So you’re motoring along a country road here in Vermont and, just off to the side, in a hay field mowed a few days earlier, you spot a wild turkey, pecking along at insects.
You slow down, look for any other vehicles, put on the hazard lights, pull over and brake to a stop. And then look closer. If it is a hen (toms have bright, red heads, are larger and have feathers that nearly shine. Hens are drab in color), she may very well have a brood tagging along. This is where you come in.
Count all of the turkeys and keep that information fresh in your mind. When you return home, send that information to the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. (How to do that is listed below)
Chris Bernier, a wild turkey biologist with Fish & Wildlife, said in an interview a few days ago that the department has conducted the brood survey since 2007.
Bernier said, in effect, citizens are taking part in the science, in helping Fish & Wildlife determine the success of poult production from the previous spring.
“On average, about 800 observations are reported each year,” he said. “Last year, in 2019, we had 601 so it was down a little bit.”
It is likely, Bernier said, that there are people who submit multiple observations. In any event, it is the number of turkeys seen and reported that really matters. Much of the study relies on how visible turkeys may be in August and the population numbers.
The most important thing about the brood survey is “to get the message out,” Bernier said. “There is much value in this brood survey, including the value of citizen science, getting people excited about seeing wildlife and collecting their observations. They are contributing to the management of the species.”
A number of factors, including weather, predators and population flows, will affect the number of poults that manage to survive in a very dangerous world.
Bernier said the annual brood production survey in August tells Fish & Wildlife that the average is about three poults per hen.
“In 2018, we had 3.6 poults per hen. In 2019, one of the lowest since we began the survey, we had 2.5 poults per hen. That was a pretty tough spring for poults,” he said.
Nesting hens generally lay an average of 11 or 12 eggs, according to Bernier. “The first few weeks of a poult’s life can really make a huge difference,” he said.
A variety of factors influence the survival of poults, Bernier said.
“The eggs may not hatch because of cold weather, you might have a predator that gets into the nest so that just laying the eggs does not mean that they will hatch,” he said.
After they do hatch, a wide variety of predators can prey on the poults, including bobcats, raccoons and others. I once looked on in awe, one morning in darkness headed for a morning of spring turkey hunting in May, when a fisher ran across my headlights with a hen turkey in its mouth. Turkeys roost every night of the year, with the exception of a hen sitting on her nest. It goes without saying that the eggs she laid never hatched.
“From the moment that they hatch to the end of summer is the highest mortality period for turkeys,” Bernier said. By the time of mid-summer, Bernier said, those 11 poults, the average, that hatched would be reduced to three to seven poults.
But there is a time when poults become less susceptible to predators and that is when they learn to take flight, sometime between eight to 10 days after they hatch. It is not a “sufficient flight,” as Bernier put it, but their ability to take wing is “really impressive” two to three weeks later.
“In this survey, we rely heavily on the public for collecting the data that is really a window into the annual brood production that we need to have for an understanding of the fluctuation of populations,” he said.
The reproductive success of Vermont’s wild turkey population gets a big boost every August when Fish & Wildlife monitors the population with help from the “citizen scientists” who are asked to report the number and size of turkey families they encounter.
Fish & Wildlife’s request for help from the public is simple: “If you see a group of young turkeys in Vermont during August, the department asks you to go to the turkey brood survey on its website (www.vtfishandwildlife.com) so you can record where and when you observed the number of adult and young turkeys, or poults.”
It is no real task, when you think about it. Just jot down the number of birds, hens and poults, then record that data at the Fish & Wildlife website. You will be helping to monitor the Eastern wild turkey, arguably the most amazing creature with wings that walks and flies in the Green Mountain State.
Contact Dennis Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.