Game Commission using ‘citizen science’ to access spring turkey reproduction

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is asking for help from the population to keep track of the turkey population. Above are hen turkeys looking for a meal.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is asking for help from the population to keep track of the turkey population. Above are hen turkeys looking for a meal. For the Centre Daily Times

The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s (PGC) inaugural Pennsylvania Wild Turkey Sighting Survey began Aug. 1. The agency is encouraging the public to assist by reporting the turkeys that they see throughout the month of August.

This is a new venture for the Game Commission. They have long used grouse hunters to help assess the ruffed grouse population, and volunteers are used to report eagle and osprey nests, as well as conducting an annual bat survey.

“This is the first time that the Game Commission has asked the general public to assist with a survey of a game species,” commented the commission’s wild turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena. “It is also the Commission’s first web-based wildlife sighting survey.”

Public involvement will help to bring Pennsylvania in line with data collected by the other 12 northeastern states. This includes Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, New York and all of the New England states.

“We have always used our own employees, the wildlife conservation officers, to conduct the wild turkey survey, but this year we want to step up to the plate and enlist the public to help with our survey,” Casalena said. “The other northeastern states are using the public to help survey wild turkeys and that data has proved to be reliable. It is important for Pennsylvania to have comparable data.

“The turkey survey will enhance our internal survey, which serves as a long-term index of turkey reproduction,” added Casalena. “By reporting all turkeys seen during each sighting, whether they’re gobblers, hens with broods or hens without broods, the data help us determine total productivity, and allow us to compare long-term reproductive success.”

Observations reported by the public will allow Pennsylvania data to be directly compared to that in the other states, where they already use a public-input survey system.

“This data will let us know if our population trends here in Pennsylvania are the same thing as what is happening in the other northeastern states,” Casalena stated. “It will help us get an accurate production index — the number of poults per hen. That is what is most important for our population monitoring.”

The normal peak of turkey egg incubation in Pennsylvania is May 1-4, and it takes 28 days for the eggs to hatch. According to Casalena, because of our wet spring, this year was not normal.

“We have had a lot of late nesters this year,” Casalena noted. “That is good news because the hens had enough energy to re-nest after their first nest failed. It should also make it easy for anyone to distinguish adult hens from the poults [young turkeys that hatched from eggs earlier this year].”

The Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation is pleased with the commission’s new initiative. Ebensburg resident and Pennsylvania NWTF treasurer Jim Panaro shared his views.

“We just learned about this at our July 23 board meeting in State College,” Panaro said. “This real-time reporting of wild turkey sightings is a step in the right direction and I’m glad that the commission is starting this. We are encouraging all 14,000 PA NWTF members to participate.”

According to Casalena, wild bird trap and transfer, habitat improvements and restrictive fall hunting regulations helped Pennsylvania’s turkey population reach a peak of about 280,000 birds in the early 2000s.

“The population then declined sharply to levels below 200,000. However, for the past two years, it has been trending up,” Casalena said.

The statewide turkey population was estimated to be 216,000 last year, higher than the previous five-year average of 205,000 birds.

The Game Commission uses its population surveys to help set hunting seasons and bag limits for wild turkeys. There are currently about 230,000 turkey hunters in Pennsylvania.

Turkey sightings through the month of August should be reported at https://pgcdatacollection.pa.gov/TurkeyBroodSurvey. Or, visit www.pgc.pa.gov and click on the “Wild Turkey Survey” link under news. Your input of data should take only a few minutes.

The information needed includes the county and date of the sighting, the Wildlife Management Unit (map provided by PGC), and township. Also needed is the number of adult turkeys, their sex if known, and the number of poults. The agency asks that you provide some basic identifying information.

“We need the name and phone number or email from the person who records the sightings,” Casalena explained. “This is only so that I can contact the person in case I have questions about a sighting. Your contact information is not made public.”

Over 333 million bird sightings have been reported on Cornell University’s eBird. Centre County has a high number of birders who use eBird to report their sightings, so this will be nothing new for them. The PGC’s online reporting seeks the same type of information, but only about one species — the wild turkey.

Hunters and non-hunters alike can help with the survey — the more sightings submitted, the more accurate the data. Casalena is counting on Centre County birders to help in a big way. Just be observant and report what you see.

“I saw eight poults and a hen today, but I haven’t had a chance to record them on the website yet,” Panaro said. “I will certainly do that.”

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com