MELROSE, Fla. — If you live in an urban area, you probably think of the turkey as a shockingly stupid bird that dies at Thanksgiving but lingers in your refrigerator for weeks.
But for Mel Sunquist and his students, the turkey is a formidable opponent who can elude rocket-powered capture nets, high-tech camera equipment and weeks of careful stalking. And he’s just trying to count them.
“Anybody who knows wild turkeys will tell you these are not dumb birds,” said Sunquist, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “There are people who have spent years hunting turkeys without ever getting a clear shot at one.”
Sunquist and a handful of UF undergraduate students are spending the holiday season on a high-tech turkey hunt, part of a multi-year study that will help state wildlife officials develop a system for counting the elusive fowl. If the system works, the researchers say, it could be adopted by wildlife officials around the country.
“The reintroduction of wild turkeys is an amazing success story,” said Sunquist. “It’s an incredible comeback.”
Long a symbol of America’s early history, the wild turkey all but disappeared from the landscape in the early 20th Century, as decades of overhunting and habitat destruction took their toll. By some estimates, the nation’s entire turkey population was down to 30,000 by the 1930s. But the turkey began to make a comeback in mid-century, as wildlife officials began capturing small groups of turkeys in the wild and releasing them in habitats where they had vanished decades earlier. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, there are an estimated 6.4 million turkeys in the country today.
And state officials say there are around 100,000 wild turkeys living in Florida – but that’s a loose estimate, based on accounts from hunters and other data.
Officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hope the ongoing study, using remote cameras as a survey technique, will result in an accurate and cost-effective means for evaluating the turkey population for a given area. Such counts could help state wildlife officials judge the effectiveness of their policies for managing turkey habitat – and help them set appropriate limits on turkey hunting.
“Getting this information is important to wildlife biologists because it tells us whether a turkey population in an area is large enough to be opened up to hunting, what type of hunting we should allow and whether we’re having success with the techniques we’re using to manage the habitat,” said Larry Perrin, head of the commission’s wild turkey management program.
Getting a good count has always been difficult, thanks in large part to the wary nature of the wild turkey. While domestic turkeys are widely considered the dunces of the feathered world, their untamed cousins are notoriously wily and will bolt at the slightest hint of a trap.
Because wild turkeys are so cautious, capturing and tagging them is a job for a small army of researchers, armed with traps and nets – and counting the birds in a single wildlife preserve can take weeks. To conduct a cost-effective annual count, state wildlife officials need a counting method that takes less time and less labor. So they’ve asked UF researchers to help them adapt a common technique for counting elusive animals – a technique known as “camera-trapping.”
Here’s how it works. First, researchers set up cameras – each of them rigged to shoot a photo when an animal comes near – at a series of sites evenly spaced across the area to be studied. Then they leave food as bait to attract the animals. Then they wait a few days or weeks, collect their cameras and count the animals captured on film. Using what they already know about the usual range of the animal to be counted, the theory goes, researchers can use that information to estimate the total number of animals in an area – including the animals not caught on film.
There’s just one problem. Camera-trapping is typically used for animals like tigers, which have distinctive markings that make it possible to tell one individual from another. Distinctive markings help researchers refine their count by recognizing individuals who show up in more than one photograph. But turkeys all wear more or less the same suit of feathers.
“The sex of adults is easy to tell, but other than that they all look alike,” said Sunquist.
You can always give the birds their own distinctive markings – but only if you can catch them first. And that’s what state wildlife officials and a group of UF student volunteers are now doing in the Katherine Ordway Wildlife Preserve near Melrose. They’re catching the birds and fitting them with leg-bands in different colors and patterns that allow them to distinguish each turkey from its neighbor.
At first glance, the researchers’ hunting methods look like a scene from a coyote-and-roadrunner cartoon. The researchers set up large nets, about thirty feet long by fifty feet wide – each of them connected to three small gunpowder-propelled rockets. Then they put some cracked corn on the ground as bait, and a researcher hides in a blind not far away. When a group of turkeys notices the corn and settles down to eat, the researcher uses a remote control to fire the rockets, sending the net over the unsuspecting birds.
Strange as it sounds, the method works. Researchers bagged and tagged 76 turkeys in Ordway in the first trapping season and are hoping their second season is as successful. And the rocket nets appear to be safer than the researchers’ only other option – using immobilizing drugs on piles of prepared bait.
“There’s always a chance that a bird will get partly sedated but still get away, and even when you catch a turkey you have to worry about the effects the drugs may have after you release them,” Perrin said. “We don’t want to do anything that could make them more vulnerable to predators.”