By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division is looking for a few good turkey hunters. Actually, Ray Metzler, Acting Chief of the WFF’s Wildlife Section, and his colleagues are looking for more than a few.

Because of a recent decline in turkey numbers in the Southeast, WFF has responded with an expanded effort to monitor the turkey population in Alabama.

That effort resulted recently in the premier edition of the Full Fans and Sharp Spurs report that outlines wild turkey information in Alabama. WFF officials gathered data from WFF personnel in the field and turkey hunters to compile the report, which will be used to help manage the state’s turkey population and keep turkey hunters and those who love the outdoors updated on the latest status reports.

Obviously, there aren’t enough WFF personnel to effectively cover the state. Therefore, avid turkey hunters around the state were recruited to participate in last year’s inaugural Alabama Avid Turkey Hunter Survey. During the 2014 season, about 100 turkey hunters reported the number of individual gobblers seen and the

total number of gobbles heard during their outings. With this information, WFF officials can track gobbling activity and associated peaks during the season. As any turkey hunter will attest, the gobbling activity is an indicator of a quality hunt. Therefore, survey participants report the gobbles heard during 10 hours of hunting.

Under the turkey observation data, hunters are asked to report the number of gobblers, jakes (1-year-old gobblers) and hens observed during 100 hours of hunting. With this information, WFF biologists can estimate sex ratios, gobbler-age ratios, population size and population trends. Jake observations are indicators of recruitment from the previous year’s hatch, which, in turn, could give an indication of what gobbling activity might be the next season because two-year-olds tend to do a great deal of the gobbling each season.

WFF officials built a wild turkey density map, which is included in the Full Fans and Sharp Spurs publication. WFF biologists used harvest numbers, reproductive success and habitat conditions to build the density map, which will vary over time because of a number of factors, including habitat changes, brood survival and hunting pressure.

“As with any wild animal on a statewide basis, it’s difficult to get population information,” Metzler said. “We liked what we saw in the Mississippi publication and survey. We pretty much modeled our program after Mississippi’s. We felt like if we could get the turkey hunters’ participation that it would give us better data on a statewide basis as far as what hunters are hearing and seeing. That’s really what we need to get. We don’t have a biologist in every county, and that makes it difficult to monitor populations on a statewide basis. We wanted to recruit hunters to give us a hand.”

Although the first publication is based on one year of hunter observations, Metzler said the information will become more valuable each year.

“Over time, we’ll be able to better understand what’s happening,” he said. “For instance, say in Marion County, they’re seeing one less bird per trip or two less birds per trip over a five-year period. Obviously we can’t do that with one year’s data, but over time this will provide us a good way to monitor populations by what the hunters see and hear and hunter success. We’ll be able to plot on a graph the gobbling activity in different locations.”

The hunter survey is not for those who manage to get to the woods only a few weekends during the season. The best information will come from diehard turkey hunters.

“We want guys that participate on a regular basis, the avid guys who will hunt throughout the season,” Metzler said. “We collect the dates they hunt, the number of gobbles heard and the number of gobblers seen. We won’t publish that individual information, but as we build data through the years, we’ll be able to determine trends as well in terms of peak gobbling activity.”

WFF is also implementing gobbler counts on six wildlife management areas (WMAs) throughout the state. This past week, WFF personnel started monitoring the turkey activity on those WMAs.

“They do a route through the management area to monitor gobbling activity,” Metzler said. “They’ll do that once a week through the first or second week in May. That will go along with hunter data as well to help build the turkey data.”

As far as the cause for the decline in turkey numbers, Metzler said there are no definitive answers.

“There are a whole host of theories, like predation, habitat loss and hunting activity,” he said. “But we don’t know what of those things have impacted the turkey population. It’s probably a combination of things.”

WFF officials estimate that Alabama has lost 10 percent of its turkey population in the last decade. The population estimate was once at 500,000 birds. Metzler said District V Supervising Biologist Steve Barnett, Turkey Project Study Leader, and his cohorts estimate the current population at 450,000 birds.

Most turkey hunters, however, have not noticed the decline, according to Metzler. As part of the annual hunter mail survey, hunters were asked about the turkey population in their area with three possible answers. The survey results showed that 26.2 percent of hunters felt like their turkey population increased and 43.6 percent said it was stable. Only 30.2 percent said it had decreased.

For those who want to see Full Fans and Sharp Spurs, the report can be downloaded for free at http://www.outdooralabama.com/wild-turkey. Funds from the Alabama Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) help publish the annual report.

As the word gets out about the Alabama Avid Turkey Hunter Survey, WFF hopes more hunters will join the effort. Hunters who want to participate can send an email to robin.heath@dcnr.alabama.gov