Low poult production rates are a concern for the future of wild turkeys.

Turkey habitat conference serves Alabama land managers, as Gulsby, Lybarger share strategies.

Researchers in many areas are seeing poult production ratio of 2:1 poults per hen average, which yield a stagnant population with no growth. Ratios of 3:1 or greater are needed for the population to increase researchers say.

Dr. Will Gulsby, of Auburn University, and Kyle Lybarger, with the Native Habitat Project, told attendees at the Native Plants & Wild Turkey Habitat Seminar at the Alabama Wildlife Center they can make a significant difference for turkeys by managing what plants grow and what predators live on the lands under their influence. A long-term commitment to growing plants beneficial to turkeys by providing a foundation of quality habitat, followed by systematically trapping nest predators that are legal to trap can and will make a definite difference, Guslby and Lybarger say.

There is no satisfyingly simple answer to the question of how to address turkey population declines, but research is proving valid a number of common sense solutions, especially when taken together. Encouraging the growth of wild turkeys’ natural habitat, appropriately trapping fur-bearing nest predators, and refraining from practices that support and encourage those same predator populations to thrive will make a significant difference over time. 

Gulsby and Lybarger were presenters at the Native Plants & Wild Turkey Habitat Seminar hosted Aug. 8 by the Autauga Forestry & Wildlife Stewardship Council at the Alabama Wildlife Federation Natureplex north of Montgomery. Turkeys For Tomorrow was honored to be one of the presenting sponsors.

Highlights and thoughts to consider from the event include:

• Sometimes predation management is about what we don’t do. Research has found the majority of corn put out to feed turkeys and deer often goes to waste. Much of it actually feeds other critters, especially raccoons. Studies in southwestern Georgia found turkey nesting success 50 percent lower in areas as broad as 50 acres around corn feeders. A well-fed raccoon population in a given area is less than ideal for productive turkey nesting in the same.  Additionally, this attracts predators to one location and increases the chances for mortality of wild turkeys coming to feed on corn.

• Further, some of that same corn turkeys do actually eat is apt to be harmful. Aflatoxin comes from mold that grows on corn that’s put out in warm weather, as Aspergillus grows and get me extremely toxic to any gallinaceous bird. It’s been found present in levels toxic to turkeys within four days of the corn being out. Aflatoxins are harmful to turkeys, and the amount of harm is related to how much they ingest. It’s not necessarily instantly fatal, but researchers hypothesize it may be harmful enough to the birds’ general health to affect fertility, egg production and, ultimately, the number of turkeys overall.  Studies conducted on Northern Bobwhite Quail in Georgia has found that corn infested with alfatoxins can negatively impact populations with high incidences of mortality. 

• Studies of predator control and its effect on turkey populations have not been completed, but comparable work as applied to bobwhite quail may tell us a lot. Quail require a specific succession of habitat, as do turkeys, and the same predators eat them both. A study of habitat improvement, predator control and the quail population changes that resulted found the results of predator control alone to be negligible. Areas where habitat alone was improved saw a quail population increase of 26 percent. Areas where both predator control and habitat improvement were applied saw a quail population increase of 56 percent. Comparing one bird species to another has its limits, but there’s every reason to think similar results would be found where the same is done for wild turkeys. Once a foundation of quality habitat is in place, integrated predator management showed additional increases of 10-15% annually in quail populations.

• Studies of fur-bearing predators don’t identify one single species as the greatest menace to turkeys. The predators that thrive in a given area are affected by many factors. Bobcats, foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums have areas in which they hold primary sway and, by association, are the largest predation threat to turkeys there. In the same way certain plants are more prevalent in one area than another, predator populations are seen to do the same. Predator control, just like habitat management, must be addressed locally on a case-by-case basis.

• Much of the southeastern US was historically a tall grass prairie with a mix of pine and woodland savannas.  If allowed to return to nature, and if appropriately managed with fire on a regular basis, many places retain the seed bank necessary to return to its original state, one ideal for wild bird production. For more on this subject, visit www.nativehabitatproject.com. 

• In sponsoring the Native Plants & Wild Turkey Habitat Seminar, TFT was honored to join a number of organizations that share our goals. These include Alabama Ag Credit, Alabama Treasure Forest Association, Alabama Wildlife Federation, Autauga County Soil & Water Conservation District, Central Alabama Electric Co-Op, International Paper, and River Bank & Trust.

Photo credit: Ron Jolly_TFT

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