How it started
In 2014, Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area (UBBWA) Manager Tim Hermansen, and Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell came to NWTF with the hope of a partnership that could create a spring turkey hunt at UBBWA. Jumping in head first, NWTF applied for a grant from the Upland Game Bird Stamp account and was successfully awarded later that year. This funding would pay for a seasonal aide position to fill the role of UBBWA’s “Turkey Hunt Coordinator” for a term of 5 years. It also opened 4,900 acres to public hunting in the spring. Hunters could apply for this new opportunity through the public draw system on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.
This hunt has become quite popular among California turkey hunters since its initiation. Having been conducted the last two springs, the hunt boasted a 28% success rate for 53 total hunters in 2016. Not too shabby for some public ground turkey hunting!
Also as a result of starting this hunt, UBBWA and NWTF staff thought to try and calculate a population indice of wild turkeys on the wildlife area. To do this, we decided to take a scientific approach through band return data from hunter-harvested birds. With this method we could justify running this hunt into the future, knowing that we weren’t negatively affecting wild turkey populations. This would help manage stable populations for future sportsmen and women. We decided that each of the 5 years we would try to capture and place leg bands on as many wild turkeys as possible, to gain as much data as possible.
Catching and banding turkeys
The waterfowl season on UBBWA closes after the first weekend in February and the Junior Spring turkey hunt begins the second weekend in March. Because of this, each year has a very short window to bait and trap birds. Our capture methods are pretty simple. We bait wild turkeys to specific locations on the Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek Units over a period of several weeks. We then fire a large net with a compressed air cannon over the happily feeding turkeys. Seems simple right? Unfortunately, Murphy’s law and turkey trapping tend to go hand-in-hand, as we soon found out.
After a few hiccups, the crew began to get into the groove of catching these big birds. The process goes a little bit like this: We bait sites for a few weeks. Monitor those sites to see if the birds are using the site. Once turkeys begin hitting the bait with some consistency, the air cannon is placed adjacent to the bait. The trigger person then slips into a blind, and awaits the turkeys to come in. The trigger person shoots the net, then sends out a call on the radio. All help rushes to the site to untangle the birds and place them into individual boxes.
Placed into their boxes, the birds calmly await their turn at processing. Processing includes measurements of age, sex, weight, wing length, tarsal (leg from the knee joint down) length, beard length and spur length. Eventually, they wear a shiny new leg band with a unique number assigned to each individual. This requires an assembly line of dedicated/efficient staff and volunteers who work to keep the stress level low for these wild creatures.
Banded and processed, we release them back into the wild at the site where captured. Wild turkeys are are very social animals within their flocks. Because of this, it’s best to release them all back at the same time, instead of individually one by one. This helps keep their social structure and hierarchy in place, which is crucial to flocks surviving predators and the elements.
Overall, the project has been quite successful. We captured a total of 21 wild turkeys and banded them on UBBWA in 2015. In 2016, we captured and banded 28 turkeys. So far, only one banded bird has been harvested and reported. We hope to continue our banding efforts throughout the next several years, and look forward to maintaining this strong partnership with UBBWA and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.