May 1, 2023

Changes Ahead for the 2023 IDNR Turkey Brood Surveys

I think we’ve all heard the rhetorical question, “if your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” While our immediate answer might be to proclaim we wouldn’t, what if just then we saw our friends successfully fly back up on the cliff? For Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Wild Turkey Program Manager, Luke Garver, and his co-workers, this was, possibly, a real dilemma.

A group of 13 light-colored eggs in a nest deep within tall grassy vegetation.
Photo by IDNR.

As we flock further into the second decade of this millennium, many programs and projects throughout IDNR are switching to online-based features in an effort to better promote eco-friendliness, reduce wasted postage, and, more importantly, increase ease of access for constituents and data recovery. One notable project that will be making this switch soon is the yearly IDNR Turkey Brood Survey.

Neighboring states, including Indiana, Missouri and Kentucky, have already made the metaphorical jump, establishing their own summer brood surveys as an online-based platform instead of the historically used postcard method. Through a study of methods for surveying, Indiana Department of Natural Resources reported in April of 2021 that their previous year’s survey was successful in reaching additional reporters through social media channels, such as Facebook. However, Indiana Department of Natural Resources staff also noted that the requirement of a password and survey reporters subsequently forgetting their password contributed to a reduction over time in the number of reporters by the end of the survey. But, of course, in a hatching effort to adapt old practices to new technology, challenges are to be encountered. Nevertheless, in September of 2021, Indiana Department of Natural Resources released their 2021 Brood Survey Review citing that “[the] substantial increase in observer participation the last three years [since implementing an online reporting method] increased the sensitivity to produce more accurate estimates of [Indiana’s] wild turkey population.”

Garver is now faced with the question: does Illinois follow its neighboring states off the metaphorical cliff?

“Several years ago, a midwestern state made the switch from paper to electronic surveys and saw a decline in participation,” he explained. “They theorized that because observers didn’t have their postcards with them as a reminder when they saw turkeys, they didn’t think to report them. Several other states have made the switch since then and have found large increases in participation by preceding the change with news releases and social media posts.”

Now, after working on a new ArcGIS reporting system, Garver is hopeful that implementing Illinois’ own online survey reporting methods will have the same success as states like Indiana.

“I do expect to see an increase in participation, provided we get the word out well enough,” noted Garver.

With the possibility of more reports comes the added possibility of data analysis, which means a clearer picture of wild turkey populations in Illinois.

“These data will be collected in a GIS database which opens the door for spatial analyses we haven’t conducted before,” said Garver. “A larger sample size will give us more confidence to run analyses at smaller spatial scales. Currently, the IDNR Turkey Brood Survey mainly focuses on averages at a statewide level, but if we can get enough observations spread out across the state, we can more confidently summarize the data by region and possibly even by county.”

Like the postcards before, the new web-based reporting system will continue to focus on the same key metrics of turkey populations in Illinois.

A large, brown bird with a bare head, identified as a female or hen wild turkey, standing in grassy vegetation.
Photo by IDNR.

“The number of poults per hen (PPH) is the key metric we are monitoring when doing the brood survey,” Garver explained. “That ratio has been monitored for several decades now in Illinois, along with other useful data including poults per brood, proportion of hens with a brood and the male to female ratio.”

Brood surveys are not the only metric for looking at turkey population trends. IDNR also consults Archery Deer Hunter Surveys and Upland Bird Call Surveys. The 2022 Brood Survey showed a continuing strength in turkey populations across Illinois.

“In the summer of 2022 we saw another relatively high PPH ratio which gives us a decent indication that Illinois turkey populations continue to rebound across the state,” said Garver. “I think the 2023 and 2024 seasons will be the test as to whether improving reproductive metrics result in higher harvest totals. Most of our harvest consists of mature males, so it should take a couple years to see the increasing number of birds hatched reflected in our harvest totals.”

As with past reporting systems, IDNR employees and other associated natural resource professionals across the state will assist in the surveillance procedure. However, another large piece of collecting this data relies on public volunteers conducting citizen science within their area. While surveyors exist in nearly every county across Illinois, some areas are better covered than others, meaning IDNR welcomes additional participants interested in assisting with the survey. Any individual regularly working, driving, hiking or otherwise in contact with rural areas providing habitat for wild turkey populations is a great candidate to participate.

As the new web-based reporting system goes live with the potential for a larger audience and, therefore more reporters, it is important for reporters to aptly distinguish between the classes of turkeys they may encounter. To brush up on wild turkey information and view the key identification differences, visit All About Birds’s wild turkey page.

“If reporters are unsure, they can list them as unknown,” Garver clarified. “The web-based system will also provide example photos of male and female turkeys as well as immature turkeys at different life stages for reference. We ask whether the observer has reported the same turkeys previously in the same month. It’s ok to report repeated sightings, but it’s important to note whether they’ve already been reported so we can filter these observations out in our various analyses.”

In the coming weeks before the new web-based system is launched in June 2023, IDNR’s wild turkey management team will begin publishing additional details regarding reporting procedures. All contributions to the surveillance project are appreciated as IDNR hopes to better collect and utilize the data and begin compiling more detailed summaries of the wild turkey population in Illinois.

Kaleigh Gabriel is a Wildlife Outreach Specialist with Lewis and Clark Community College, working out of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources building to assist the Division of Wildlife Resources. Growing up just between Sangamon and Christian counties, she spent a lot of her time hunting and fishing in Illinois. She received her bachelor’s degree in writing/journalism from Manchester University, Indiana.

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