Turkeys Be Ready . . .
by David Lucas
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.
Part I: Turkeys Be Ready . . .
Among the hunters who chase them for fun, and the people who study them for the benefit of those hunters, the habits and behaviors of the Eastern wild turkey are a source of endless fascination. And most folks – even avid turkey hunters – don’t realize the central role that South Carolina (and the SCDNR) played in the restoration of these birds during the latter half of the 20th century.
It’s an amazing success story, but after peaking around the turn of this century, turkey numbers have been in somewhat of a decline across the Southeast (and are at about 30% below those historic highs in South Carolina, according to the latest SCDNR estimates). A recent article in Outdoor Life magazine about the work and life of pioneering wild turkey biologist James Dickson of Louisiana written by Jim Casada, one South Carolina’s best-known chroniclers of the turkey obsession, makes the point that “there needs to be greater interest and emphasis on science and the work of biologists, who loomed so large in the wild turkey’s comeback in the first place.”
“I expect most turkey hunters today would not even know who Henry Mosby and James Lewis were,” said Dickson [look it up].
Probably true. Nor would most know about Herman Lindsay “Duff”Holbrook (June 30, 1923 – July 17, 2015), the man credited with developing the ‘cannon-netting method,’ also known as rocket-netting,” for use in capturing wild turkeys. Holbrook, a wildlife biologist for the then-S.C. Wildlife Department, along with U.S. FWS biologist William Baldwin, utilized rocket nets to capture turkeys in the Francis Marion National Forest and relocate them to the Sumter National Forest and, eventually, other areas. In terms of turkey research, it doesn’t get any more “old-school” than rocket-nets. It is THE foundational technology in modern wild turkey management.
I was thinking about that bit of history back in mid-February, while bouncing along in the pre-dawn darkness on one of the many roads crisscrossing the SCDNR’s James Webb Wildlife Center and the adjoining Palachucola and Hamilton Ridge WMAs. All told, these properties situated along the vast floodplain of the Savannah River on the western edge of South Carolina encompass about 26,000 acres – a tremendous amount of it prime turkey habitat. That’s great for hunters and also for researchers. In a pickup truck piled high with gear, totes, turkey boxes, backpacks and people, I was listening to Alaina Gerrits talk about the process involved in capturing turkeys and outfitting them with tiny GPS-enabled “backpack” transmitters. Gerrits, a graduate student at Louisiana State University’s School of Renewable Natural Resources, is part of a multi-year study into the movements, habits, survival and ecology of wild turkeys on Webb, Palchucola and Hamilton Ridge commissioned and funded by the SCDNR and led by Brett Collier, a professor in the LSU School of Agriculture. Gerrits is assisted in her research this season by Ryan Klinedinst and Kyle Zinn.
The four of us were headed out to two pre-positioned blinds where we’d spend the next few hours waiting for a group of turkeys to come within rocket net range. Using this technique that has been in the wildlife biologist’s toolkit for decades -- along with modern GPS-enabled wireless transmitters and other high-tech tools – Gerrits and company are hoping to build on the work of previous researchers to shed new light on turkey’s movements, nesting behaviors and responses to hunting pressure.
The wireless “backpack” transmitters that are a game-changer for this research were actually developed just a few years before this study started. One of the side benefits of this project has been the amount of trial-and-error-driven experience that these researchers have accumulated on how to best use the new technology – data that will no doubt prove beneficial to other wildlife researchers as well. That’s what happens when you’re on the cutting edge.
These units transmit a steady beep that can be picked up by a VHF receiver to triangulate a bird’s approximate location. There’s nothing new about that; wildlife researchers have been using telemetry equipment of this type for decades. But, when coupled with a tiny GPS unit and microchip capable of recording the tagged bird’s precise location every thirty minutes, the potential for an amazing new treasure trove of data becomes clear.
Later in the year, when the crew begins to go out and locate tagged birds using the VHF equipment, the strength of that VHF signal lets them know they are close enough, the crew will be able “download” their tagged birds -- i.e. pull all of the GPS data collected on a particular bird’s movements since the last download using wireless technology. That data set creates a very accurate map of the tagged birds’ movements over time. Once hunting season starts, the team will also hand out GPS units to turkey hunters on the property who agree to take one, and will collect information on their movements also, which gives researchers a corresponding set of data to look at.
Gerrits has a theory she wants to test – which is that hunters’ movements may influence the behavior of nesting hens in a given area, even while their primary goal is locating male gobblers. It’s something that researchers would very much like to know more about but in the past would have been very difficult to get hard data on, but modern GPS technology and small battery-powered transmitters – essentially tiny, wireless computers – have changed the game.
“We have a lot of questions,” says Gerrits. “There’s literally a thousand different questions you could explore using this data.”
