TURKEYS, OPOSSUM AND TICKS (EPISODE 679 TRANSCRIPT)
This is the video transcript. To watch the video for this episode, click here.
GRANT: I really enjoy the turkey hunting experience.
GRANT: Listening to toms, watching that fan in the sunrise. It’s a super exciting time for me.
GRANT: Man, oh man! Turkey hunting is also a great opportunity to get some great, totally organic, protein for your family.
GRANT: Just think about it. You could get a turkey from, you know, the grocery store, that’s been standing in the house with ten thousand other turkeys, eating medicated food, or you can get a wild critter, making a living out here.
GRANT: Heck, I just enjoy seeing turkeys year-round.
GRANT: Maybe you’re seeing a hen with some poults or some jakes kind of hustling it up before the breeding season. Just seeing turkeys or getting pictures of them with the trail camera or video, it just makes the outdoor experience much better.
GRANT: Currently, studies in several states, are showing that turkey nest survival is only about 10 percent. 10 to 40%; 10% in some states and only about 25% of those eggs that hatch and become poults survive to four weeks of age. So, do that math, it’s looking pretty slim.
GRANT: I’ve done the math, in fact, and that means that only about 2.5% or two and a half eggs out of 100 eggs, actually become a turkey, an adult turkey. Now, if you have much of a turkey harvest out there, from hunters, and you’re only getting two and a half out of a 100, replacing that population, it’s obvious that that turkey population is going to decline.
GRANT: And in fact, that’s what’s happening. Several states are reporting declining populations. Some states are decreasing the bag limit or shortening the amount of days turkey hunters can hunt. And it’s not about just reduced hunting opportunities, although, that’s certainly important. It’s about us all joining hands and working together to help turkey populations.
GRANT: It wasn’t long ago, not like, you know, back when grandpa used to hunt. It wasn’t long ago that turkey populations were booming. Especially here in Missouri. Folks came from states all around, just to experience turkey hunting in Missouri.
GRANT: You’d drive down the road and see turkeys in this pasture and this field. You’d see turkeys everywhere.
GRANT: A logical question is, what’s changed from a few years ago, when there were turkeys everywhere, to now?
GRANT: Well, certainly a lot of stuff has changed. There’s been a loss of habitat overall, there are more homes, whatever. But a big change, that’s really obvious, there are more predators that consume turkey eggs. There are more raccoons and possums and other predators that prey on turkey eggs and turkey poults.
GRANT: It’s actually a double whammy if you think about it. There’s less acres of habitat, but more predators. So, that means there’s more predators per acre, if you will.
GRANT: Using the Missouri Department of Conservation Furbearer Survey data, you can see that the number of raccoons, and possums, those populations are all trending up.
GRANT: Now, the habitat’s probably a bit better for those critters. They like edge or fragmented habitat. And certainly, our habitats getting a bit more fragmented.
GRANT: But a huge, tangible factor, that’s really easy to document is the decrease in the number of people trapping to get pelts; to sell pelts. Matter of fact, when you look at the trapping licenses sold in Missouri, it’s a wicked decline.
GRANT: Once again, the reason that the number of trappers has declined is pretty obvious.
GRANT: When I was in high school, an extra-large, green raccoon, I’m talking a raccoon still on the body or you just green flushed it out. You hadn’t really prepared the pelt, was 40 plus dollars. Literally. And now, that same data, well, I’ve got to tell you, I looked it up today, it’s about three and a half or four dollars and most of the pelts aren’t even selling. Only the very best ones are selling. There are thousands upon thousands of raccoon pelts in cold storage, because there’s no market for them.
GRANT: There’s just no motivation for a guy to get up, or a gal and get up before work and buy traps, spend expensive gas and think they’re even going to break even on trapping coons and possums for their pelt value.
GRANT: In addition to the declining economic incentive to remove raccoons and possums, primary turkey nest predators, there was a research project published in 2009 that did turkeys a huge disservice.
GRANT: Recently, my friends at Field and Stream magazine, did a good job of sharing the details of that research and some more recent research. And in case someone didn’t read it, I want to make sure and share it with you.
