in populations. In response, the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) partnered with the Alabama Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit (ALCU) at Auburn University to begin the largest, most comprehensive Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo; hereafter turkey) research project conducted in Alabama in over 30 years.

The overall goal of the turkey research project is to develop decision tools to inform science-based management of turkey populations in Alabama. In 2014, with aid from ALCU, the newly formed WFF Turkey Committee completed a prototype decision tool. The developed tool is used to evaluate impacts of different bag limits and season frameworks on turkey populations. The tool focuses on bag limits and season framework because outside of management on Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) and advice provided to landowners, the only means a state agency has to manage turkey populations statewide is through season and harvest regulations.

The foundation of the decision tool is a population model that predicts impacts of different management regulations on turkey populations using the density of gobblers in spring (males > 1 yr old) and productivity in fall (poult:hen ratio) as inputs. The model’s predicted outputs of population size (i.e. density), age structure, and sex ratio are used to determine the harvest regulation that would balance the highest regional gobbler densities and largest bag limits that can be sustained perpetually. However, the population predictive model is only as good as the information it is based on and recent productivity and survival rates for Alabama turkey populations are unavailable. At current, the prototype’s population model is based on vital rates (productivity and survival rates) estimated from research projects in Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, and Alabama. The most recent relevant research in Alabama was conducted prior to the mid-1990s and based on relatively small sample sizes. The WFF Turkey Committee agreed that new research to determine survival and productivity rates that dictate abundance, sex ratios, and age ratios of turkey populations in Alabama was needed for the prototype decision tool.

In January 2015, a long-term field research project was initiated to collect data on population structure (age and sex ratios), density, and vital rates (productivity, survival and harvest rates) of turkey in Alabama. The field research duration spans for a five year period and is being conducted across three separate study areas that represent dominate turkey habitats across the state. The study areas are the hardwood forests in and around J.D. Martin Skyline WMA in Jackson County, the longleaf pines and hardwood drains in and around Oakmulgee WMA in Hale and Bibb Counties, and the short-rotation pines and hardwood bottoms in and around Barbour WMA. The primary objectives of the field research component are to examine regional age-specific survival and recruitment rates of turkey; determine effects of ecoregion, land use, and population density on turkey productivity; investigate regional age- and sex- specific variation in harvest and other mortality rates of turkey; investigate annual and season variation in regional vital rates; develop and validate operational monitoring procedures; examine movements and habitat use of adult females during nesting and brood rearing.

Since January of 2015, over 210 turkeys have been captured, banded, and tagged with a VHF/GPS transmitter. These tagged birds are monitored for survival and productivity. Every two weeks attempts are made to locate each tagged turkey to determine whether it is still alive. In August, tagged hens are tracked and number of poults produced by each hen is counted. In spring, band returns are assessed to determine harvest rates of males. On each study area, camera surveys have been conducted prior to and following the spring turkey hunting season. To date, approximately 500,000 images have been analyzed to determine population densities and sex and age ratios. By fall 2017, data from the field research will be analyzed and resulting vital rates will be used to update the population model within the prototype decision tool.

The next phase of the turkey research project will focus on small scale experimental tests using the prototype to make season and bag limit decisions. Turkey hunters that utilize the Division’s WMAs will begin to see delayed opening dates on several WMAs including, J.D. Martin Skyline, Oakmulgee, Barbour, Lowndes, Choccolocco, and Perdido. Although change is not often welcomed, these experimental tests provide an opportunity to use the tool on a small operational scale and then monitor the response of turkey populations from implementing those regulations. Experimental test results can then be used to evaluate any unexpected outcomes with model predicted outputs.

You can get more information about the turkey research project, on the project website at www.turkeyres.org and www.outdooralabama.com/wild-turkey. This project is funded by WFF with Federal Aid funds from the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program (Pittman-Robertson), Auburn University, Alabama Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, and U.S. Geological Survey.