Science Spotlight

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  • March 5, 2020

A wild turkey inside a cardboard box to keep it calm is weighed as CDFW Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell records the data at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area.
Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell records the weight of a wild turkey at Little Dry Creek prior to banding.

A banded wild turkey’s two legs show off the two different type of bands CDFW biologists affix to the birds at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area. One band is riveted closed; the other clamped close until its two butt-ends are touching.
Wild turkeys banded in 2019 and 2020 are given one traditional, butt-end band on one leg and one rivet band on the other.

Silvery metallic butt-end bands in the hand of CDFW environmental scientist Laura Cockrell.
Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell shows off the supply of butt-end bands prior to banding.

Turkey hunters in parts of Butte and Glenn counties who are skilled and lucky enough to bag a tom this spring may be in for a pleasant surprise: Their bird may be sporting some jewelry – a band on each leg.

Since early February, CDFW biologists at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area – supported by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) – have been busy trapping and double-banding wild turkeys at the wildlife area’s Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units. So far this year, some 45 turkeys have been banded, which include toms, hens and young males known as “jakes.”

The staff and volunteers have just about a month and a half to trap and band all the wild turkeys they can between the close of the waterfowl hunting season and the start of the spring wild turkey season in mid-March. It’s part of an innovative research effort aimed at better understanding the characteristics, growth rates, habitat use, range and abundance of the growing population of wild turkeys using the wildlife area.

Bird bands long have been an important research tool for biologists and considered a prize among many hunters who are allowed to keep them after reporting the band information. The Upper Butte Basin turkey banding project is the only one of its kind in the state, making those turkey bands a rare commodity and a valuable potential data source.

In addition to the banding, the turkeys are weighed, sexed and measured at various points before being released.

The wild turkey study began at the wildlife area in 2015 along with the launch of limited spring wild turkey hunts there. NWTF helped secure grant funding to start the hunt program and initiate the research effort. The funds came from the sale of upland game bird hunting validations and stamps required of upland game bird hunters.

“We thought it would be great to start getting an abundance estimate for the turkeys that we do have out here to make sure that we weren’t harming the population through the hunt program and also to see how much hunter opportunity we could potentially utilize,” said Kevin Vella, NWTF’s district biologist for California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

The spring wild turkey hunt program has been so successful and popular over its short history funding for the program and its research component will continue under CDFW’s general budget moving forward.

“I think Howard Slough especially offers some of the best turkey hunting I’ve seen anywhere,” said Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area Manager Tim Hermansen. “Certainly, youth hunters have an excellent opportunity out here.”

Spring turkey hunts at both the Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units are limited to lottery drawings through CDFW’s website in order to ensure an uncrowded, high-quality hunting experience. The hunter quota and the turkey harvest both have grown over the years along with the local turkey population. Hunter success ranged from 30 to 60 percent during the 2019 spring season but reached 100 percent for the youth hunt at Howard Slough in 2018.

Back to those double-banded birds.

Although 101 turkeys were banded at the wildlife area between 2015 and 2019, only three banded turkeys have been reported by hunters. That leads biologists to believe most of the turkeys have been prying off the traditional, “butt-end” bird bands, which have two edges that butt evenly together when clamped on.

The NWTF has since supplied Upper Butte Basin with rivet bands that are made of a harder metal and riveted closed when attached. The turkeys banded in 2019 and 2020 now receive a butt-end bird band on one leg and a rivet band on the other. Any of those harvested birds wearing a single rivet band will confirm suspicions that the birds have been prying off the butt-end bands.

“That’s the downside of doing any kind of novel research,” explained Laura Cockrell, a CDFW environmental scientist based at the Upper Butte Basin. “You only have your own mistakes to learn from.”

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area Manager Tim Hermansen releases a wild turkey after banding as Fish and Wildlife Technician Derek Schiewek and Seasonal Aid John Davis look on.

Media Contact:
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8908

Categories: General
  • June 11, 2018

Man holding large cardboard box in front of man holding turkey.
Tim Hermansen of CDFW carries a turkey holding box to CDFW’s Levi Sousa while John Davis clears the net.

Person holding turkey while another person holds turkey foot against wooden post.
Derek Schiewek of CDFW holds a turkey while CDFW’s Laura Cockrell measures the tarsus.

Recent efforts to determine the number of turkeys on the Upper Butte Wildlife Area have been a net success.

CDFW staff and volunteers from the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) began annual turkey banding efforts in 2015 to gather information about turkey demographics and movements to facilitate better management of the population and assess future hunting opportunities. Approximately a dozen volunteers and staff have since worked on this effort two months each year, in the late winter through early spring.

Captured birds are fitted with a numbered band, and their age, gender and weight are determined before they are released. The number of times a turkey is recaptured through ongoing trapping activities, or when a hunter returns a band to CDFW, provides data about the density and the movements of the birds. Approximately 20 wild turkeys have been captured each of the past four years, using air cannons that propel nets. Last year was the sole exception, as torrential storms resulted in zero captures because portions of the property were flooded and could not be traversed with trapping equipment.

