Caselena the authority when it comes to turkey talk

To the average turkey hunter, meeting Mary Jo Caselena can be surprising. This petite woman, who couldn’t possibly weigh more than 90 pounds, is the state’s professional turkey biologist?

Indeed she is and once she opens her mouth to start explaining the Game Commission’s plans and programs concerning the wild turkey, it is all you can do to keep up. I am a great admirer of hers, and as she explained the present program for research on the state’s turkeys, it was all I could do to get even half of it written down.

Casalena spoke at the recent Pennsylvania State Chapter officers and presidents meeting in State College. She, like the rest of us, was relieved at the recent break in the weather that allows all wildlife to find food and rest.

Wild turkeys are a tough and hardy species. Turkeys can, and often do, stay on the roost for days at a time when weather is really rough and they cannot make their way through it to find food or escape predators. As I write this, even more rough weather is in the forecast.

But when very early spring arrives, their energy is consumed with the breeding and nesting activities. They quickly build up a supply of breast fat which sustains them through the rough and tumble spring, fighting for territory, herding hens to their harem and substantial breeding activities.

Not a lot of hunters realize that up to 45 percent of spring gobblers can be harvested without it affecting the population expectation for the next year.

That is because one gobbler establishes dominance over a personal harem of hens and he and he alone does the breeding for each of them. Even though other gobblers may be with that gobbler and his hens, they are subdominant and breed a hen only if he can do it on the sly somehow.

Often, it is one of these subdominant gobblers who actually sneaks into a hunter’s calls while the big guy is busy. Sub-dominant gobblers often have long beards and big spurs, they just couldn’t best the most aggressive gobbler in the contests for supremacy.

It is the fall harvest of turkeys that really determines seasons and hunting regulations overall. If, during the fall season when either sex turkey may be harvest, over 10 percent of hens are taken, that impacts heavily the turkey populations and seasons.

Casalena has a regulated program and goals for the research to reveal. It focuses on these five factors: habitat, weather, predation, disease and harvest regulations.

Briefly, here are some of the concerns in more detail. There have been some important habitat changes in recent years: declining mast (acorns, beechnuts etc.) producing trees, lack of good forest management, forest fires and over browsing by deer. There has been little or no oak regeneration and so gradually forest is being repopulated by Maples and other no-food producing trees.

Also, the state’s forest is aging and so we are losing a good bit of suitable nesting habitat.

Then in recent years, extreme winter and spring weather just as prolonged rains and heavy snows have impacted turkeys. As for predators, turkeys have many predators. Raccoons, snakes, crows, bobcats, coyotes and fishers all prey on turkeys, especially the nest and the young. Most predation takes place during the spring and summer when poults are vulnerable. Once a poult reaches the age that it can fly up to roost, predation numbers decline.

Since predation is such a big factor, Casalena suggested that perhaps local and state chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation may need to focus more on creating suitable nesting cover and not as much on creating food plots.

There is much research to accumulate and apply in years to come. Casalena said that the volunteer efforts by hunters are of great value to their research efforts. Such things as reporting spring sightings of turkeys seen is vital and so welcomed by the research teams.

There has been an eight percent decline of turkey populations in the state since 2000. There was a rapid advance in populations in the 1990s when the trap-and-transfer method of relocations was being heavily implemented and hunting seasons were more heavily restricted.

Former Arkansas governor and one-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee declared on national television on the day before New Year’s Eve that he is a proud member of The National Wild Turkey Federation. This organization is considered one of the outstanding conservation organizations in the United States. I am proud of being in on the ground floor of NWTF and still support them strongly.