The Pennsylvania Game Commission is launching a large-scale study of turkeys

For those of you who are set on drinking wild turkey but haven’t heard that sweet sound in a while, don’t despair.

Pennsylvania’s eastern wild turkey population does fluctuate, but data from the Pennsylvania Game Commission shows population declines in the Northeast, including the Lehigh Valley; in the western counties, however, populations appear stable.

While that may sound alarming, the data may not provide a complete or true picture of the population, which is one reason the Game Commission is conducting what it calls the largest field study of wild turkeys.

The four-year study began in January with goals that include validating a new bird counting method and data that can help assess the causes of population declines and growth, such as assessing habitat, hunter success, bird health, and predation rates. and survival rates.

Mary Jo Casalena, the turkey commission’s lead biologist, said the study, which focuses on hens, or female turkeys, shows that previous bird counting methods have shown turkey populations peaked in the 2000s.

Although these methods were studied, they showed that the turkey population was 280,000 in 2001 and 159,000 in 2021.

In the early 2000s, Casalena said, there were conservative hunting seasons, few exotic wild turkey diseases and a more diverse landscape than exists today, including more young forests, farmland and fewer exotic plant and insect species.

“There were 230,000 hunters [in 2006], and now we have under 200,000,” she said. “The age of these hunters is also higher now.”

“And it could be spring weather, habitat changes. Maybe these are diseases we’ve never studied.”

The current study is not conducted in every county in Pennsylvania, but in designated areas the commission designates wildlife management units, which in this case are units 2D, 3D, 4D, and 5C.

Casalena said these areas were chosen because they each represent different landscapes, habitat types, turkey populations and birds taken during the spring hunting season.

The Lehigh Valley and part of the surrounding region are at 5C and are, she said, a mix of urban and large farmland with the second lowest number of turkeys harvested during the hunting season.

Other units in the study are 3D (roughly including Monroe, Pike, and southern Lackawanna and Wayne counties); 2D (Armstrong, Butler, Clarion and surrounding counties) and 4D (parts of Center, Mifflin, Snyder, Union and surrounding counties.)

Casalena explained that the research process begins with trapping 25 chickens per study site per year during the winter when they congregate and are easily attracted to the bait.

After capture, researchers collect blood for disease testing, attach a transmitter and leg band to adult and young chickens (or yearlings), and then monitor their movements, habitat use, survival, nesting rate, nesting success, codling survival, predation and hunting in the fall turkey season.

Turkeys fitted with transmitters are tracked by field crews with radio telemetry equipment to monitor survival, range and nesting.

“We’re also evaluating the effects of weather on nesting rates, nesting success and bird (or newly hatched) survival,” Casalena said.

So far in the study, she said, “106 chickens have been fitted with transmitters and another 100 transmitters will be added each year. Out of 106, according to her, 54 died. A few died in the winter, but most died during the nesting period, which is usually the period of highest hen mortality.’

In addition to the 12-member field crew and many other biologists from the commission who participated in the study, Casalena said the study is unusual in that it is being conducted in collaboration with other organizations.

They include researchers from Pennsylvania State University, the US Geological Survey of Pennsylvania and the Future of Wildlife Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Next year, she said, the study will be expanded in a collaborative effort with state wildlife agencies in New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio and researchers at Ohio State University.

In addition, the commission is asking for the public’s help in the form of winter turkey sighting reports. This would help locate potential flocks for trapping for research purposes. After collecting biological data, attaching leg bands and installing transmitters, all turkeys are released into the trap site.

This winter period of observation falls between January and March during the four years of the study. This is in addition to the annual public viewing of turkeys in the summer from July to August.

The Eastern Wild Turkey prefers an environment of about 60% forest and 40% mixture of low scrub and open areas.

Casalena said turkeys’ strongest sense is hearing, but they also have excellent eyesight. However, she said: “They can’t see so well at night. And like most dailies [or animals most active during the day] birds they sleep in trees to try to hide from predators. Fortunately, they will fly away from their roost to avoid nocturnal predators, but ground-nesting chickens sometimes die before they can escape. They have a weak sense of smell.”

Their favorite foods are seasonal, so she said the diet can include insects, grass, berries, nuts, seeds and sprouts.

“In most seasons, they scratch leaves to get whatever they can find,” she said. “Protein-rich insects make up most of their diet in the summer, when chicks are growing rapidly and hens are replenishing their resources after the energy-intensive egg-laying and incubation period.”

The average lifespan of turkeys, if they make it to adulthood, is 3 to 4 years, and they mate in the spring, Casalena said.

“They don’t mate for life. The dominant male creates a harem of hens, while some subordinate males will remain in the group. Most of the time, the dominant male will breed chickens in a harem, but genetic analysis has shown that there can be multiple parents from the same clutch, so either the hen visits different dominant males or, sometimes, a subordinate gobbler will breed the hen. But we still do not have accurate data on genetics. Chickens incubate eggs and raise young. Men don’t help.”

On average, a hen will lay 10 to 12 eggs in a nest and, unless they are eaten by a predator or die, 6 to 12 eggs will hatch. They reach maturity in about a year, provided they are not killed by predators or die of other causes.

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Ben Franklin supposedly wanted the national bird to be the turkey, but according to the Franklin Institute’s website, that was just a myth that arose out of a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah.

In this letter, published on the website, Franklin criticized the original design of the eagle on the new country’s seal, saying it looked more like a turkey.

However, he called the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral qualities. He doesn’t make an honest living … he’s too lazy to fish on his own,” the website said.

In the same letter he praised the turkey “as a much more respectable bird, and at the same time a true original native of America.”

“He defended the pride of the turkey against the bald eagle, but did not propose that it become one of the most important symbols of America,” the website says.

“I don’t really want to take sides on Ben Franklin’s description of the wild turkey,” Casalena said, “because the bald eagle is also a really fascinating bird.”

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