GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission says that when the first settlers landed in North Carolina, turkeys could be found everywhere within the state. Although, by the 1700s only a small number of turkeys persisted. The decrease in turkey populations was attributed to unchecked hunting, deforestation, and the obliteration of their habitats. This continued into the 1960s.
The turkey population in North Carolina has returned because of the efforts of a restoration program put in place by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. The program is comprised of live-trapping and moving turkeys to places and states from which they had previously vanished. A new study by North Carolina State University suggests that climate change might not affect the timing of turkey nesting.
The study, “Timing of Turkey Nesting May not Shift with Changing Climate,” says “the findings suggest eastern wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) could be vulnerable to shifts in climate, which could threaten the availability of their food sources, the amount of vegetation cover available to protect them from predators, and other factors.”
Chris Moorman, professor in NCSU’s Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Program said “there are implications here for turkey populations if individuals are inflexible in their ability to shift their reproductive activities, as resources are certainly going to change in the future. This could result in ‘phenological mismatch,’ where the timing of an animal’s natural history doesn’t match up with the food and cover resources that are critical for successful reproduction and survival.”
The study’s lead author Wesley Boone, and a postdoctoral research scholar at NCSU, said, “Turkeys are a highly adaptable species; this adaptability facilitated their ability to be restored. We want to know if they’re going to be able to persist in a future with a changing climate, and changing landscapes, too.”
In an effort to find out how climate change can affect turkey nesting, for eight years, researchers tracked when eastern turkeys in five states of the southeast United States began to nest.
Using the proper safety procedures, researchers used nets to catch female turkeys. The academics attached GPS receivers to the birds and watched their location. While they watched the birds’ movements, the researchers looked for any patterns that might signal that the turkeys had started the incubation of their nests. Incubation means when a female turkey lays on her eggs in her nest. Once that was completed, they checked the nests to see if any eggs had hatched.
The researchers used past weather data from 2014 to 2021 to determine of temperature, rainfall, and the timing of the “spring green-up” matched with the timing of the turkeys’ nest incubation period. They also forecasted if the turkeys’ nest incubation period would be affected by two climate change conditions by 2041 to 2060. They tested a total of 717 nests and 183 nests had at least one egg hatched within the nest. The academics determined that
temperature and rainfall had slight effects when turkeys began their incubation nesting. Nevertheless, the changes were so minor that they can be calculated in hours, not in days.
The study concludes by saying “when they looked at the relationship between climate change-related shifts in average precipitation and temperature changes, they found the timing of successful nests would change by less than three hours. The research team did not see any links between turkey nest timing and spring green-up.”
“We did find relationships between nest timing, rainfall, and temperature, but when we projected that into the future, there is no biological relevance in the shift in timing,” Boone said. “However, the lack of change in response to a changing climate could be a problem because the critical food and cover resources linked with spring green-up are likely to shift earlier in the future.”
“For many animals, there is variability around the timing of breeding that would allow individuals to adapt to availability of resources,” Moorman added. “We did not project drastic changes in the timing of when wild turkeys nest under climate change. Turkeys seem relatively inflexible as to when they reproduce, nesting is initiated around the same time each year with only slight shifts in the timing, regardless of weather conditions.”
The study also noted that the researchers of the project understand that there are unanswered questions in regard to the roles of weather conditions and climate change, disease outbreaks and other circumstances on turkeys.
“There could be a lot of factors interacting to cause declines, including timing of the hunting season, land-use change that impacts habitat, changes in predator populations, as well as weather, climate and diseases,” Boone added. “We need to begin chipping away at the questions to build a comprehensive understanding of the current and future threats to wild turkey population sustainability.”