In an effort to estimate influences of fall harvests on wild turkey hens, the state Game Commission has been studying the issue since 2010. It will wrap up in 2014.
The data that is collected helps to more effectively establish fall hunting seasons.
The way commission field staff collect the facts and figures is very interesting. They use rocket nets and retrofit the wild turkeys with transmitters and leg bands.
Tony Ross, northcentral regional biologist, presented information and a hands-on demo to about 20 Pennsylvania College of Technology forestry students in March.
Twice a year in two sections of the state, Ross said, staffers trap birds. Area 1 is Wildlife Management Units 2C, 2E, 4A, 4B and 4D; Area 2 is WMUs 2F and 2G.
According to the Game Commission, Area 1 includes all or parts of the following counties: Lycoming, Clinton, Union, Snyder, Somerset, Cambria, Indiana, Westmoreland, Fayette, Blair, Bedford, Clearfield, Jefferson, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Cumberland, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry and Centre.
There is some overlap with Area 2, which includes all or parts of Lycoming, Clinton, Potter, Tioga, Forest, Warren, Venango, Clarion, Jefferson, Elk, McKean, Cameron, Centre and Clearfield counties.
In the summer and fall trapping, the commission concentrates on poults. During winter trapping, they want to catch hens.
Ross told the students about a recent trapping he and other staff members did in the winter. After a slideshow, he took the students outside the maintenance shed on State Game Lands 252, where he had a demo area set up to show them how they use the rocket net rockets.
First, they have to find a bait site.
"What we are looking for is prime areas ... thick cover and a place to park a vehicle," he said, adding that the site needs to have an open area, too.
Trapping can occur on private property, with the owners' permission.
"We do have some property owners that will actually come out with us and help. They enjoy it," Ross said.
Wild turkeys have excellent vision, often called telescopic vision. They can see much, much better than a human.
In the winter, agricultural fields work well for trapping, Ross said.
"Birds will come out in the open," he said.
They may gravitate toward the corners of the fields, for safety reasons. A field with a forest behind it works perfectly for turkey trapping.
Bait, such as buckwheat and wheat, is put out in a 3-foot by 3-foot area.
Ross said the area cannot be too big because the birds will scatter when the trigger is pulled and the net will not catch them.
"Snow really helps. When we have snow cover, the wildlife can concentrate in that area where there is bait," he said.
If there is bait at a site where natural food occurs, the birds will hit that natural food source first and the bait second, Ross added.
"Snow forces them to the quick and easy food - the bait," he said.
Trail cameras are a good tool, too.
"We use trail cameras to locate (birds) in the area (in) which they would be trapped," Ross said.
When staff identify the area the birds are coming into, they set up a wooden box from which the rocket net is fired.
"The turkeys have to get used to it," Ross said, referring to the wooden box that is left at the bait site.
Ross and field staff then go to site and set up.
"We wait for when they are eating and have their heads down; they are relaxed," he said. "And then it goes off."
The birds react quickly. They will begin to take off as the rockets are firing.
After the smoke clears, the birds that have been caught by the net are flapping and flopping.
"We have to get out there quickly," Ross said. "We use wool blankets to cover them, and ... socks. We use them to cover their heads."
The socks keep out the light, helping to calm the turkeys.
Sometimes, the birds become entangled in the net, Ross said. They tend to fly up and when they come down flapping, they can drag the net with them.
Once the birds are secured, the real work begins.
In each study, about 230 turkeys receive leg bands. Hunters who shoot a banded turkey can collect a $100 reward if they report the harvest.
The leg bands that Ross uses have small rivets to secure them. He told the students those bands stay on better and last longer.
Ross said the birds then are retrofitted with satellite radio transmitter packs, attached much the same way that a human wears a backpack.
The packs do not hurt the turkeys and do not hinder flight.
Each pack allows the commission to collect data about the bird's ranges and survival rate. The batteries last about four years.
Studies have show that the common belief that turkeys stick around a certain area isn't true, Ross said.
Hens in the study travel up to 18.9 miles from the capture range.
The packs also provide an idea of the bird's mortality rates and nesting sites.
"We have found that great horned owls are one of the biggest predators of the turkey," Ross said.
The runner-up predator is the bobcat.
"The other day we found a transmitter buried. We thought a bobcat killed (the turkey)," he said.
Once the birds have all their gear, they are released in the same place they are caught.