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Prescribed fire is a critical tool for managing wild turkey habitat. Nothing else comes close in terms of utility and cost effectiveness. Land managers must be aware that the effectiveness of prescribed fire on turkeys and their habitat is dependent upon fire intensity, timing, frequency and scale.

Advances in radio telemetry have provided lighter weight GPS units that have better batteries and are far more accurate than older versions.

At the September meeting of the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council at NWTF headquarters in Edgefield, South Carolina, Mike Chamberlain, Ph.D., from the University of Georgia, presented some of the results of an intensive wild turkey research project on the Kisatchie National Forest and other areas in Louisiana. These areas were on a three- to five-year burn rotation, with fires set from December to June. Most burns were in the dormant season (December to February), and the average fire was about 1,000 acres. Fifty-five hens were captured and fitted with micro-GPS backpack transmitters during the project, and 87 percent initiated at least one nest. Of these, only 16 percent succeeded in hatching the first clutch, but 66 percent renested and 20 percent of those succeeded the second time around. Seven hens made a third attempt, with these nests attempted from late June to mid-July. It is interesting to note that even though many of these hens nested in areas that were burned, no nests or broods were lost to fire.

Most hens nested in areas of mature pine overstory that were one or two years post-fire. More than a quarter of the hens, however, attempted to nest in areas that were at least three years post-fire, but almost none of these were successful. Chamberlain speculates that since most of these nests were near the edges of the three-plus-year blocks and were close to roads or firebreaks, they were easy to find by predators, which commonly walk roads and firebreaks. 

As previously mentioned, most fires on the study area were dormant-season burns, and conventional wisdom holds that these fires are good for turkeys, since they take place well before nesting and brood rearing. Chamberlain reported that the Louisiana research, however, casts doubt on this, as turkeys completely avoided the interiors of large dormant-season burns for months after the fire. Their GPS locations showed that they used the edges of these areas, or narrow sections near unburned cover, but not the interiors. This also suggests that the scale of fire was too large to be optimum for turkeys, since they only used the edges of large burned blocks, presumably to be near escape cover.

In contrast, Chamberlain’s presentation highlighted the GPS locations of a hen in an area burned in May during the growing season. This hen used the area heavily in the two weeks prior to the fire, never even left the area during the fire and roosted in the burned area that same night. Almost all of her locations for the next two weeks were also in the burn unit. Other monitored hens in this project did the same thing, so a great take-home point from this research is that growing-season burns are likely to be far better for turkeys than most of us had previously suspected.

Another presentation from the South Carolina meeting also addressed turkeys and prescribed fire. Jay Cantrell, wildlife biologist and assistant big game program coordinator with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, presented some of the results from a large GPS telemetry research project currently underway in the South Carolina Lowcountry. This project is in its third year and has provided great information for turkey hunters, land managers and biologists.

Cantrell said that from 2014 to 2016, 46 males and 86 females were captured and equipped with GPS backpack transmitters. As with Chamberlain’s project, each of these transmitters is set to take a location at regular intervals, often once an hour, and the locations are remotely downloaded by a receiver. So far, they have recorded about 277,000 separate locations. Having this many points adds confidence when evaluating the data and drawing conclusions.

Compared to the Louisiana research, nest success was higher in South Carolina, with 26 out of 54 hens that initiated incubation (48 percent) successfully hatching broods on their first nest attempt. Of 10 renest attempts, three were successful and seven failed — a 30-percent success rate. As was the case in Louisiana, most hens nested in stands of mature pines that were one to two years post-burn. These hens also were more likely to be successful than the hens that nested in areas that were more than two years post-burn. 

In South Carolina, as in Louisiana, areas burned during the growing season were heavily used by hens and their broods.

“The habitat benefits are tremendous, and those burns create great cover and insect-attracting vegetation that is ideal for a hen with poults,” Cantrell said. “In fact, all turkeys are reliant on insects in the spring and summer. The quick green-up following growing-season burns allows for turkeys to quickly use these burned areas following fire. So far, in three years of study with over 50 monitored nests and thousands of acres burned between March and June each year, we have yet to lose a nest or brood to fire.”

Both of these research projects are works in progress, and much more data collection and analysis remains before we can draw iron-clad conclusions, but even the preliminary results are useful and exciting. Turkey hunters, biologists and land managers stay tuned — more information is on the way.

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