Larry Woody: Recent turkey study makes some fascinating finds

Larry Woody • Updated Dec 21, 2017 at 9:30 AM

A six-year, $1 million study to try to find out why wild turkeys are vanishing in some parts of the state is in its second year, and although it has yet to come up with an answer to the problem, it has made some interesting finds.

Foremost is the wide range of some flocks. The study has found that some tagged birds remained in the area in which they were trapped, while others traveled five or six miles. That wide range could explain how diseases could be transmitted from an infected flock to healthy flocks.

What those possible diseases might be remains a mystery. The study focuses on something called “blackhead disease” caused by turkeys ingesting potentially fatal parasites.

In recent years there has been speculation that some type of disease is being transmitted to wild turkeys from commercial poultry farms via the use of manure as fertilizer.

Doubts about that theory were raised by the fact that turkeys were vanishing in areas where no poultry farms exist. But if infected birds can range as far as six miles, that could explain the spread. Or, of course, the infected manure could be transported to other areas.

The study also has found a higher natural mortality rate than anticipated.  One flock of 200 tagged turkeys gradually dwindled down to 130. The study has yet to explain the attrition, but it is believed that an expanding coyote and bobcat population is taking a toll. Smaller predators such as raccoons, skunks and possums are also increasing in number, and take a heavy toll on turkey eggs.

The TWRA, which is conducting the study in partnership with the University of Tennessee, says the state-wide turkey population has hovered around 300,000 for several years, with harvest numbers fairly stable.

This year 35,306 turkeys were killed during the spring and fall seasons. That is up from 33,238 killed the year before, and the seventh consecutive season in which more than 30,000 turkeys have been taken.

The numbers reflect the success of the TWRA’s turkey-restoration program launched in the early 1970’s. At the time, wild turkeys were nonexistent in most counties. Going from perhaps a few hundred birds to around 300,000  represents a major achievement.

However, there is no denying that some once-flourishing turkey populations have declined drastically in many Middle Tennessee counties.

About 10 years ago I reported an abrupt decline in turkeys in the Giles County area where I hunt. I was told by the TWRA’s turkey biologist that it was just my imagination.

Eventually the Agency conceded that the turkeys were indeed disappearing, and closed the fall season in Giles and a couple of adjacent counties.

Since then the decline has spread to more counties, including parts of Wilson, prompting the Agency to reduce the fall limit from six birds to one. Some concerned hunters suggested cutting the spring limit of four gobblers as well, but the TWRA said making a change now would disrupt the survey.

Why reducing the fall limit would not similarly skew the survey – especially since in the fall hens can be killed, with each hen representing a potential brood the following spring – is not clear. That’s just one of the puzzling questions that remain unanswered.

But at least the turkey problem has finally been acknowledged, and the TWRA is working on it.

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