Photograph by Joe Mac Hudspeth, Jr. · www.southernfocus.com
What We Do
Turkey Restoration in the Delta
Turkey Restoration History:
The restoration of wild turkey populations throughout most regions of Mississippi has been one of our State’s greatest wildlife management success stories. While this grand game bird occurred historically in large numbers in Mississippi, wild turkeys fell on difficult times during the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the late 1920s, the wild turkey would be nearly eliminated from the landscape across most of Mississippi and much of the Southeastern United States. The combination of unrestricted harvest (including commercially hunting turkeys for the market) and the widespread clearing of native forests was a disastrous formula for the wild turkey. By the time that famous wildlife conservationist Aldo Leopold toured Mississippi in 1929, he found the region nearly void of turkeys. Leopold wrote “Ten million acres, or a third of the State, is potential present turkey range. The present distribution is confined to probably not more than a million acres, and even here there is in most places only a bare seed stock. It is therefore safe to say that the wild turkey is 90% cleaned out as to potential area and 99% cleaned out as to potential abundance…” However, Leopold also saw great potential for the wild turkey to make a comeback in the Magnolia State, as he noted “on account of the dispersion of natural refuges in the form of swamps, no state has a more favorable chance then Mississippi to produce a large and stable crop of wild turkeys.”
The restoration of the wild turkey was an important early objective of Mississippi Game and Fish Commission when it was formed in the 1930s. However, capturing wild turkeys to be used for restocking proved to be challenging, and early attempts to restock Mississippi with pen-reared turkeys failed. The advent of the cannon or rocket net in the 1950s would be the great breakthrough needed for turkey capture. Originally designed to capture waterfowl, the cannon net could be neatly concealed in the field near areas where wild turkeys were baited, and nets could then be remotely launched over the feeding birds. This technique gave wildlife managers the ability to capture large numbers of wild turkeys to be translocated into areas of suitable habitat. From the 1950s to the 1970s, wildlife officers and biologists worked to trap and transfer wild turkeys throughout Mississippi. Usually, 12-15 birds would be released into areas deemed suitable, and over the subsequent years populations would expand from these release points. Released birds flourished in areas with suitable habitat as long as they could be protected from overexploitation by wildlife officers and concerned local conservationists.
Turkeys in the Mississippi Delta:
Today, every region of Mississippi supports a viable wild turkey population. Turkey restoration efforts are completed in the State, with the exception of the interior portions of the Mississippi Delta. Turkey populations have done well in the Batture lands along the Mississippi River, and within larger forested blocks in the interior Delta (such as Delta National Forest). Eastern wild turkeys thrive in forested landscapes, and some mature woods is a critical component of suitable turkey habitat. Since most of area in the interior Delta (the land between the main river levee to the west and the Loess Hills to the east) is characterized by expansive open lands cleared for agriculture, much of this region has been unsuitable for wild turkeys, and has generally been avoided by turkeys using existing wooded tracts. However, hardwood reforestation efforts, buoyed by programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wetland Research Program (WRP), have led to the conversion of several thousand acres of agricultural lands to young hardwood forests. These reforested areas should help expand suitable wild turkey habitat within the Mississippi Delta as these young forests mature. Most of these reforested areas are still relatively young (less than 20 years old), and it is not clear to biologists what value they might have for wild turkeys at this time.
The Delta Research Project:
While much is known about the wild turkey and its habitat requirements, there is much that we do not know about how turkeys might adapt to the types of cover currently available in today’s Mississippi Delta. Therefore, a research project was initiated in 2009 using radio-tagged wild turkeys to help evaluate the suitability of hardwood reforestation areas as potential turkey habitat. This project is being conducted by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks and Mississippi State University, with technical and financial support from Delta Wildlife.
Where to Release Turkeys?
