The day started not unlike many in the turkey woods, nestled in a ground blind on a field edge anxiously awaiting the arrival of our intended targets. We didn’t have to wait long before I spied a longbeard angling by my side and with just a light tap I alerted my companion to get ready. Unfortunately the bird slipped into the woods and out of sight for the moment.

He soon reappeared with several hens in tow and the group sauntered into our setup. Tense moments followed as my companion waited for just the right moment while I fought to contain my composure. The boom still caught me off guard and it was not until the smoke cleared and feathers settled to the ground that my pulse slackened.

Though similar in many ways, including the excitement, this hunt was radically different from most turkey hunts in one aspect. Instead of a shotgun, my accomplice fired the detonator to a rocket net that captured not one but the entire flock of turkeys, all of which would eventually be released alive and relatively unscathed, though bearing new bling.

I was there representing the National Wild Turkey Federation and providing assistance on a cooperative research project between the University of Maine, Orono Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology (UMO) and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW).

Restoration of wild turkeys has been one of Maine’s great conservation success stories. I can recall two decades ago helping IFW Region A staff trap birds in York County and move them to northwestern Cumberland County, then the northern limit of their range. Today turkeys exist in huntable numbers in every wildlife management district in the state. This was accomplished largely through a combination of trap and transfer efforts, and conservative management and gradual, incremental liberalization of seasons and bag limits.

But most of the credit goes to the birds themselves. They’ve not only survived but have thrived where it was once thought not possible. They’ve endured severe winters with deep snow and even deeper cold. They’ve withstood cold, wet springs that are often deadly to young poults. They’ve spread across the landscape and over the last three decades gone from a curiosity to commonplace.

It’s fortunate the birds have done so well because management decisions have been based largely on what we know about turkeys from other parts of the country. We don’t really have any solid information on population dynamics, survival rates, habitat use and movement patterns of our homegrown birds.

A more recent rise in negative interactions with humans, particularly in agricultural areas and some pockets of dense human population, has highlighted the need for better data.

As it’s currently in the process of revising its 15-year management plan, IFW saw this as a good time to enlist help from UMO and the NWTF to collect that information.

“We want to get more local data,” says IFW Region A biologist Scott Lindsay. “We want to see how turkeys are interacting with their habitat and with humans, and learn more about what important nesting habitat really is.”

In particular, IFW wants to see what impact turkeys might have on agricultural areas. It’s been a contentious issue lately, and a source of several proposals to increase turkey mortality in and around these areas. Lindsay noted the number of complaints has declined more recently but it’s important to have defensible data to back up management decisions.

“We’re also looking at survivorship, how they fare during hunting seasons and how predators impact different populations,” Lindsay said. “There’s another student looking primarily at disease so it’s a multitiered approach. We’re trying to look at every factor that’s effecting the turkey population.”

To that end, UMO students, IFW staff and NWTF volunteers have been trapping birds in four separate study areas around the state.

In addition to basic morphometric data like weight and tarsal length, they’re also collecting blood and fecal samples to analyze for diseases. Each bird is then fitted with a leg band and a radio transmitter. Starting this spring, biologists and technicians will conduct weekly surveys to gather information from these transmitters.

While hunters are certainly not encouraged to seek them out, Lindsay notes they shouldn’t feel obligated to pass up a legal bird that’s sporting a transmitter.

“We’re also looking at hunting- related mortality as part of our study,” he said. If you should harvest such a bird, you need to contact IFW and return the transmitter. They’re expensive and they can be reused.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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