Book for those with turkey affliction

Published 10:48 pm Thursday, April 8, 2010

When it comes to wild turkey hunting, I must admit that I’m severely afflicted with what some people term as a “disease.”

Steve Barnett would also be diagnosed with the same malady, which makes the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division wildlife biologist the perfect candidate to head a team to author the update of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources publication on the Eastern wild turkey in our state.

The result is The Wild Turkey in Alabama, a 106-page book that provides a wide variety of information about the wily bird. Chapters in the book include: Physical Characteristics; Behavior: Food Habits and Nutrition; Diseases, Parasites and Toxins; Predators; Population Dynamics; Population Management; Research and Surveys; Habitat Management; and Wild Turkey Management Guidelines for Landowners.

Barnett was looking for help to work on the book when he found a co-author very close to home – actually in his home.

“Just to get a first draft of the manuscript took about two years,” he said. “You don’t drop everything else you do to work on a book. What I had to do was take the material home and work on it at the house. Initially, we checked to see if anybody else on our staff wanted to co-author the book. As it turned out, my wife, Victoria, volunteered because she knew it was going to be quite time-consuming. She’s a wildlife biologist and a good writer, too. I think it worked out for the best.”

Because the last turkey book was more than 30 years old, the Barnetts decided an in-depth approach was best.

“We felt like we needed something pretty comprehensive – biology, restoration efforts and a lot of history on where we’ve been and where we are today,” Steve said. “We felt it was important to include management information for the landowners and hunting clubs to use.

“Victoria and I wanted to strike a balance of technical and non-technical information that would appeal to a broad audience and hold their attention. That was the way we envisioned the final product. As far as blending the non-technical information with the technical, we did relate hunting scenarios where the particular biology would apply. We thought those would hold a person’s interest, especially the turkey hunter, if we included those tidbits. With me being a hardcore turkey hunter and wildlife biologist, I thought that the average turkey hunter could relate to that type of insight.”

Barnett admits that landowners and hunting clubs are likely to benefit more from the book than your typical turkey hunter, although there is something for both.

“Landowners and even turkey hunters may gain a better understanding of wild turkey behavior, habitat preferences, nutritional requirements, and habitat management based on the information in the book,” he said. “From managing grassy openings for newly hatched, two-ounce poults to collecting harvest data on adult gobblers, life cycle events and related management applications are outlined.

“For the hunters, if they read about the biology and behavior of turkeys, there is good information on how a gobbler acts during the breeding season. I think a hunter can use that in set-ups, in choosing a location in anticipation of where a gobbler will go for a strut zone.”

Barnett credits some of his obsession with turkeys to his DNA.

“I come from a long generation of turkey hunters from Winston County,” he said. “Back in the early 1900s, there were turkey populations along the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers and there was a pocket of turkeys in Winston County. I know my great-grandfather hunted turkeys in Winston County along Clear Creek. There were moonshine stills, too, but there were also wild turkeys.”

He also knows that Alabama’s dedicated turkey hunters have educated the Eastern wild turkey within our borders to the point that taking a gobbler in Alabama elevates the hunter to an elite status.

I’ve always said that if a hunter can fool a turkey in Alabama, he or she can be successful anywhere in the nation.

“I’ll go a step further,” Barnett said. “If you can call a turkey within range on public land in Alabama, you’re even better off – anywhere else in the world.”

Barnett said a formal, county-by-county survey of Wildlife Division staff indicates there are an estimated 500,000 wild turkeys in Alabama.

“The word estimate needs to be emphasized,” he said. “All we have is anecdotal information. What really matters is what enters the fall population. You’re going to lose about 70 percent of what hatched in the spring or eggs to nest predators like raccoons. Those first few weeks of survival as poults are obviously very important. If they can survive those 10-12 days until they can fly up to roost, then they have a better chance. They’re just so vulnerable during that time.

“I think from the information we got is that last spring and summer we had pretty good survival. The year or two before, it appears we had poor survival. That’s why we’re working on a standardized method of indexing recruitment. We’re working with Dr. Barry Grand of the Alabama Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Auburn University to standardize the methodology using game cameras to get images of hens and poults, as well as gobblers.”

Whether there are turkeys on a particular piece of property depends largely on how much work was put into management for turkeys, Barnett said.

“If you look property by property, it all hinges on active management – the person who is doing timber management, controlled burning, making wildlife openings,” he said. “If they’re focusing on brood habitat, managing for grassy openings that will provide food and cover for the brood, they’re going to have turkeys.

“If the next-door neighbor doesn’t have any active management plan – unbroken, unmanaged woodlands – if that neighbor is a turkey hunter most of the gobbling he’s going to hear will be across the property line.”

With the cold winter that lasted longer than usual, Barnett thinks the turkey mating activity has been substantially subdued.

“I think we’re probably two weeks behind where we were last year,” he said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because turkeys weren’t gobbling much before the season opened, people weren’t out scaring turkeys and poachers weren’t as likely to kill gobbling turkeys. I think it’s better for hunting that gobbling coincided with the opening. It’s been unusual this year. Usually we’ll have some warming in February, so maybe we’ll have good gobbling and hunting throughout the season.”

As one of those afflicted, I certainly hope so.