Wild turkey hunting season is just a few days off, and an ongoing five-year Penn State research study on fall turkey hunting has already brought mid-way changes to this fall's season that opens November 2 in southern Pennsylvania. The State Game Commission increased the hunting season in southern wildlife management units from two to three weeks, and decreased them in northern units from three weeks to two weeks.
In Pennsylvania hunters can take birds of either sex. That's the easiest way to manipulate turkey population trends, says Duane Diefenbach, lead researcher of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Penn State. If fewer hens are killed in the fall, then more hens are likely to survive to reproduce the next spring.
Hen harvest rates have ranged from 2% to 9% of the estimated hen population for the last three hunting seasons, he says. That right on the mark for keeping fall harvest rates of hens below 10% to prevent population declines.
The study will provide data on whether that 10% rule really applies to Pennsylvania. Each year at least 200 female wild turkeys are trapped during fall and winter using rocket nets in the two study areas. All are fitted with aluminum leg bands, one on each leg. Leg bands on the females offer a reward and are stamped with a toll-free telephone number to report the band number.
Satellite antenna-equipped hens
About 60 hens also are equipped with satellite radio-transmitter backpacks that remain on them for life. "Transmitter" hens allow for estimates of how many birds survive to hunting season. As hunters harvest reward-banded and transmitter birds, researchers can estimate the proportion harvested.
The Game Commission will use the information generated by the study to provide the longest possible fall turkey-hunting seasons without overharvesting hen wild turkeys.
One aspect of the study has surprised Diefenbach. Judging by banded male turkeys from a previous study, few gobblers are taken by hunters in the fall. "Very few birds from the several thousand we banded for the gobbler study a few years ago were ever reported in the fall season," he explains.
One reason may be that gobblers are more likely to roam by themselves, says Mary Jo Casalena, Game Commission turkey biologist. "Females comprise the majority of the harvest because they're with brood flocks that are easier to call in than adult males."
The study is supported by Pennsylvania Game Commission, U.S. Geological Survey, National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and its Pennsylvania chapter.