Tennessee Tech biologists help research decline in wild turkeys


Turkey populations are declining nationwide, but Tennessee Tech has partnered with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to research what is happening and how to help.

“The population decline of wild turkeys has been noticeable across the southeastern United States ‒ Tennessee and Kentucky included. But there are some differences in the sharpness of that decline within and across states,” said Bradley Cohen, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Tech. “So, the reason the two states got together is to provide a larger scale for us to study. We are going to look across a broad geography to better understand how land use and harvest regulations affect male harvest.”

Joining him in the project are Tech master’s student Abby Riggs and collaborating post-doctoral Tech student Allison Keever, working along with Zak Danks, Turkey-Grouse Program Coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, and Rogers Shields, Wild Turkey Program Coordinator with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

The biologists and technicians spend hours out in Tennessee and Kentucky fields, capturing turkeys in rocket-powered nets and placing a numbered band around the turkey’s leg before releasing them back into the wild. When someone finds the turkey, writing on the band requests that they visit a website and record information on how they acquired the band – by hunting the turkey, finding a dead bird, or just finding the band by itself – and where the it was found. Each person who reports a banded turkey will receive a certificate and details of the county and date the turkey was banded. Green bands come with a $75 gift certificate reward for those who report them.

The data collected will help those involved in the research better understand how many birds are taken by hunters, predators and other causes, and what might be causing the diminished turkey numbers in Tennessee. One theory is that the problem stems from scheduling hunting season in the middle of the birds’ breeding season.

“Chicken-like birds like wild turkeys have complicated social hierarchies and dominance structures, so male harvest may affect population productivity if too many are harvested,” Cohen said. “And it’s possible that during hunting season, which coincides with wild turkey’s breeding season, that we're removing possibly some of the most important males out of the population and this can have cascading effects.”

If this proves to be the case, a possible solution could be the shortening of the hunting season or a shifting of the dates of the hunting season to be after the birds’ breeding season.

This is year two of the four-year project. Tech biologists will start organizing their data this fall with hopes of getting an idea of exactly what is going on with the turkey populations in Tennessee.

“This is a multi-state partnership, which doesn't happen all the time in wildlife research,” said Cohen. “But both states are pooling resources together in collaboration with our lab to look at this question that’s bigger than one state alone can answer.”

For more information about the project, visit https://www.tn.gov/twra/hunting/big-game/turkey/report-turkey-bands.html.


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