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Researchers say hunters can help study Oklahoma's turkey populations

Joseph Richards
Courtesy Colter Chitwood

Oklahoma’s spring turkey season starts today and runs through May 16. Hunters can help with research to help the state’s turkey populations thrive.

For the last 10-15 years, turkey numbers have been on a mysterious decline across the Southeastern U.S.

Colter Chitwood, a wildlife ecologist at Oklahoma State University says the decline has researchers flummoxed. Turkeys have been one of the country’s conservation success stories after being hunted to near-extinction in the early 1900s.

“Fast forward to the late 1900s, and we had turkeys coming out of our ears in most places,” he said. “And then all of a sudden we see this decline and even some scientists are scratching their heads, going, ‘Wait a minute, what?’”

His lab has funding from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to address some big turkey questions.

“What's our current situation with turkeys in Oklahoma?” he said. “And how might our research give us ideas on how to stall the perceived decline in turkey numbers?”

To answer those, Chitwood and his team catch turkey hens and put little backpacks on them to track their survival.

M.S. Student Nicolle De Filippo attaches a backpack-style transmitter to a hen turkey.
Colter Chitwood
M.S. Student Nicolle De Filippo attaches a backpack-style transmitter to a hen turkey.

“Those backpacks, most of them are GPS equipped, which means we see where they go,” he said. “How much time they spend in different places, what types of barriers they might be exposed to, how they select to use the landscape.”

Chitwood’s research team also wants to look at turkey genetics statewide, but it would be difficult and expensive for them to personally gather gobblers from every corner of the state.

“But what we can do is see if hunters would be willing to donate a really tiny, tiny little piece of meat,” he said. “I mean, we're talking about, like, the eraser on a pencil.”

If you bag a turkey this spring and want to help, you can reach out to Chitwood or the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. They’ll send you a little kit with everything you need: a tool that works like a biopsy punch, a tube full of preserving solution and instructions.

Until you can get your hands on one of those kits, Chitwood recommends setting aside a dime-sized piece of meat and freezing it in a Ziploc bag about information on where it came from.

“Worst case, you freeze it till the end of the season, and then you get one of these kits from us,” he said. “And now you don't have to thaw out your whole turkey breast.”

Recently deceased turkeys that died of natural or vehicular causes could also be useful.

“As long as the turkey in question — the carcass, if you will — isn't just in a complete state of deterioration,” he said. “There's no reason that you actually couldn't sample a piece of tissue off of roadkill, or if you found a dead one in the woods or whatever.”

The genetic data could help Chitwood determine whether any of Oklahoma’s turkey populations have been isolated. That could make them less adaptable to environmental changes and challenges.

But to answer that question, the researchers need turkeys from all over the state. They’re especially interested in filling in the 45 counties they don’t have enough data from yet. Those counties are scattered throughout the state

Chitwood said hunters have been enthusiastic about the project.

“When they open that up, they see their county listed and they're like, ‘Oh man, if I get a turkey, I can really help here.”

OSU Extension Natural Resources

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU.