Pennsylvania’s wild turkey population has been declining after peaking in 2001 to find out why the state hunting commission placed GPS tags on about 100 chickens as part of its largest turkey research project.
“The rationale of this turkey study is to determine what are the limiting factors in the turkey population at this point in time. And what we can do as a wildlife agency to improve the turkey population in areas where it’s declining, which is much of the state,” said Mary Jo Casalena, a wild turkey biologist at the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Turkeys reproduced more successfully in some parts of the state last year. But, according to Casalena, a year does not make a trend.
“You know, the turkey population is declining,” Casalena said. “So a year of really good breeding is fantastic. But it will not be enough to give us the huge boost we need.”
Possible factors for the decline include habitat loss, weather patterns, predators, and disease.
To better understand why, the commission is using GPS transmitters to track hens — female turkeys — in four parts of Pennsylvania that have different geographies, turkey populations, and hunting patterns. These areas are located in the central, southeast, northeast, and west-central parts of the state. The investigations also include taking blood samples from the chickens.
Casalena said they are working with researchers at Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Futures Program to analyze the data. They will use the transmitters until 2025.
“So we’re comparing all of these areas and getting an idea of what the predation rates are, the nesting rates, the chick production, the weather patterns, and how that can affect turkeys in all the different types of habitats,” Casalena said.
Of the 100 hens originally equipped with GPS devices, only about half are still alive. Casalena said that’s not exactly surprising, but they’ll have more information by the end of the breeding season.
Next year researchers from Maryland, New Jersey and Ohio will be part of the project.
And as every year, the commission is asking for the public’s help in counting turkeys – hens, male eaters and chicks. This survey, which helps with population estimation and management, will run through the end of August.
“It’s really nice to get the public involved,” said Casalena. “Because with any kind of data, the more data you have, the narrower your confidence intervals become and the more confidence you can have in the estimates.”
Pennsylvania’s work is part of a national survey. Turkeys, Casalena observed, know no state borders.
In 2021, the state had approximately 159,000 turkeys. That’s down from the 2001 peak of 280,000. The state had been capturing and transferring turkeys to restore turkey populations.
“So your population can vary tremendously from year to year based on productivity,” she said. “As such, it is important for the state that because it is a game species, state wildlife agencies have an idea of annual production to help us manage our hunting populations appropriately.”
In summer it can be easier to see wild turkeys – after the farmers have mowed their hayfields and the birds are looking for insects and berries to eat.
“You’re looking for water. They naturally seek out trees to sleep in at night. They’re looking for open areas to eavesdrop, to feed during the day,” Casalena said. “When the berries are ripe, they look for the berries to eat. I’ve seen turkeys eating blueberries and their beaks are dark blue-black.”
To learn more about the survey and to report sightings, visit the Game Commission website.
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