Dig into this fabulous Thanksgiving menu of citizen science projects you can do between dinner and dessert!
“It’s turkey-time!” Those words mean different things to different people—birdwatchers look forward to sighting hens with poults in the spring, hunters raise their glasses when turkey season opens, researchers foresee the final compilation of a summer citizen science count, while you and I look forward to a bird in the oven on Thanksgiving Day.
It probably raises all of these considerations, and more for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), who host a wild turkey count—the Summer Sighting Survey—every year. The data are compiled and inform a management plan, which is coincidentally updated just before Thanksgiving. The plan is primarily geared toward the “public use of turkeys” which is for hunting, but also bird watching, wildlife photography and general enjoyment.
Thanks to the efforts of the DEC and similar agencies in other states, birdwatchers and hunters don’t have to go far to see wild turkeys these days, but that hasn’t always been true. Just over a century ago, wild turkeys had vanished from New York State because of uncontrolled hunting and the clearing of forests for farms. Now they’re back, and the DEC welcomes citizen scientists who want to help make sure the turkey population remains healthy.
For much of the last fifty years, the Department’s wild turkey management program has focused on successful restoration of the turkey. To do this, conservation managers had to delineate a wild turkey range in New York and trap turkeys for transfer to those areas. They also had to set hunting regulations and develop relationships with a new constituent who had not traditionally been part of conservation efforts—the wild turkey hunting enthusiast.
To help gauge the success of restoration efforts, and to inform the management plan, the DEC launched the Summer Sighting Survey in 1996, with staff and volunteers reporting turkeys they saw during the month of August. They selected that month because poults are large enough to be easily seen but are still noticeably smaller than the hen. In addition, the second or third cutting of hay is being harvested and turkeys are more visible in fields. Observers reported the number of adult toms, adult hens, and poults in each flock, observed during as they went about their daily routines. These reports are used as an indication of production, or poults per hen, for each year.
With the citizen scientist flock now comprising both birdwatchers and hunters—anyone can participate, this information provides a reasonable level of confidence for the Department to identify population trends, and to provide dependable information for an outreach program. Michael Schiavone, a wildlife biologist with the DEC said, “The data gathered by citizen scientists are used in a variety of ways, depending on what we are trying to do. For the summer count we look at the potential of the landscape to support turkeys, and to set hunting seasons. Where we see good habitat, we can expect better production.”
The data allow them to monitor trends in the turkey population for better management, and “to provide information of interest to the public.” Environmental factors such as availability of food and habitat can cause turkey populations to fluctuate greatly from year to year, which can influence the survey results. Due to these annual fluctuations, at least three to five years of data are needed to identify real population trends.
Summer 2013 Results
In 2013, 338 hen flocks were counted, with reproductive success at about 2.7 poults per hen. This is lower than 2012, and is below the 10‐year average of around three poults per hen. (Production improved from 2009 to 2012 after the low observed in 2009, but four of the past six years have seen production below the ten‐year average.)
About 20 percent of the hen‐flocks observed in 2013 did not have poults, which is slightly lower than last year, but similar to the 10-year trend. Turkeys in regions with more favorable weather may still experience low nest and brood success, due to poor habitat quantity and quality—the birds also need decent brood‐rearing habitat. Continuous forest will likely produce less broods than mixed woodland.
Schiavone describes the ideal turkey habitat as, “Half wooded, with an even mix over the remainder of abandoned fields and active agriculture.” In reality turkeys in the Northeast have three critical habitat needs, which may be in short supply: 1) good nesting habitat, 2) good brood rearing habitat and 3) a good winter food source. If these three needs are met, interspersed with mature woodland, there is a far greater chance of having wild turkeys in the area. The only other component that could be added is a late summer/fall food source. The primary benefit of this would be to hold the birds for your enjoyment.
Historic Decline and Recovery
At the time of European colonization in the early 1600s, wild turkeys were abundant and widely distributed. By the mid-1840s, however, they had been virtually eliminated. In 1909, it was reported that there were no wild turkeys in New York. The main cause was habitat destruction—by excessive logging and intensive farming, coupled with unrestricted hunting by early settlers. Habitat destruction is a major contributing factor to decline of all wildlife species. By 1850, more than 60 percent of the land in New York was farmed. This trend continued, and by the late 1800s, nearly 75 percent of New York State was cleared of trees.
But that trend reversed because after the Civil War, many New York farms were abandoned as agriculture shifted to better land to the west. Abandoned farm fields, gradually reverted to woodlands, and by the 1940s much of the southern tier of New York was again forested and could support turkeys. Today upwards of 60 percent of New York State is forested. In southwestern New York, wild turkeys from Pennsylvania subsequently established healthy breeding populations and grew rapidly.
In 1959, the Conservation Department began to trap wild turkeys in southwestern New York for release in suitable unoccupied habitats elsewhere in the state. This facilitated more rapid expansion than would occur naturally. Over the next 35 years, the Department moved nearly 1,400 birds within New York State, which proved to be an overwhelming success. The DEC has also sent almost 800 turkeys to Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Delaware, and the Province of Ontario, helping to re-establish populations throughout the Northeast and Midwest.
Count Those Turkeys
Even though the 2013 count has taken place, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will host a spring count in 2014. You can also keep a lookout for turkeys as you hike, snowshoe or ski your local trail during the winter, in preparation for the spring count. A number of other states, including South Carolina, Missouri, and New Hampshire also operate citizen science turkey surveys. Check online for a spring turkey survey in your state. You can also participate in the Thanksgiving Day Bird Count this week!
Print out a survey form here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/sumturksurv.pdf
Summer 2013 turkey survey results here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/summertkysurvrpt13.pdf
Images (from top): Creative Commons, NY Department of Environmental Conservation
Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles.