Putting heads and acres together
COOPERATIVE IMPACTS ON WILD TURKEYS
pHOTO / S. SCHWARTZ
"Private landowners are going to be the key to wild turkeys being sustainable through time. the naysayers will tell you this bird is heading down the wrong path. i like to think that if people that care about this species are willing to put their heads together, but more importantly their acres together - then we've got a shot!"
Dr. michael chamberlain / University of georgia
What are wildlife cooperatives' role in the long-term success of wild turkey populations? How can private landowners help wild turkey populations? How might co-ops play a key role in conservation success for one of North America's most iconic game birds? We interview renowned turkey researcher Dr. Michael Chamberlain, of Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, to find out.
wHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF CO-OPS TO TURKEYS FROM A RESEARCHERS VIEW?
"The bottom line is, most turkeys live on private land. We do research on public lands that are managed in a variety of ways, and in some ways mismanaged because of the need to consider all species - and that has its place. However, most turkeys don't live on public lands, so private landowners are going to be the key to wild turkeys being sustainable through time. The naysayers will tell you this bird is heading down the wrong path. I like to think that if people that care about this species are willing to put their heads together, but more importantly their acres together - then we've got a shot! If they don't, this bird is headed in the wrong direction. This decline has been going on for twenty years, it didn't just start last week. Private landowners that have a vested interest in turkey populations, but also other species that benefit from the same things as turkeys (ex. white-tailed deer), will benefit from cooperatives. If private landowners don't recognize the need to do something, then from a turkey's perspective - we're in trouble."
"I talk with landowners all the time. It doesn't matter how big or small your property is, if you're lucky enough to own a big chunk of land - great, good for you - still be willing to reach out to your neighbors even if they own a third or a tenth of what you own, because unless you own a large piece of land, they are not "your birds" their "y'all's birds" and they are using 50 different properties, and everyone isn't always on the same page. But the more people we get on the same page, the bigger footprint we will have."
How CAN cooperative habitat management help turkeys?
If you look at an aerial, and any hardwood drains that go through this property, you may have birds that show up for a week or two, then they move on, then they are back. That is natural, but what you ideally want to do is manage the hardwood forests in a way that they are in peak mast production either through timber stand improvements (TSI) or operational thinning to benefit the oaks you are leaving. These drainages or ridges should ideally be managed through active management, not just through walking off and doing nothing."
WHAT ROLE DO YOU SEE CO-OPS PLAYING IN THE FUTURE OF turkey MANAGEMENT IN THE EASTERN U.S.?
"If it doesn't happen, we are going to see large-scale reduction in game populations. The bottom line is, if you look across the southeast and east, the average tract size is getting smaller because people are carving out the "back-forty" to build a house, and we aren't going to make any more of it - it is what it is. I think moving forward, if we don't put our heads together to develop cooperatives where people, at least reasonably get on the same page regarding objectives, then we are going to see some species that continue to decline precipitously - and turkeys are one.
Turkeys are not uniformly distributed across the landscape. They are in pockets, so if your pocket "blinks" out, it may be awhile before you get birds to disperse back in there, because you may have to go 10 miles down the road before you find more turkeys. The idea that you would combine properties and manage turkeys and turkey habitat together, prevents a situation where you have a loss of birds completely from an area. If your neighbors down the road, or the property in the next county, are doing a good job with their populations, you have a source of turkeys that can move across the landscape.
I like to think about it like this: The folks that are doing a really good job across the landscape are really bright light bulbs, and the properties that aren't doing as well are dim lightbulbs. If you have more bright lightbulbs, then the whole picture get brighter every year, and by default the darker dim bulbs get brighter due to their neighbors beside them. From a turkey prospective, I think this has a real possibility to increase populations. Turkeys don't disperse very far, so we don't see large movement across the landscape like you may for yearling bucks. It is absolutely critical that we put our heads and acres together to save this bird."
"We have seen that if turkeys can find hard mast (ie. acorns) in the winter, they will use an incredibly small area. In years with a heavy mast crop, turkeys don't travel much at all, at least in the southeast. Based on GPS data, turkeys are getting in one bottomland hardwood drain or ridge and staying there for weeks at a time. Now they are traveling within this connected hardwood system, but not branching across the landscape. However, in a hard mast failure year, turkeys will move incredible distances; they may even move ten miles down the road to find mast. So when I think about co-ops and land management, these birds are going to go find hard mast, there's no question. If they have to walk great lengths to find it, they will, and they tend to go to the same drainages each winter with strong site fidelity to their hardwood patches.
If you are interested in forming a co-op, please email us at , and we will link you to our state-by-state database of co-op leaders in your area. If we don't have a current contact, we can let you know so you can start one yourself! Co-ops are about linking landowners, and we are about linking co-ops to provide a quality neighborhood for wildlife management.
About the Contributor:
Dr. Michael Chamberlain / Professor, Wildlife Ecology & Management
Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources
PhD. in Forest Resources, MSU, 1999
M.S. in Wildlife Ecology, MSU, 1995
B.S. in Wildlife & Fisheries Science, Virginia Tech 1993
Dr. Chamberlain in known for his extensive wild turkey, coyote, black bear, and predator/prey interaction research across the Southeastern United States. You can connect with him via email at as well as social media. Follow along with his #TurkeyTuesday posts each Tuesday highlighting new and intriguing research on wild turkeys.
Facebook: Michael Chamberlain