We considered several factors while trying to identify potential study areas for releasing turkeys. First, we reviewed a model developed by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) that identified potential turkey habitat in the Mississippi Delta by proximity to established, forested stands. Second, we solicited “expert opinion” information on potential turkey habitat from MDWFP and Delta Wildlife personnel who work within the Delta. Third, these two turkey habitat assessments were considered together to determine areas of greatest potential. Habitat areas adjacent to the Batture and Loess Hills, and all habitats already occupied by established turkey populations were excluded from consideration. Researchers used this information to model potential Delta habitat suitability for turkey restoration.
A total of three study areas were selected for turkey release. These areas range in size from 10,000 to 20,000 acres, and are located in Quitman and Coahoma Counties in the North Delta. Study areas are characterized by a mix of mature woods, young hardwood reforestation stands (up to 20+ years old), and active agricultural fields. Based on all factors considered, researchers considered these three landscapes to represent the highest potential for turkey restoration success in the interior Delta.
Bring on the Turkeys!
The MDWFP took the lead role in trapping turkeys for this research project. During January and February, 2009, a total of 107 were birds trapped on private and public lands statewide. During January and February, 2010, an additional 45 birds were added to the study. We captured turkeys using cannon nets and rocket boxes, and then transported them in specially-designed turkey transport boxes provided by the NWTF. Each bird was fitted with a radio transmitter, and released on the study areas.
Following the release of these turkeys, students from MSU have actively monitored them using radio-telemetry equipment. The students locate each turkey by listening for the unique frequency from each radio transmitter. Students record data on locations of each turkey and determine if each bird is active or not. If we suspect that a turkey is not alive, we then try to make a visual observation of the bird to determine its status. Data from this study will help us determine survival rates, movements, home range size, and reproductive success of released turkeys.
The ultimate goal of this study is to predict where turkey restoration efforts can be successful based on available, suitable habitat. Rather than us making educated guesses, we want to let the turkeys tell us what should be considered suitable habitat in the Mississippi Delta. Once we know in which types of habitat turkeys can survive, we can use aerial photography to start identifying other landscapes that might be suitable for restoration. We should also be able to make predictions on how long it might take landscapes with high acreages of very young hardwood stands to mature into suitable turkey habitat.
Turkey Habitat Requirements:
Turkeys have certain habitat requirements they need to survive, and areas that cannot provide these requirements will never sustain turkey populations. Turkeys need different types of cover for nesting, brood-rearing, roosting, and feeding. Taking any one of these components away from an area can render an area unsuitable for wild turkeys. For example, if turkeys do not have suitable nesting cover, they will not thrive in an area, regardless of how much food they can find there. Additionally, turkeys need suitable habitats over relatively large spaces. A 100-acre tract of excellent habitat surrounded by a landscape of poor habitat is of little value to a turkey population. The average home range of wild turkeys in good habitat is over 6-square miles! Turkey populations use landscapes, rather than patches of land.
Also, we know that mature woods are critically important to wild turkeys. Turkeys spent a great amount of time roosting, feeding, and loafing in mature woodland areas. The scarcity of mature woods, and the lack of connectivity between wooded areas, has greatly limited the turkey distribution in the Mississippi Delta. The thousands of acres of conservation trees established throughout the Delta will certainly have a positive impact on future turkey habitat in the region, but the reality is that it will be many years before most of these areas are functional forests. The current research project will help us to understand the current value of these habitats for wild turkeys, and will also help us plan future restoration efforts in the Mississippi Delta!
This project is a significant undertaking, and is only possible due to the hard work of many people. Thanks are certainly due to all MDWFP and MSU personnel who worked long hours making this project possible. Private landowners throughout Mississippi have graciously allowed us to trap turkeys on their property for use in this study. Finally, contributions from Delta Wildlife, NWTF, local landowners, and other partners have made this project possible. Over the next few years, we will learn more and more about restoring wild turkeys to the Mississippi Delta! For more information on this study, visit http://home.mdwfp.com/research.