New turkey study to focus on hen survival

Albany — DEC will use a turkey trapping and tagging operation to help determine hen survival rates, and the results of the three-year study will likely lead to changes in fall hunting seasons in 2015.

DEC wildlife biologist Mike Schiavone, the project coordinator, said about 400 hens across the state will be trapped and banded. Some will also have transmitters attached to track their survival during the fall hunting seasons.

It’s another in a series of wild turkey studies in New York; a 2006-09 effort focused on survival and harvest rates of spring gobblers.

“Female turkey survival really drives the population,” Schiavone said. “High harvest rates on males in the spring can affect the age structure, but now we want to focus on hen survival. The fall hunting season is for either sex, and we want to make sure we’re not negatively affecting populations.”

New York’s spring gobbler harvest has declined sharply over the past decade, from a high of nearly 45,000 birds in 2001 to just over 19,000 last season. Schiavone said some of that can be attributed to “a changing predator community, which is now more diverse and abundant,” as well as a loss of quality turkey habitat as it shifted from a mix of forest and early successional habitat (more dense undergrowth) to mature forests.

Poor nesting and brood-rearing in recent years – most of it weather-related – has been a major factor, as well.

“The sharper decline we’ve seen since about 2007 is production-related,” he said. “Four of the last six years have seen below-average production. Last summer was decent, closer to the long-term average, and still and improvement over recent years.”

The trapping and banding effort began this month and will continue through March when turkeys are flocked together and easiest to catch. DEC will conduct the study on both public and private lands in DEC’s regions 3 through 9 where turkey numbers are highest (Region 1 is Long Island and Region 2 is New York City).

The department is urging private landowners who have turkeys on their land to allow the trapping and banding effort to be conducted on those parcels.

It will be a four-year study, and Schiavone said after the first two years the data gathered to that point will be compiled and fall seasons will be revised. “We’ll continue in 2013-14 under the current fall season structure, then we’ll continue to assess the data but under a revised fall season structure in 2015-16,” he said. “What changes are made will depend on the results of the survey, but what the map looks like right now (in which fall seasons are established) is going to change.”

Sportsmen and even the National Wild Turkey Federation have been concerned with the state’s declining turkey numbers in some areas of New York. The NWTF last fall even asked hunters who were not specifically hunting turkeys to hold off on shooting hens if they encountered birds while pursuing other species.

From 2006-09, DEC staff worked with hundreds of landowners from across the state to assess harvest and survival of gobblers.

“Many landowners actively participated in the gobbler survival project or provided reports of winter turkey flocks. With that important project completed, DEC is once again looking for landowners interested in helping with the new study focused on hen survival,” the department said in a news release.

Once turkeys are trapped and banded, they will immediately be released unharmed at the same location.  

The hen survival study is another in a series of efforts to monitor the state’s turkey numbers. Schiavone said SUNY ESF professor Bill Porter and a Ph.D. student are looking at the biological harvest potential of the state, as well as weather and habitat factors that can influence turkey harvests and production.

In addition, Cornell University’s Human Dimensions Research Unit is undertaking a hunter survey that will help determine satisfaction with current regulations and hunting opportunities.

“The third piece will be the hen survival study,” Schiavone said.

After the studies are complete, it’s likely DEC will update its wild turkey management plan, which was put in place in 2005 and is similar to the recent efforts involving deer.

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