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OSU scientists studying wild turkey population decline

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Image from behind of a baby turkey with a transmitter.


Oklahoma State University scientists launched a five-year project this year to study the state’s wild turkey population.


The number of turkeys in Oklahoma has steadily declined over the past 15 years, and there are a variety of factors that could be contributing to the problem, according to Colter Chitwood, assistant professor of wildlife ecology in the OSU Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management.


“This is part of a broader trend in the southeastern part of the U.S. where turkeys are declining across the region, so there is similar research going on in other states as well,” Chitwood said. “States are now grappling with these declines and what this does to hunter success and license allocation, so there is potentially an economic impact to this.”


OSU’s multi-year project will focus on the demographics of turkeys at sites in southeastern and southwestern Oklahoma and genetic variation across the state. Researchers will examine genetics, nest success, nest site characteristics and the specific causes of deaths in poults and hens. 


“We anticipate information from this study will assist in determining priority areasImage from the front of a turkey with a transmitter. for turkey conservation and provide recommendations for specific turkey management,” he said. “An understanding of what causes failure of nests and mortality is needed to guide Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) decision-making to improve turkey populations.”


Data on turkey genetic variation and population dynamics will allow the ODWC to prioritize conservation and restoration efforts on populations that may be vulnerable to genetic bottlenecks and low genetic diversity, Chitwood said.


Researchers began field work in January, capturing turkeys in southeastern Oklahoma and placing small transmitters on them during the winter months. Throughout the summer, they will collect movement and demographic data from the devices. They will repeat the process at the beginning of 2023 and start research in southwestern Oklahoma. Three OSU graduate students are studying the demographics of turkeys in the two regions, while the genetic part of the research will be conducted by a graduate student at Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.


The turkeys were most frequently monitored from mid-April through June during their nesting season, Chitwood said, adding that his team started with 28 tagged turkeys at the beginning of the year and are now down to 15. So far, researchers have found that the leading cause of hen and nest mortality is predators.


The research project involves the following areas:  


  • Evaluating habitat selection, age of hen and poult, weather and predator density index related to nest survival.
  • Calculating home range, breeding season movements and habitat selection for female wild turkeys.
  • Seasonal (breeding and nonbreeding) survival of female wild turkeys with the causes of mortality being assigned when possible.
  • Determining how fragmentation and landscape features influence gene flow and genetic diversity among populations and if any populations have traits that would benefit from targeted restoration efforts.

Providing research results on best wild turkey management practices to the ODWC.


Image of an OSU graduate student monitoring turkey activity.

OSU master's student Nicolle de Filippo uses a receiver and antenna to monitor a hen turkey transmitter.

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