GPS Wild Turkeys
Story and Photos By Jimmy Stafford
Wild Turkey & Resident Small Game Program Leader
Being from the “old school,” I considered the use of global positioning satellite (GPS) devices the crutch of a Greenhorn. Why, no self-respecting woodsman would ever rely on some man-made contraption to find his way through the wilderness. Daniel Boone never had such amenities and did just fine. But when asked had he ever gotten lost, he replied, “No, but I have been bewildered for three or four days at a time.”
My awakening came a few years back while hog hunting on the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area (WMA) with my sons David and Brandon. I dropped elder son David off on the bank of the bayou and proceeded by boat several hundred yards away with Brandon. Within minutes we heard the faint sound of a far away shot. David had bagged a large boar hog and proceeded toward more distant hogs that he could hear. Within an hour he managed to catch up with another group of pigs and bagged two more. By then Brandon and I were near him, so we headed to the last shot to lend assistance.
As we began to drag the two hogs toward the bayou through a maze of post-Hurricane Katrina fallen trees, I asked David where the first one was. He responded “No problem, I marked it on my GPS.” Knowing in my heart that we would never find it, I responded “Good luck with that.” Some 20 minutes later in thick swamp that look no different than any I had been in all day, David looked at his GPS and stated with all of the confidence that a teenager can possess, “The GPS says that the hog is about 25 yards to your right.” I walked where directed, and low and behold, there it was. I was now a believer in the GPS.
About three years ago, Dr. Mike Chamberlain, a noted wild turkey researcher and wildlife professor at the University of Georgia, approached biologists with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) about new GPS telemetry technology that he and Dr. Bret Collier from Texas A & M University were testing on wild turkeys. Previously, researchers relied on Very High Frequency (VHF) telemetry units to track wild turkey movements. This technology required researchers to use triangulation from two or more locations per tracked turkey to acquire a single general location point. Depending on study parameters, an individual turkey might produce a few dozen location points over the period of study. However, the new hybrid GPS/VHF units worked on two separate systems.
The old VHF system is good for finding the general location of the turkey and also is equipped with a distinctive mortality peep indicator if the bird dies. This, complimented by the GPS system logging precise location points, gives us more tracking points than one could get with VHF alone. The data logged inside of the GPS portion of the telemetry unit is downloaded onto a computer once the unit is recovered. These GPS/VHF radio type telemetry units were being tested on Rio Grande wild turkeys in the open brush country of Texas, but questions remained regarding their effectiveness in closed canopy forest inhabited by the Eastern subspecies of the wild turkey.
Dr. Chamberlain, then a wildlife professor at LSU, began static testing GPS telemetry units under varying degrees of forest canopy coverage with good results. Working with LDWF biologists, Chamberlain and the department trapped and placed GPS/VHF telemetry units on three wild turkey gobblers at Sherburne WMA. Two of these units were recovered, and researchers were amazed at the amount of location information collected. Rather than collecting a few dozen or maybe a hundred location points per turkey, one of the recovered units produced about 3,000 location points. Such a high number of location points had the potential of showing biologists more about wild turkeys than ever before.
GPS tracking is more efficient as less man-hours are needed to follow turkeys and more location points means fewer turkeys need be monitored to achieve information goals. Today’s biggest drawbacks of the system are that GPS units set for the most location readings have shorter battery life and each unit must be recovered (in hand) to download location data. Recovery occurs when a turkey is harvested, dies of other causes or is recaptured. Several units simply go unrecovered as turkeys often out live their unit batteries.
In winter 2011, seven additional GPS/VHF units were put on wild turkey hens at the Bens Creek WMA in an effort to study nesting and brood habitat use. To date, four units have been recovered producing another treasure-trove of habitat use information. These units were set to record hourly locations during nesting and brood rearing months. By studying mere movements alone, researchers can determine when and where hens begin to nest, incubate, have their nest predated, or if they successfully hatch young.
In May 2011, GPS technology was employed again on wild turkeys just days prior to the opening of the Morganza Spillway. Biologists rushed to capture and fit five GPS units onto one gobbler and four hens in an effort to study the effects of spillway flooding. Information collected was very useful in assessing turkey movements, flood related mortality, and equipment limitations.
Louisiana’s largest GPS turkey study was started in January 2012 in the Tunica Hills area of West Feliciana Parish. Dr. Mike Chamberlain and researcher John Gross of the University of Georgia are leading the study. The study is primarily funded by Louisiana wild turkey hunters through the purchase of turkey licenses, with additional financial support from the National Wild Turkey Federation, and is the first of its kind in Louisiana. So far nine gobblers have been captured and equipped with GPS/VHF type telemetry units to study movements during the spring turkey season. Four were captured on the Tunica Hills WMA and five on nearby private hunting clubs. During the 2012 spring turkey season only two of the GPS gobblers were harvested, but much is being learned. In addition to equipping turkeys with GPS units, hunters in the area were also issued GPS units to compare their movements to that of the gobblers. Participating conservation-minded hunters and landowners are critical partners in this state-of-the-art study. Without their support many questions about turkeys in their area may remain unanswered. This three-year study will shed much light on hunter-turkey interactions.