KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Tennesse Tech researchers have partnered with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to find out why turkey populations are declining and what can be done to help.

The decline has been seen throughout the southeastern United States over the past decade in eastern wild turkey populations according to the TWRA. The agency said there are many possible reasons for the decline including habitat loss and deterioration, poor reproduction because of recurring bad weather, increased predation on turkeys and their nests, and impacts associated with legal hunting.

“The population decline of wild turkeys has been noticeable across the southeastern United States ‒ Tennessee and Kentucky included. But there are some differences in the sharpness of that decline within and across states,” said Bradley Cohen, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Tech. “So, the reason the two states got together is to provide a larger scale for us to study. We are going to look across a broad geography to better understand how land use and harvest regulations affect male harvest.”

The biologists and technicians captured turkeys in fields throughout Tennessee and Kentucky in rocket-powered nets and placed a numbered band around the turkey’s leg before releasing them. The writing on the band asks anyone who finds the turkey to visit a website and record information on how they acquired the band – by hunting the turkey, finding a dead bird, or just finding the band by itself – and where it was found.

Every person who reports a banded turkey will receive a certificate and details of the county and the date the turkey was banded. In addition, green bands come with a $75 gift certificate.

The project has entered its second year. It is planned for four years. Researchers plan to start organizing their data this fall with hopes of getting an idea of what is happening with the turkey populations.

Researchers plan to use the data collected to gain a better understanding of how many birds are taken by hunters, predators and other causes. They also hope it will help them find out what could be causing the lowering turkey numbers in Tennessee. One theory shared by Tennessee Tech said the problem stems from scheduling hunting season in the middle of the birds’ breeding season.

“Chicken-like birds like wild turkeys have complicated social hierarchies and dominance structures, so male harvest may affect population productivity if too many are harvested,” Cohen said. “And it’s possible that during hunting season, which coincides with wild turkey’s breeding season, that we’re removing possibly some of the most important males out of the population and this can have cascading effects.”

If that theory turns out the be true, a possible solution is shortening the hunting season or shifting it so that it no longer interferes with mating season.

“This is a multi-state partnership, which doesn’t happen all the time in wildlife research,” said Cohen. “But both states are pooling resources together in collaboration with our lab to look at this question that’s bigger than one state alone can answer.”

Tech master’s student Abby Riggs, collaborating post-doctoral Tech student Allison Keever, Zak Danks, Turkey-Grouse Program Coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, and Rogers Shields, Wild Turkey Program Coordinator with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency are joining Cohen on the project.

For more information about the project, visit tn.gov/report-turkey-bands.html.