Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Turkeys on the Edge of the Prairie

Because of habitat loss and unregulated hunting, Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) were extirpated from Illinois by the early 1900s. However, successful restoration has demonstrated the adaptability of these birds. Once thought to require extensive tracts of forest, turkeys now exist in areas of the Midwest with less than 20% forest cover. Restoration in Illinois, which began in 1959, has now been so successful that reestablished turkey populations exist in nearly all 102 counties. Of these, 81 counties are open to turkey hunting. However, despite successful reestablishment and apparently good habitat, turkey populations remain low in some areas.

Patrick Hubert releasing Wild Turkey after capture and radio tagging.

Previous research has shown that turkey populations are sensitive to variation in hen survival, nest success, and poult survival, and that these factors may fluctuate widely between years. However, much of this research was conducted in other parts of the Midwest with more forest cover or a lower percentage of row crop (corn and soybean) cover or both. Managers in Illinois need information on the effects of Illinois' mix of agriculture and forest on turkey population performance to better manage prairie state turkey populations.

With this need in mind, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), Federal Aid in Fish and Wildlife Restoration, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and the Illinois Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation provided funds to allow researchers at the Illinois Natural History Survey to study wild turkey ecology at the interface of agriculture and forest in Illinois. For this study, we selected Cass County in west-central Illinois and Clark County in southeastern Illinois. Despite similar release histories, county size, and similarities in gross habitat characteristics, Cass County supports a larger turkey population than Clark County.

We began capturing turkeys using rocket-nets during the winter of 1997-1998. Since then we have captured 101 turkeys and radio-tagged 76 hens. We are monitoring radio-tagged hens to determine survival, nest success, poult survival, range size, and habitat use. We are also taking data on body condition, causes of mortality, and vegetation characteristics at nest sites.

Annual survival of hens has been similar in the two counties but below 50%. Most deaths have been related to predation, with coyotes suspected as the major predator. Other sources of mortality include poaching and storm-related deaths. Most hen deaths occurred during the nesting season, when hens tend nests on the ground.

A flock of Wild Turkeys foraging for grain in a cornfield.

During the early part of the 1999 nesting season, nest success was higher in Clark County than in Cass County. However, two hens that hatched eggs in their nests in Clark County were killed within a week of hatching. Nest losses fall into the following categories: predation of the hen and nest, predation of nest, abandonment of the nest for unknown reasons, and flooding of nest during a heavy storm.

Turkeys are very mobile and we have observed them travelling long distances, particularly between seasons. We have observed long-distance movements of up to eight miles while hens were looking for a suitable place to nest. Turkeys also move relatively long distances in the early fall, and often return to the same wintering areas each year. Typical of much of Illinois, forest is mainly restricted to riverine areas in our study counties, and most long-distance movements have occurred along these river corridors.

We will continue to look at these factors and others related to turkey ecology that may explain why some areas of the state seem to have healthier turkey populations than others. This research is already providing vital information for IDNR managers to consider when making management decisions.

Patrick Hubert and Tim Van Deelen, Center for Wildlife Ecology

Illinois Natural History Survey

1816 South Oak Street, MC 652
Champaign, IL 61820

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