“That year was very frustrating, but part of being a wildlife biologist is going with the flow,” recalled CDFW Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell, who is involved in coordinating and facilitating wildlife surveys on the wildlife area.

This year, walk-in traps were used for the first time to supplement the traditional use of air cannons, and the final tally was 38 turkeys banded, increasing the total number banded over the course of the project to 88. This baseline data will inform decisions on how many turkey hunters will be allowed access to the wildlife area each spring.

“Our volunteers and all our staff are what makes this project successful,” Cockrell said. “Everyone completes a safety training so we can make sure the birds are handled quickly and carefully, and then it is a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ during the trapping operations. If we did not have a dedicated crew on this project, it would not be successful. The walk-in traps allow staff to set up trapping operations in the morning, check the site throughout the day, and process birds as they are captured.”

Also appreciative of the banding efforts were turkey hunters, who had an extra “spring” in their step this year at the Upper Butte Wildlife Area.

The 2018 spring turkey hunts recently ended after 64 hunters who hunted on Upper Butte Basin harvested 35 turkeys. During the previous three spring seasons combined since spring turkey hunts began on the wildlife area in 2015, 133 hunters participated and 47 turkeys were harvested.

All the result of field conversations between CDFW staff and fall turkey hunters.

“During the fall turkey seasons some years back, hunters at the check stations would frequently ask us when we were going to offer a spring season, which we had not done before,” Cockrell said.

At the wildlife area’s Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units, the problem was not a lack of turkeys but rather a lack of funding to hire staff to advertise, prepare, regulate and operate the extra hunts – and a lack of scientific data to support an extra hunting season.

A collaborative effort between CDFW and the NWTF solved that problem.

In 2014, NWTF applied for and received a state grant from the Upland Game Bird Stamp Fund. The grant proposal, which was spearheaded by NWTF District Biologist Kevin Vella, obtained five years of funding to support a seasonal coordinator position.

“This spring we had almost 1,800 applications for 144 open spots,” said Cockrell. “Our hunters really appreciate the opportunities that the spring turkey hunts provide. We frequently hear after a hunt what an amazing time they had out in the field and how much they enjoyed their time on the wildlife area. One of our hunters this season was so excited because he was able to harvest a nice turkey at his very first hunt!”

All photos © National Wild Turkey Federation, all rights reserved. Top Photo: Tim Hermansen of CDFW holds a turkey while Laura Cockrell of CDFW measures its beard with calipers.

Categories: General
  • July 25, 2017

Five deer wade knee-deep in blue lake water
cute face of a mule deer

Three people check and attach a collar to a doe
doe on a hillside wears a research collar
Mule deer buck in a dry meadow
Two people collect deer pellets from a trail
Doe and fawn look out from a dry-grassy ridge

As California deer hunters head to the fields, forests and mountains this summer and fall, their experiences will provide wildlife biologists with key data on the health of the state’s deer herds. Wildlife biologists are already seeing the benefits of a 2015 regulation change requiring all deer tag holders to report how they did – successful or not – along with how many days they actually spent hunting, even if they never made it out at all. A record 84 percent of deer tag holders submitted harvest reports for 2016.

“We’re getting more accurate and precise numbers for harvest than we’ve ever had before, which is critical for calculating the tag quota for the next year and conserving our deer populations for the future,” said Stuart Itoga, a senior environmental scientist with CDFW and the state’s deer program coordinator.

Until recently, accurate deer harvest data had proved elusive. Prior to 2015, only successful California deer hunters had to report their take and only about 30 percent of those actually complied. CDFW supplemented the harvest data with numbers collected from game processing facilities, an inefficient process that still left an incomplete picture.

“It’s Wildlife Management 101,” Itoga said. “You have to know what your population is, what’s coming in and what’s going out. We needed to have better numbers.”

Following the mandatory reporting requirement in 2015, submittal rates for deer tag harvest reports jumped to 50 percent. In 2016, a $21.60 non-reporting penalty took effect, which applies to the purchase of future tags, and boosted reporting to the all-time high.

Mandatory deer tag reporting data is just one of a number of new tools that has CDFW deer biologists excited about their ability to better assess California’s deer herds. An innovative DNA study of deer feces promises to give biologists new information about the size and characteristics of the state’s deer population.

CDFW has also greatly expanded the use of deer tracking collars, thanks to improved technology. Since 2016, CDFW has affixed the relatively lightweight, remotely programmable, GPS tracking devices on 350 deer to learn more about their preferred habitat, in-state and out-of-state migration routes and sources of mortality other than hunting. Advanced camera technology also promises to improve the data collected from CDFW’s aerial and ground-based population surveys. A new computer model is being developed to incorporate all of these new data sources into more sophisticated, accurate and precise deer population estimates.