A colleague of hers at LSU doing similar research in Texas, for example, is trying to figure out how far turkeys there will travel from their main water source, which would be a big deal for Texas biologists and hunters because of drier conditions there.
But first, you have to catch them, and that requires going old-school.
“Yep, it is a lot like hunting,” says Gerrits, an avid turkey hunter herself, in response to my quizzing her about how this part of the study works. “It’s a turkey blind exactly like you might hunt out of, and we have our rocket nets set up perpendicular to the blind so we’ll be able to see down the line. You want to make sure that when the turkeys do come in, that they’re all within the range of the rockets. We hook wires up to the rockets and string that wire back to the blind. That gets hooked to a little 9-volt detonator [a “boom box” in turkey tech parlance] and basically we just wait for them to come in and feed.”
Turkeys come off the roost at daylight, but they can come to the field/bait stations at pretty much any time during the day, which can make for some long hours spent in the field. Game cameras set up on the perimeter of the trapping site give the research crew a way of telling when groups of birds might be visiting any one of multiple sites they have set up, and checking those cameras for data – in the form of pictures – is another part of their very long work days. Turkeys are notoriously wary, so each potential site has to be prepared just as it will be set up during netting, with a blind and a set of “dummy” rockets in place so that the birds will eventually feel comfortable enough with this change in their landscape to begin coming to the bait.
“It really just depends,” says Gerrits, “sometimes they’ll fly right down from the roost to the edge of the field and come straight in right after daylight. Sometimes they’ll feed through at 10:30. You try to pattern them, you try to figure out what they’re doing . . . but sometimes they just do what they want,” she adds with a smile.
And sometimes you sit all day and come up empty.
Gerrits’ good humor is laced with a hint of frustration. An unusually warm winter and early spring-like conditions, coupled with an absolutely unbelievable fall acorn crop, have made the crew’s work difficult this year. Warmer temperatures mean the birds have less incentive to feed, and the mast crop means they don’t have to brave the open food plots where the nets are set up if they don’t want to. The warm conditions also make handling the birds quickly and efficiently all the more critical.
You know how you feel after forty-five minutes on the elliptical trainer at the gym – like just melting into the floor and not moving for a while? Well, that’s sort of what it feels like to be a turkey, post-rocket net experience. Not ideal if you need to be totally focused on evading predators, which, besides eating and breeding, is pretty much ALL turkeys are focused on, all the time.
Moving fast means having people ready to help when the net goes off. Members of the Webb Center’s permanent full-time staff are on standby, waiting out of sight or earshot of the day’s chosen net sites with the truck that carries the boxes, transmitters and other equipment the crew will need to “work up” the captured birds.
“If we shoot, they’ll come quickly and bring us the transmitters,” says Gerrits. “We try to move really quickly and work these birds up as fast as possible, because the longer they sit in the box, the more stressed out they get, and it actually builds up lactic acid in their muscles like we do when we’re working out and you get that burning sensation. If they get too much of it, it gets to the point where they get exhausted and they can’t fly into roost that night, and if they try to sleep on the ground all night, their chances of getting eaten by a predator are much higher, so that’s why we try to work them up as fast as we can and get them back out.”
Everyone carries cell phones, and when a technician sitting in the blind sees turkeys in the vicinity, a group text goes out: “Turkeys Be Ready.” But, cell signals being a little iffy in some of the more remote spots on the property, sometimes notification is delivered via the loud Boom of the rockets going off and the crackle of an excited voice on a walkie-talkie saying “Go, Go Go…!” And even from standby position, that will get your heart racing in a hurry.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” says April Atkinson, a veteran Webb Center employee who was recently promoted to biologist after years of hands-on field work as a technician. Atkinson, as well as other members of the permanent Webb Center crew have assisted with a lot of turkey captures over the past three field seasons for this project.
On Monday, February 20 – President’s Day – I was sitting standby with Ryan Klinedinst, and we were talking about “Friday’s Birds,” which, frustratingly, I was not here to see captured.
It was Klinedinst’s first opportunity to fire the rocket net at a group of turkeys, and he recounted the tale with all the excitement one might expect from someone describing a first successful hunt. It’s no coincidence that every one of these young researchers that I’ve spoken with during the course of reporting this story is an enthusiastic hunter and outdoors person. This research project is personal for them. Working on these types of field research projects may be a necessary part of building a career for them, for sure, but what impresses you is the degree to which they all are involved in wildlife management because they love it, and because they want to see the outdoor sporting traditions they grew up with carried on.
“My heart was really beating fast,” said Klinedinst. Two male turkeys came into the field and then left. Eventually they came back, joined by a hen. It took a while for all three to get in the perfect spot, heads down, feeding on the bait, he recalled. “My hands were actually shaking a little when they finally came in,” he added with a smile.
Turkeys Be ready . . .