Wild Turkey Forensics (Mississippi Project Announcement)


*Pictured above left to right Adam Butler, Dr. Dana Morin, Mark Yarborough, Chase Grubbs*

Novel Approaches to Estimating Wild Turkey Population Parameters

Turkeys for Tomorrow (TFT), has partnered with Mississippi State University and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to fund cutting edge wild turkey research in the Magnolia State. This project will use non-invasive techniques to gather DNA from materials turkeys leave behind in the field. These samples will allow unique individuals to be identified, ultimately yielding precise estimates of the number of turkeys on the landscape. The study will be conducted on eight sites throughout the state, creating an incredible opportunity to uncover why some properties produce more turkeys than others. Some of the study sites will include wildlife management areas already in an ongoing experiment investigating the influence of a delayed and reduced spring season framework in Mississippi. The National Wild Turkey Federation is also a notable funding partner for the project.

Principal Investigators:

Dr. Dana Morin
Assistant Professor Mississippi State University

Dr. Mark McConnell
Assistant Professor Mississippi State University

Adam Butler
Wild Turkey Program Coordinator, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks

Project Overview:

Estimating the number of wild turkeys on the landscape has proven exceedingly difficult. The lack of accurate estimates is regarded as one of the primary impediments to a deeper understanding of many aspects of wild turkey population biology and their response to management. Recent advances in genetic analysis now allow researchers to uniquely identify individual animals from the easily collected genetic material left behind in the field. Application of this suite of DNA-based lab techniques to traditional forms of mark-recapture sampling can provide statistically valid estimates of survival, recruitment, and the total number of individuals in local populations, without the expensive and time-consuming constraints associated with animal capture and marking.

These estimates may then be compared against environmental variables or management actions believed to influence population abundance, at a fraction of the cost of other field techniques.

The Mississippi project seeks to be the first to apply genetic analysis to investigate factors determining the density of turkeys on the landscape. Project goals seek to collect noninvasive genetic material (e.g., fecal droppings and feathers) from 8 different sites throughout Mississippi (4 private and 4 public). A subset of these sites will include Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) currently involved in an experimental trial investigating whether a shorter, later spring season increases the sustainability of turkey populations (these experimental WMA seasons are April 1 – May 1 vs. Mississippi’s current statewide March 15 – May 1 structure). Fecal samples will also allow for additional investigations into wild turkey health and the relationship certain parasites, diseases, and aflatoxins play in dictating the number of turkeys on the landscape. Given the cost and time savings provided by this innovative methodology, we will be able to study turkeys on a larger number of sites (8) than typically covered in more traditional, telemetry-based demographic studies. Consequently, the project will provide estimates of turkey density and demographics over sites with a range of conditions, allowing for deeper inference into the mechanisms driving differences in local turkey abundance.

Specific project objectives include:

1. Estimation of male and female turkey density, breeding season survival, and recruitment at study sites with different spring season frameworks, habitats, and management intensities.

2. Calibration of camera surveys to estimate abundance based on the precisely determined turkey densities obtained from the non-invasive genetic sampling.

3. Evaluate relationships between Poults-Per-Hen (PPH) indices and estimated population density the following year.

4. Use densities and demographics determined from the non-invasive genetic sampling to inform the ongoing development of population models evaluating the impacts of spring harvest frameworks on fecundity, survival, and population growth.

5. Utilize non-invasive techniques to quantify parasite, disease, and aflatoxin prevalence in wild turkeys across different study sites and relate these back to changes in density through time.


“We are excited to collaborate with TFT on this new approach to understanding turkey populations. We hope this project will shine some light on the question that is on everyone’s mind: why are there a lot of turkeys in some places but not others.” – Adam Butler, Wild Turkey Program Coordinator, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks


Expected Benefits:

Results of this research will provide statistically defensible estimates of turkey density, survival, and recruitment across a range of sites in Mississippi. These values will be directly incorporated into currently funded research which will guide policy decisions surrounding Mississippi’s spring season framework. This study will allow for an independent assessment of the brood survey methodology employed by most southeastern state wildlife agencies and may help refine user-friendly camera survey techniques which can be employed by hunters and managers. Finally, this project will open the door to exciting new investigations into the roll certain pathogens, diseases, and parasites may play in wild turkey population trends.

PHOTO CREDIT: Realtree.com

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2 thoughts on “Wild Turkey Forensics (Mississippi Project Announcement)”

  1. Good to see the support for this project get started, a much needed study. Hopefully to hear early results. Maybe this can unravel part of the mystery as to why the flocks are declining.

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