As the truck bumps along the sandy, narrow roads winding through Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area, Stephen F. Austin State University Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture graduate student Kyle Hand surveys the landscape with a keen eye.
“You see this open area with the tall grasses?” he said, pointing to a large opening near a tree line of post oaks. “That is perfect habitat for nesting and brood-rearing.”
Hand, who is pursuing a master’s degree in forestry, is following the movements of more than 100 Eastern wild turkeys to bolster the current body of knowledge regarding the native bird’s habitat usage and requirements.
The Eastern wild turkey is one of three subspecies that reside in Texas. Historically, this subspecies occupied approximately 80 million acres in eastern Texas. By the late 19th century, its population had drastically declined due to habitat loss and excessive harvesting. Efforts to reintroduce populations of the Eastern turkey occurred as early as the 1920s.
From 1979 to 2007, approximately 7,000 Eastern turkeys from across the U.S. were relocated to East Texas in an effort to establish a viable population, said Dr. Chris Comer, associate professor of wildlife at SFA. However, despite biologists’ best efforts, these reintroduced populations failed to thrive.
“The current population estimate is about eight to 10,000 (turkeys) in all of East Texas, so basically the population has held steady,” Comer said.
Comer said this lack of population growth is troubling.
“If you look at neighboring states and other states across the Southeast where they’ve reintroduced considerably smaller numbers of turkeys, the populations have taken off and done really well,” he said.
Wildlife biologists from SFA first became involved with stocking efforts in 2007. That year, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began a practice known as super stocking, which reintroduces substantially higher numbers of hens and gobblers at each site than past efforts. Due to promising results, the agency decided to expand the program. A habitat suitability index outlining habitat requirements for the species was developed by researchers at the college, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the National Wild Turkey Federation, which helped guide restoration efforts.
Last March, a total of 240 Eastern wild turkeys from states across the eastern U.S. were released at three separate locations in East Texas.
Prior to their release, more than 100 newly-reintroduced turkeys, as well as turkeys from previous reintroductions, were equipped with small radio transmitters, which will allow researchers to track their movements using radio telemetry. The units also were programmed to provide researchers with a GPS point every hour during the critical nesting and brooding period that runs from March to early September.
“Past studies show brood rearing habitat is the main limiting factor in East Texas,” Hand said.
During this time, young turkeys, known as poults, are extremely vulnerable to predators and require habitat that provides a nutrient-rich diet. According to Hand, one poult can consume up to 4,000 insects each day.
Comer explained the data collected will provide valuable fine-scale habitat use information for the birds. In addition, the ability to compare habitat usage and movement between newly-reintroduced turkeys and those that have successfully established a home range is important.
“One of the goals of the project is to revamp the current habitat suitability index,” Hand said. “We want to see what the turkeys are using specifically, and then put that into the new HSI in order to get a better idea of what the turkeys need.”
Hand will complete another season of monitoring before analyzing the data. Both he and Comer believe this project, funded primarily by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation, is another valuable component of the quest to reestablish this native species.