Not Just Talking Turkey
Auburn professor researching causes of declines in turkey populations with aim of reversing current trends

Dr. Will Gulsby

In some regions of Alabama and the southeastern U.S., wild turkey populations have declined for the past 10 to 15 years. Dr. Will Gulsby, associate professor of wildlife management in Auburn University’s College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment, is determined to identify these areas and develop solutions to reverse the decline.

Gulsby’s research is funded by the Alabama Wildlife Federation and Turkeys for Tomorrow, a Mississippi-based conservation nonprofit organization that began operating earlier this year. Contributions were also made by the Alabama Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, The Hunting Public, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division and several private landowners.

“Wild turkey hunting has important economic and cultural benefits to Alabama and beyond,” he said. “The economic impact of hunting, fishing and wildlife-watching in Alabama totals $3.88 billion per year, and wild turkeys are one of the most sought-after game species in the state.”

Conservation funding generated by the purchase of hunting licenses is critical to conserving wildlife and their habitats throughout the state.

Since announcing the project in the fall issue of “Alabama Wildlife,” Gulsby and his team have hired five additional research staff. Two of the researchers, Matt Day and Kevin Ostrander, are pursuing master’s degrees in Auburn’s wildlife sciences program.

Gulsby’s team is gathering data from public as well as private lands — which are rarely included as wildlife population study sites — using autonomous recording units across the nearly statewide region covered in the study. The units record all ambient sound within their vicinity during preprogrammed times throughout the day.

To analyze these data, researchers will use a type of artificial intelligence known as a convolutional neural network, made possible by software developed by project collaborator Dr. Michael Chamberlain of the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Chamberlain has also contributed equipment and personnel to the research effort.

“Coupling these technologies allows us to determine the timing of turkey reproductive behaviors at an unprecedented scale by maximizing data-processing efficiency,” Gulsby said.

The project is both multifaceted and broadly scoped. The team’s priority: defining the characteristics of areas that have abundant versus low turkey numbers and determining the timing of turkey gobbling across the state and how it is influenced by hunting pressure.

“Gobbling plays a role in mate attraction, so knowing when birds are gobbling can be used to determine the timing of reproductive activity,” Gulsby said.

To determine the timing of nesting, nest success, brood survival and associated habitat factors, Gulsby and his team have fitted several hens with backpack-style GPS transmitters.

Twenty-eight autonomous recording units, or ARUs, were deployed across private properties in Jackson, Hale, Russell and Macon counties. The project’s Georgia collaborators deployed an additional 50 units across the state, with 10 placed on each of the three wildlife management areas near private land sites. Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division staff have played a critical role in monitoring and maintaining those units. An additional 20 units were deployed on a private property and a Department of Defense property in south Alabama.

“Using the nesting data from the hens captured on the Hale County site, we can cross-reference gobbling activity with nesting data to make inferences about timing of nesting throughout the state,” said Gulsby. “Data on gobbling activity is also important to determine the amount of gobbling activity that hunters would experience if season frameworks change, which is an important determinant of hunter satisfaction.”

The study design will provide information on how gobbling activity changes relative to hunting pressure.

“One of the most important contributions of the gobbling data is that it will allow us to examine factors such as habitat composition associated with increased gobbler abundance at the landscape scale,” said Gulsby.

Plans for next year include additional hen capture and deployment of any transmitters not used this year on gobblers.

The project has two more objectives, as well: determining the proportion of male turkeys capable of fertilizing clutches of eggs and capturing and fitting hens with GPS tracking devices that will monitor when they nest, the success and failure rates of their nests, the causes of nest failure and the survival of the young turkeys after they hatch. Researchers will also collect tissue samples for subsequent disease testing.

“Having more information on aspects of turkey reproduction allows us to better structure hunting regulations to match the species’ biology, ensuring sustainable populations into the future,” Gulsby said.

Tim Gothard, Alabama Wildlife Federation executive director, said the organization is eager to support the research.

“We were impressed with Dr. Gulsby’s thoughtful assessment of research opportunities that would help expand available information and further inform landowner and land manager decisions on how best to manage for wild turkeys,” Gothard said. “The information gained through this research will further broaden the available information that landowners and land managers can utilize when making decisions about proper management and harvest of wild turkeys in Alabama and beyond.”

Ron Jolly, co-chairman of the board of Turkeys for Tomorrow, said Gulsby’s work will shine a much-needed light on the topic.

“Turkeys For Tomorrow was founded by a group of turkey hunters who are concerned about the decline of wild turkeys in the United States,” Jolly said. “We hope these studies reveal answers to questions that experts like Dr. Gulsby believe play a role in the decline of wild turkeys. We can then share those answers with land managers, both public and private, who can apply them across the landscape and begin reversing this downward trend.”

Dr. Janaki Alavalapati, dean of the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment, is enthusiastic about the research.

“Dr. Gulsby’s unique, wide-ranging research will yield valuable insights into the reasons the turkey population has been in decline and, most significantly, lead to steps that can be taken to reverse that trend, benefiting conservationists, hunters and the state in general,” Alavalapati said. “His work is an example of how our faculty’s state-of-the-art research provides real-world solutions.”