How to Download a Wild Turkey . . .
At the SCDNR’s Webb Wildlife Center, a new generation of researchers is using a mix of high-tech and old-school research tools to gain fresh insights into the movements of Eastern wild turkeys.
story and photos by David Lucas
Part III of a III-Part Series: How to Download a Wild Turkey . . .
The corn bait used to bring wild turkeys to the rocket nets has to be cleaned up and off the ground at least two weeks prior to hunting season, so with the time available for trapping turkeys at an end, in late March, I’m again at the SCDNR’s Webb Wildlife Center, headed out with the three-person research crew of Alaina Gerrits, Kyle Zinn and Ryan Klinedinst, who have now turned their attention to “downloading” the birds they were able to capture during the tagging phase of the project [insert link to parts I & II]. This entails locating the birds using a VHF receiver and antenna, and then getting close enough to each bird so that the movement data collected by the birds’ “backpacks” can be downloaded and captured via a wireless satellite connection.
It’s a tricky business, and it relies heavily on the crew’s familiarity with the birds they are tracking and their intuition about where they’ll most likely be found. A little luck doesn’t hurt, either. Keeping track of the birds is a daily task. This entails driving to the location near where they were last “heard” dialing in the correct frequency and listening for the telltale beep from the receiver signifying that turkey 486-166; tag ID# 9040, for instance, is still alive and active. The backpack on a bird that has ceased to move for a period of time, indicating mortality, beeps at a different rate.
This can happen for a variety of reasons, Gerrits and Klinedinst explain as we drive through Hamilton Ridge WMA, searching for a signal from a bird they want to download today. Natural predation, for instance; the backpacks are sometimes recovered along with the remains of a meal for a bobcat, coyote or other animal. Sometimes it can take a more sinister turn. On a backpack recovered by the crew a few weeks earlier, the straps attaching it to the bird had obviously been cut with a sharp instrument. Likely a poacher’s knife.
Sometimes the tagged birds wander off the confines of the Webb Center, Palachucola and Hamilton Ridge and onto adjacent private lands. Fortunately, the Webb Center’s full-time staff has built excellent relationships with the surrounding private landowners over the years, most of whom are happy to work with the SCDNR to allow the researchers access onto their properties when necessary. It doesn’t take long to figure out that chasing and locating the birds involves about as much art as science.
Attempting to get a location on each bird, just to keep up with where they’re at is pretty much a daily activity for the crew. For that, you don’t have to be too close – maybe 2 kilometers or so, but the birds can easily move that distance and more in a day. Then, about every two weeks or so, you try to get close enough to your birds to attempt a download. For this you have to be pretty close – maybe half a kilometer or less to get a solid connection (think of trying to get bars on your cell phone in a remote spot – same thing, sort of). But you also don’t want to be too close, you can spook the bird, and the crew strives to keep face-to-beak encounters to a minimum.
“It’s kind of like a new puzzle, every day,” says Gerrits.
Sometimes the chase can be downright comical. Back in February while we were sitting standby, Patrick Wightman told me the story of a hen that they chased and chased, deeper and deeper into the swamp, until it was almost at the Savannah River. At the last possible second, they were able to download the data from the hen’s backpack, just before it crossed the river into Georgia, never to be heard from again.
At our first stop of the morning, Klinedinst gets out and holds the antennae over his head, looking for a signal. They’ve got two birds that have been frequenting the same general area – in fact, they may be travelling together, they speculate – and they’d like to download them both today if they can. Nothing happening. We ride to another spot and get a faint beep – one of the birds is in this block, but it’s too far away to hike in, so we drive again, hoping to get closer using one of the many roads and firebreaks that criss-cross the property. The early spring weather has vegetation that was bare just a few weeks ago exploding in various shades of green as oaks and red maples begin to leaf out.
Everything is early this year. The team members have already spotted baby alligators while looking for their turkeys, weeks before they normally appear. All this tender new vegetation is a buffet for the turkeys, as are the bugs coming out to take advantage of the sun’s warmth. That’s great for the hens, protein-rich insects are an important part of their diet as they prepare to nest.
We pass a recently burned over area, the smell from the prescribed fire still fresh. Hens love to forage in a fresh burn, Webb Center biologist April Atkinson had told me, where “bugging” is particularly productive. We’re closing in, even with the gain on the VHF receiver turned down about halfway, we’re still getting a good signal. Time to leave the truck and go hiking into the woods, stopping every so often to check the signal. Gerrits and Klinedinst take turns operating the receiver, sometimes even clambering atop the truck in search of a better signal. Finally, success! With a solid hookup on the backpack’s signal, indicating a nearby bird, we leave the truck and hike a short distance through the woods, we’re able to get close enough to establish a connection to download the cache of all this bird’s movements over the past few weeks at one go. The information will be added to a growing database that includes precise information about the movements of all the birds tagged during the four years of this study, as well as similar data from studies in other states. With more successful forays like this one over the next several months, the team will be able to amass a valuable pool of research data for this field season, despite the smaller number of birds they were able to capture this year due to the early warm weather. In a few weeks, the hens in this year’s groupwill be nesting, which is a particular area of interest for Gerrits and will likely play a part in her Master’s Degree thesis. It’s hard to overstate just how much the techniques and information generated from this effort will influence wild turkey research over the coming years. Once again, just like in the 1940s and 50s with the development of rocket netting techniques, South Carolina is on the cutting edge of wild turkey management and research.
Earlier, as we were driving from spot to spot, I had asked if there was a particular type of habitat considered “optimal” for nesting. While conventional wisdom among biologists has for decades been that hens seek out particular habitats for nesting, interestingly, data from some of this research is calling that supposition into question, said Gerrits. Nesting location choices may vary from hen to hen much more than was previously thought. A colleague of hers working on a similar study in Louisiana has written a paper on that very subject that will soon be published in the prestigious Journal of Wildlife Management and could open up a whole new line of inquiry into that question.
It’s a new generation, using new tools (and some time-tested ones as well) to generate new insights that will hopefully push the science of managing these birds forward and result in better management and better hunting in the decades to come. For Alaina Gerrits, Ryan Klinedinst and Kyle Zinn, the experience they’ve gained while participating in this groundbreaking research will no doubt serve them well during what will hopefully be long and fruitful careers in natural resources and wildlife management.