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Missouri researchers hope putting 'backpacks' on wild turkeys can help explain population declines

By Bryce Gray, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Outdoors

The department of conservation, which issued the $1.3 million grant, will assist the university's research.

"It's something the agency understands is a problem," said Tyl. "We're willing to invest a decent amount of money to find out what's going on."

The team begins this month testing strategies for attaching the monitoring devices to captive turkeys. One technique will glue small, one-gram devices to poults, so as not to interfere with their growth or development. Another will stitch the devices on.

Larger "backpack" versions will strap around the wings of adult turkeys.

Researchers will also set up weather stations and wildlife cameras.

Together, the stations, cameras and backpacks will allow researchers to cross-reference turkey locations with weather events, temperature and common turkey predators.

Weegman said researchers are considering multiple factors in the crashing poult counts.

Extreme rain or cold may affect their survival.

 

Some predators may have gained subtle advantages recently - there's evidence, for example, that adult turkeys smell more pungent when wet, meaning that increases in rainfall could make them more easily detected by predators.

Even a drop in the price of raccoon pelts since the 1980s could play a role. With fewer racoons getting trapped, more might be free to raid turkey nests.

But the culprit may also be harder to detect by weather station or wildlife camera: Turkey habitat may be getting crowded out.

In northern Missouri, for instance, more land is being farmed, thanks partly to changes that made marginal areas more profitable. In the Ozarks, meanwhile, the decline of local logging activity has allowed forests to mature and choke out brushy undergrowth that provides turkeys with shelter and camouflage.

Fieldwork is set to start in January and continue for several years on public and private land near Lancaster, in northern Missouri.

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