State study aims to track turkeys


Published: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 12:35 a.m.
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University of Florida wildlife ecology graduate Stacia hetrick radios her position inside a blind at the Katharine Ordway Preserve in Melrose.

(ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun)
ORDWAY PRESERVE - Rain was falling when Stacia Hetrick sounded the got-gobbler alarm.
"I've got a bunch of turkeys here," Hetrick shrieked over the radio. Huddled in a camouflaged turkey "blind" with one hand on the trigger of a rocket-fired net, the 22-year-old University of Florida wildlife ecology graduate was ready to spring.
The birds, however, weren't cooperating.
"Don't shoot on them," warned Larry Perrin, head of the state's turkey management section. Heavy rains can injure wild birds if ensnared in soggy research nets, the biologist said.
"We don't want to shoot on turkeys if they are real wet," he said.
Their capture, and Hetrick's first snare, would have to wait.
Funded by the University of Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Wild Turkey Federation, Hetrick and Perrin's efforts Friday were part of a three-year, two-phase study to develop methods to accurately estimate wild turkey populations in Florida and nationwide.
Using a technique known as remote photography, or "camera trapping," state and university researchers hope to study the wild turkeys living in the 9,600-acre Katharine Ordway Preserve and Swisher Memorial Sanctuary in northwest Putnam County, and develop strategies to estimate the bird's local population sizes.
Often considered the best method for determining wildlife population densities, the technique allows biologists to remotely photograph large areas of forests and open spaces, snapping pictures and counting species, information that aids in management and conservation of wildlife areas.
But camera monitoring, while effective, has its limitations for studying wild turkeys.
"Unfortunately, turkeys look so similar, it's hard to tell them apart," said state wildlife biologist Roger Shields. "Sometimes with bucks, for example, you can tell them apart" by comparing the structure of their antlers, he said.
"Turkeys aren't so lucky."
Adding to the sampling difficulties, wild turkeys rarely make themselves visible during daylight feeding hours, avoiding predators with sharp vision and acute hearing.
"Turkeys are hard to count," Perrin said. "They're a secretive, weary species. So it's hard to know what you've got."
Because of this identity crisis and the bird's elusive nature, no one knows for sure how many wild turkeys inhabit Florida's upland and open timber areas - the wild fowl's preferred habitat.
Population data gathered from state hunters and biologists, coupled with figures compiled during the state's last abundance study in 1973, puts the figure around 100,000. True population numbers, however, could have changed significantly in 30 years, the biologists said.
Using nets fired by model-rocket blasting caps, the researchers have been capturing and marking turkeys in the preserve since Christmas, banding each bird with individual color-coded leg bands.
Once the researchers complete the banding phase of the project, the team, headed by Perrin and UF wildlife ecology and conservation graduate student Jeremy Olson, plan to install 12 to 15 weather-resistant 35mm cameras, each fitted with transmitters, auto-focus features and infrared triggers.
The cameras will operate 24-hours a day for about a week, snapping single-frame shots each time the triggers are tripped by turkeys or other wildlife. Perrin and Olson hope the banding efforts will enable the team to count individual birds, information that will help biologists get a handle on how many birds live in the preserve and how far flocks travel to feed.
As of Friday, 58 birds had been captured, banded and released, Perrin said.
But countless unbanded flocks remain, Perrin said, like the 18 or so nearly captured by Hetrick on Friday.
If all goes as planned, Perrin said he hopes Olson's research will help determine the effectiveness of using remote-triggered cameras in estimating wild turkey population densities across the country.
"If we can get this technology working, there is a possibility that it can be used across the country, not just in Florida."
Greg Bruno can be reached at 374-5026 or greg.bruno@ gvillesun.com.

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