When researchers began capturing and placing radio trackers on female turkeys in the dense forests of southeastern Oklahoma, they hoped to learn how the chickens successfully raised their young.
Two years into the study, a complication arises: none of these 60 or so turkeys are known to have produced offspring that lived more than a few weeks, a microcosm of a much larger problem.
Wild turkeys were a conservation triumph of the 20th century. After the birds declined or disappeared across much of their ancestral range, decades of work helped reestablish healthy populations. As they multiplied, turkeys became a favorite target of hunters and a frequent sight along roadsides, spreading beyond the countryside and into suburban yards, urban parks and college campuses.
But over the past 10 or 15 years, wild turkeys have entered a significant decline throughout the South and Midwest. As it became clear that there were sustained losses in many states, turkey enthusiasts became concerned, scientists began studies, and some states restricted hunting. Just this year, Kansas and Mississippi suspended their fall turkey hunting seasons, and Oklahoma lawmakers held a hearing on the decline.
“It took a decade or more for this to happen in a lot of places where everyone was like, ‘Holy crap, what’s going on?’” said Colter Chitwood, a professor at Oklahoma State University who is leading the study into the turkey’s decline in that state. .
Found only in North America, turkeys have long held a special place in the American imagination. Bulky, colorful and delicious, they have become the centerpiece of a national holiday, an important sector of American agriculture and even the mascot of some proud sports teams.
“When you look back at what was done to restore turkeys and to establish wild turkeys, and where they are today, it was probably one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time in the U.S.,” said Mark Hatfield , who worked to quantify population trends as national director of conservation services for the National Wild Turkey Federation, a nonprofit group focused on habitat preservation and hunters’ rights.
Wild turkeys remain more common than they were several decades ago. But the speed, scale and breadth of recent declines have raised alarms. It’s not yet time for existential panic, scientists said, but it is an intriguing time.
“Where are we today?” asked Mr. Hatfield. “I would say we are at an inflection point.”
Counting wild turkeys (which are different from the farmed ones that end up on most Thanksgiving dishes) is a bit like counting cars in downtown traffic: You can identify the general trend line, but good luck getting an exact number. Researchers estimate that the population has declined by at least 30% from peak levels in several states, although turkey numbers appear stable or are growing in other places, including parts of the West and Northeast.
In Kansas, a state that became a destination for turkey hunters in the 1990s and 2000s, authorities once received complaints about large numbers of turkeys causing damage to farmland. It is now more common to hear concerns about the evident drop in turkey numbers.
That decline, of about 60 percent in Kansas since 2007, has forced conservation officials to revisit long-held beliefs about turkeys, said Kent Fricke, a small animal biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Parks.
“We just assumed that turkeys — being very generalists, very adaptable — would adapt or simply find the conditions to have high production,” Fricke said.
While awaiting research results that might provide some answers, Kansas officials have canceled the fall hunting season, reduced the number of turkeys hunters can shoot in the spring and placed limits on out-of-state hunting licenses.
Turkey’s decline has triggered a new wave of investigation into gobblers. Across the country – including in Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee – scientists are monitoring turkeys, hoping to learn why they are in decline and what might solve the problem. Even in states like Pennsylvania, where turkey numbers are relatively stable, state officials are studying their numbers and taking note of lessons from elsewhere.
“Because this is a multifaceted, passionate group, we really came together to try to raise the level of work that’s being done,” said Marcus Lashley, a wildlife ecologist and professor at the University of Florida who co-hosted a podcast, “Wild Turkey Science,” which examines issues such as the relationship between hardwood forests and turkeys, the best cover for turkey incubation and nest survival rates.
Despite the volume of ongoing work, there are few definitive answers about the falls so far. For now, there is no shortage of theories. Many suspect that a reduction in the types of habitat suitable for nesting turkeys may be driving the losses. Others are studying changes in predator habits, the role of disease or the impact of weather extremes made more common by climate change. There is a general consensus that there is not just one reason and that the specifics may vary from place to place.
“It’s like one death by 1,000 cuts,” said Andrew Little, a professor of landscape and habitat management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies turkey trends in that state, where the bird population has declined by about 45% since 2009. “There are a lot of different things and a lot of different factors.”
Understanding these factors is difficult, painstaking work that takes place in places like Idabel, Oklahoma, where two University of Oklahoma graduate students piled into a heavy-duty pickup truck on a recent weekend and began cruising rural roads where the smell of pine remained in the air. . The students, Nicolle De Filippo and Cyrena Bedoian, were working with Dr. Chitwood on a study of turkeys in forested southeast Oklahoma.
Over two winters, Oklahoma researchers tracked female birds, trapped them and attached radio transmitters to track their life cycle and their success in raising chicks, known as turkeys. Researchers monitored nesting sites and some successful hatchings, only to find that the turkeys soon died.
Still, they kept coming back to track the turkeys’ movements, hoping to learn more as another nesting season approached. If they got within a few hundred meters and picked up a radio signal, they would be able to download important data without disturbing the animals. This information could help explain why turkey numbers are declining.
But one hot late summer morning, the winged subjects in his study didn’t cooperate.
“They are definitely a mystery bird,” said De Filippo. “They never do what you expect them to do.”
As students plugged in different frequencies on their radios in hopes of finding turkeys, they were greeted by a static buzz. Crossing a patch of forest, they thought they heard a faint beeping, which prompted them to get out of the truck and look for more beeps. No luck.
A few miles away, across the Arkansas state line, on a road where angry dogs were barking outside one of the few houses, they picked up the signal of another bird.
“Is that her again?” asked Mrs. Bedoian as they advanced, her ears straining for a beep. “I think I know where she is,” replied Mrs. De Filippo as they approached a tree line in a green pasture.
Soon, the signal became stronger and data began to be transferred. There was a turkey in the forest.