2008-10-23 / Local & State

Turkey Is National Symbol For Thanksgiving

Benjamin Franklin wanted it for the national symbol. It is the icon for Thanksgiving dinners. Today, the wild turkey has almost a cult following of dedicated hunters who will go to practically any length and spend thousands of dollars to provide the ideal conditions for wild turkeys to flourish.

A little over a decade ago, turkey hunters in Adams and Franklin counties noted a disturbing trend. While turkey populations in other parts of Pennsylvania were enjoying an historic high density, the turkeys on South Mountain and the Michaux State Forest were becoming scarce. From that concern, a blend of people from the PA Game Commission, Michaux State Forest Bureau of Forestry, National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and three local chapters of the NWTF formed a "Wild Turkey Task Force," to research the problem. Long a wildlife 'oasis,' in recent years South Mountain has been increasingly surrounded by urban sprawl. While urbanization has not treated turkeys well in the grand scheme of things, additional research from Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) 5A, in which the state forest is located, revealed that perhaps a combination of factors are placing undue stress on turkeys. From this research, the task force has agreed upon certain recommendations.

1) Continue the closed fall turkey-hunting season in WMU 5A until data from turkey population indices show a steady population improvement for three consecutive years. The task force recently met and agreed that the population is not quite there yet, but the ultimate goal is to once again have a fall turkey season that the population can sustain. To err on the side of caution, the fall season would be a short, perhaps three-day, mid-week hunt. "Fall turkey hunting is the second most popular fall season, next to deer hunting. When we open the fall season here we don't want to place too much pressure on this turkey population and find ourselves right back where we started with a low turkey density," said Mary Jo Casalena, PGC wild turkey biologist who coordinates the task force meetings. The fall season in WMU 5A was closed in 2003 when research results showed that the fall turkey harvest was one factor suppressing the wild turkey population.

2) Turkey numbers in 5A will not be augmented by trapping and transferring wild birds from other areas. While this seems an easy quick fix, research indicates that doing so will likely not increase the population in the long term. Accurately managing and monitoring the natural population already in place is more sound management, and the population is now increasing.

3) Free ranging turkeys are susceptible to picking up rodenticides while foraging. The National Wild Turkey Federation is contacting orchard owners around South Mountain to offer assistance with building and distributing bait stations for ridding orchards of unwanted rodents rather than broadcasting rodenticides. These bait stations will help prevent accidental rodenticide poisoning of turkeys. While turkey mortality from rodenticide poisoning is small, it is another form of mortality that is preventable. The NWTF hopes to supply the bait stations to orchard owners next fall. Fruit growers interested in participating may contact NWTF regional biologist, Bob Eriksen, boberiksen@ juno.com, for more details.

4) Members of the task force are monitoring the use of wildlife openings by hen turkeys and their broods within the Michaux State Forest to see if more time and money should be put into improving the habitat of these openings.

5) Road closures in the state forest during spring gobbler season and the turkey-nesting season will continue so as to minimize disturbance of nesting hens.

6) Acorn production is important to a healthy turkey habitat. The Michaux forestry staff are conducting timber stand thinning in certain sections of the state forest. This improves survival and growth of oaks and removes less desirable competitive tree species. This effort has been ongoing with thinning on more than 400 acres so far, according to Bureau of Forestry forester David Yeager.

7) Mountain laurel is only marginally useful as a habitat covering for turkeys and other species. It and other overly thick shrubs in areas where it is extensive will be removed to encourage growth of other shrubs and plants more beneficial to turkeys. A process called "scarification" uses a bulldozer with attached specialized equipment to disturb the forest soils. Then, special seeds and acorns are loosely tilled into the exposed soil and allowed to germinate. Almost 450 acres in the state forest already have been treated during the last two years, Yeager said. Yeager also has solicited the assistance of local sportsmen clubs to conduct habitat improvement projects on the state forest, such as fertilizing wildlife openings that are excellent turkey habitat all year-round.

8) Continue long-term monitoring of the turkey population in the Michaux State Forest, in order to evaluate the impacts of these management strategies.

Don Heckman, spokesperson for the PA Chapter NWTF said the NWTF has always been an activist in supporting measures to increase turkey habitat. "I suppose it may be difficult for nonhunters to understand the admiration and respect that we have for this magnificent, wary bird. To that end, the NWTF, Game Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and our local chapters will readily ally for a common cause - assuring healthy populations of free ranging wild turkeys."

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