Harvest Rate Estimation of Wild Turkey in Central Florida

group of wild turkeys

Female wild turkeys congregated at a trap-site.

Turkey hunting is a popular activity in Florida, and hunters flock to the state during the spring each year for a chance to harvest a special game bird found nowhere else in the world.

This unique bird is the Osceola wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo Osceola), also known as the Florida turkey. It’s a coveted and sought-after game bird that lives on the Florida peninsula and nowhere else. The FWC and other local, state and federal partners understand the importance of preserving the Osceola turkey for future generations while providing hunters with sustainable harvest opportunities for years to come. Accomplishing these goals requires data to help managers set regulations to ensure its sustainability while providing the greatest annual harvest of wild turkey in Florida.

During a four-year study, researchers at FWRI, in partnership with the Division of Hunting and Game Management, hope to better understand the relationship between the harvest rate of wild turkey during Florida’s spring gun season and factors such as harvest regulations, hunting pressure and wild turkey population density.

The team is conducting the study on seven areas with varying regulatory frameworks in central and south Florida. The central Florida sites include Newnans Lake Conservation Area, Hatchet Creek Wildlife Management Area and the Long Leaf Flatwoods Reserve, all owned by the St. Johns River Water Management District. Biologists are also studying turkeys on Grove Park Wildlife Management Area, which is owned by Weyerhaeuser Co. and cooperatively managed with the FWC. Study sites in South Florida include the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Bear Island Units of Big Cypress National Preserve and Picayune Strand State Forest.

turkey legs with green and blue leg bands

Unique colored leg-bands used for identification of individual wild turkeys on trail-cameras.

From October to March each year, biologists trap wild turkeys using rocket-nets at sites baited with cracked corn. Some captured birds are fitted with radio transmitters, and all birds receive a unique combination of colored leg bands. The survey requires that each wild turkey captured during the study receive a unique combination of colored aluminum leg bands so individuals captured on trail cameras can be identified during the survey. Researchers use a 700-meter grid based infrared trail camera array to estimate wild turkey densities on each of the study properties. The camera survey for turkey abundance estimates is a year-round survey for the duration of the project, and abundance estimates are made using spatially-explicit mark-recapture models. These abundance models use the frequency at which the same individually-marked turkey is captured at different trail cameras in the grid and the cameras spatial orientation to each other to estimate the abundance of all wild turkeys on the study area.

researchers with turkey

Recording biological information on a captured adult male wild turkey that is fitted with a radio-transmitter.

During the spring breeding season, the tagged turkeys are tracked daily using the radio transmitters to determine their location and the level of hunting pressure they’re exposed to on each day of the spring gun turkey season. Radio-tagged turkeys also allow biologists to estimate annual and seasonal survival and season harvest rates (males only). Survival and harvest rate estimates are made using the known-fate and nest survival models. These models take advantage of the use of radio-transmitters to eliminate uncertainty created by the event of unknown fates of marked animals, thus making more accurate survival estimates.

When the project is complete, data will be used to reevaluate wild turkey harvest regulations in Florida. This may include an assessment of the quota permit system and the number of quota permits issued annually for wildlife management areas. A review of season length and structure might also help to better sustain high levels of turkey harvest into the future and provide increased hunting opportunity. The findings will provide managers with a more standardized, quantitatively sound methodology for monitoring wild turkey populations using a trail camera based survey.

Results from this study will ultimately improve our understanding of wild turkey harvest in relation to hunting pressure and wild turkey density. Wild turkey managers can put our research practices and insights to use across the range of the wild turkey, and this will help them manage the turkey harvest better through changes to their state’s regulatory system. It will also help them develop methods to monitor their turkey populations more effectively.