“It’s really an exciting time to be doing this type of work,” Itoga said. “We’ve always used the best available science, but with technology moving at the pace it’s moving now, we have tools available to us now that we didn’t have even five years ago.”

Management changes can happen more quickly as a result. For the upcoming 2017 deer hunting seasons, for example, deer tag quotas were cut in half in three highly desirable, Eastern Sierra X Zones – X9a, X9b and X12 – as a result of new data and field work that showed that migratory deer in these areas suffered from the long, intense winter.

“Winter survival was poor,” Itoga said. “Our hope is that if we reduce the harvest this year, the populations will have a chance to rebound and increase next year.”

Categories: General
  • July 18, 2017

duck with brown head and body, black back and beak, and red eyes
grayish-brown duck with black and green wing feathers

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has completed its annual waterfowl breeding population survey.

Mallards, gadwall and cinnamon teal comprised 54 percent of the ducks observed, down 30 percent from last year. The number of mallards decreased from 263,774 to 198,392 (a decrease of 25 percent) and total ducks decreased from 417,791 to 396,529 (a decrease of five percent).

The most notable decrease occurred in the Sacramento Valley area, where mallards were estimated at a record low of 31,000 (73 percent below the long-term average).

Given the abundant precipitation, one might expect the numbers to be higher. In some parts of the state, it did indeed increase available habitat (uplands and ponds). But in many areas, last winter’s heavy rains largely resulted in deep, fast-flowing water, which is not ideal for dabbling ducks. Other reasons for low duck observations could include winter flooding of nesting habitat that normally remains dry, the late-season flooding of the rice fields in the Sacramento Valley and the conversion of rice fields and pastures to tree crops.

CDFW biologists and warden pilots have conducted this annual survey using fixed-wing aircraft since 1948. This year’s survey was conducted from April 3 through May 4 in the Central Valley, and May 9-10 in northeastern California. The population estimates are for the surveyed areas only, which include the majority of the suitable duck nesting habitat in the state. Surveyed areas include wetland and agricultural areas in northeastern California, throughout the Central Valley, the Suisun Marsh and some coastal valleys.

The full Breeding Population Survey Report can be found at www.wildlife.ca.gov/conservation/birds/waterfowl.

The majority of California’s wintering duck population originates from breeding areas surveyed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Alaska and Canada. Those survey results should be available in early August. CDFW survey information, along with similar data from other Pacific Flyway states, is used by the USFWS and the Pacific Flyway Council when setting hunting regulations for the Pacific Flyway states, including California.

Categories: General
  • June 13, 2017

A buck with a collar walks through brush on a hillside
A young woman attaches a trail camera to a dead tree trunk.

Deer population estimates are an important element of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) management decisions regarding the species – including setting quotas for deer-hunting seasons, acquiring land and identifying habitat improvement projects. Historically, CDFW has relied upon helicopter surveys to obtain these population estimates, but such surveys can be problematic. While they are effective in open and largely flat areas, they are less so in tree-laden areas where deer are hidden from sight. They can also be extremely expensive.

Now, thanks to emerging DNA technology, scientists are exploring a less invasive, cost-effective alternative: Analysis of what the deer leave behind.

The use of DNA is not new, of course – CDFW has used hair or tissue samples to extract DNA and identify individual animals for years. But scientists are finding that the painstaking collection and analysis of deer droppings is particularly useful because it allows them to gather the necessary information without physically touching (or stressing) the animals. And that, one might say, is the “bottom line.”

Fecal DNA analysis is being used by wildlife biologists in the North Central Region as part of a six-year region-wide study of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) that will provide population estimates in areas where data has previously been lacking. CDFW scientists, in cooperation with UC Davis, will use the deer pellets to take a genetic “fingerprint” designed to help estimate deer populations.

Starting in 2016, a crew began setting transects for pellet collection in the standardized sampling locations (known to hunters as deer zones X6a/b, X7a/b and X8) which are located in Lassen, Plumas, Sierra, Nevada, Placer and Alpine counties. After starting points were randomly selected, habitat information and pictures were collected along with fresh pellets. After the pellets were removed from the area in an initial sweep, scientists revisited the transect once a week for three more weeks to collect new samples. Between July and September of 2016, biologists visited 43 different transects in the summer range and collected and analyzed 458 fresh pellet samples. Staff also captured 20 does and seven bucks and fit them with satellite collars that produced data that helped identify summer home ranges.

CDFW will also use DNA to identify individual deer to help gather buck/doe/fawn ratios. Biologists will then combine the DNA data with home range data from collared deer to calculate the estimated number of deer in the population. This year staff have already completed another 36 plots and collared 18 more deer. Another series of pellet collections is scheduled next year, with a goal of continuing until all 17 counties in the region have been sampled.

Although several DNA projects are occurring across the state, this project is the largest landscape-level study for deer in California. The study is funded through CDFW’s Big Game Account, a dedicated account that provides research and management funds for game species. The University of California will conduct the laboratory work and statistical analysis.

Categories: Wildlife Research