MANSFIELD, Ga. - Turkey hunters dream of bearded gobblers in full strut. Haven Barnhill enjoys studying the hens.
"The females are the ones that reproduce and carry the species," said Barnhill, a Thomson-based wildlife biologist and coordinator of Georgia's Wild Turkey Program.
Barnhill and his colleagues gathered at the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center last week to launch an experiment designed to reveal new data on the secretive nesting habits of turkey hens.
"Where they feed, where they make their nests, how many eggs they lay - all of that is important," he said. "But turkeys are very difficult to count or study."
Four hens captured by rocket nets near Thomson were outfitted with radio collars provided by a National Wild Turkey Federation grant. Then the hens were released at the Elliott Center.
"This is our first experiment with the new design of these transmitters," Barnhill said. The tiny radios weigh less than an ounce and are worn by wandering hens like mini-necklaces.
After their release on the 6,100-acre, state-owned wildlife management area, volunteers will track their movements during the upcoming mating and nesting season.
"We'll see what they like and what they avoid," he said. "A lot of times, if there's a part of the habitat turkeys don't use, we try to find out what's missing. It helps us improve management programs everywhere."
Wild turkey restoration is one of Georgia's most stunning wildlife success stories.
The birds once thrived across North America, and their remains are found frequently in prehistoric Indian sites. But land-clearing through the late 1800s wiped out much of their habitat.
By 1900, a flock that once exceeded 7 million in Colonial times had eroded to 30,000, leading scientists to predict turkeys soon would become extinct.
Today, efforts by many states - and the National Wild Turkey Federation, which pumped $1.3 million into Georgia's turkey program - have restored the birds nationwide.
There are now more than 4.5 million wild turkeys, compared to 1.3 million in 1973, according to the NWTF, which is based in Edgefield, S.C.
Georgia's wild turkey population was estimated at 17,000 birds in 1973, and the flocks were confined to a few dense swamps and remote mountain regions.
Today, there are more than 400,000 turkeys living in all 159 counties - due mainly to restoration programs that stocked 4,500 birds to 350 locations between 1973 and 1996, Barnhill said.
Georgia's spring turkey season opens March 24 and runs through May 15. Last year, 80,000 Georgia hunters harvested about 50,000 turkeys - one of the highest success rates in the nation.
This year's outlook appears promising despite two years of drought that have inhibited weed seeds and insect populations that turkey poults depend on for food and survival.
"Turkeys reproduce well, but their populations can fluctuate heavily," Barnhill said. Last year's poult production was estimated at 1.9 per hen - not a very high number.
"We usually think of three to four per hen as excellent," he said. "But the survival has been bad the last two years because of drought. On the other hand, we have a lot of hens in the population from good years before that."
Turkeys will begin mating in the coming weeks. Soon the hens will choose nesting sites and begin laying one egg per day until perhaps a dozen eggs are deposited into the nests.
Then, after a 28-day nesting period, all the eggs hatch - usually at one time, he said. Although turkeys can live to be five or six years old, more than 75 percent die before their first birthday.
"They get eaten," Barnhill said. "Almost everything in the woods will eat a young turkey."
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