GRANT: In summary, that research in 2009, which was conducted in New York, took six opossums, put them in a lab, you know, and then closed the area. Put them in a pen and inoculated or dumped about 100 ticks on their neck or behind their head there and then, you know, fed the possums, kept them in a cage, put a tray under the cage and four days later they looked to see if there were any ticks in the tray. They assumed that the possum either ate the ticks while it was grooming, or the ticks would fall into the tray.
GRANT: When the research was over, they let the possums back out wild. I disagree with that too. Once you’ve got an animal in there that may sound humane, but they could have picked up a disease or something from being in the lab. You shouldn’t have let that back out in the wild. But they made a big assumption – that the possums were going to groom and consume the ticks, or the ticks would fall in the pan and maybe stay in that pan overnight.
GRANT: Well, those ticks just crawled out of the pan and went somewhere else in the lab or what if, because of the lab situation, the possum’s colder, its metabolisms off, its not eating, whatever happened, the tick just stayed buried under the fur on the opossum. Apparently, they didn’t look over the opossum to see if the ticks were still on there.
GRANT: They made the assumption that the ticks were either in the possum’s belly, or in the pan. You know what they say about making assumptions.
GRANT: Researchers did some math from dumping those one hundred ticks out and concluded that possums eat a minimum or 5,000 ticks a year. And possums are going to save us from this tick problem throughout the whitetails range, or just throughout the USA.
GRANT: And all the time, I’m thinking, man I – I do some walking on national forest land, whatever. No one’s trapping there, and I get covered with ticks, or homeowners in other states are griping about ticks and there’re possums everywhere. I don’t find any state, that has listed an opossum on the endangered species list.
GRANT: Now, I didn’t share that that vocally early on when I learned about this research. But we were getting all kinds of emails when we would talk about trapping to balance predator and prey populations here at the Proving Grounds, trying to help turkey populations and have a pictures of an opossum and what we caught that day. And we’d get all these emails; “I can’t believe you’re catching possums. That’s why there’s so many ticks on your property.” And those were the nice emails.
GRANT: Some people got right down nasty about removing opossums from the property. And all the time again I’m thinking, well, trapper numbers are way down. The study shows opossum populations are increasing significantly. And tick populations are increasing. Now none of this is cause and effect but clearly opossums are not doing a great job of reducing tick populations.
GRANT: Fortunately, some other researchers became interested in this subject. I believe their names are Hennessy and Heald from a university in Illinois. And they took 32 possums, I assume from Illinois. And looked at their digestive tract; I mean, serious research. Went through all that digestive material with microscopes – looking for any ticks or even parts of ticks. Imagine going through a possum gut, in such fine detail, you’re looking for the part, a leg or the head, of a tick. And they didn’t find any.
GRANT: Good researchers always do more than just the physical research. So, they went to the library and found 23 papers – library, internet – 23 papers where other research groups had studied opossums. And none of those reported finding ticks in the opossum diet.
GRANT: I am certain possum’s groom. Just like deer and turkey and other animal’s groom. And I’m sure they eat some ticks that they find on their body. But clearly, just by any common sense, walking around the timber, possums are not removing enough ticks to significantly decrease tick populations.
GRANT: Certainly, there have been many research projects at different areas throughout the turkey’s range that have shown that opossums are frequent next predators. There’s no doubt about it, that opossums do eat turkey eggs.
GRANT: With any species – opossums, turkeys – habitat should be our primary concern. And I certainly agree that we should put our primary emphasis on managing turkeys in the habitat.
GRANT: I get nasty emails all the time, you just want to kill every predator out there. You don’t really care about habitat. And if you pay attention to me at all, I preach and teach how to make habitat better, 52 weeks out of the year.
GRANT: But it doesn’t matter how good the habitat quality is – if there is a raccoon, a possum, a hawk, a snake, an eagle, a feral cat, a bobcat, a coyote, all these things. If there’s one of those every couple of acres, there’s not much of a chance a turkey nest is going to survive.
GRANT: Habitats a two-way street. Instead of counting on opossums to control tick populations, which obviously does not work, we know – I know from experience, and researchers have found, that tick populations can be reduced by the use of prescribed fire.
GRANT: The science is really simple. Ticks need moisture. They desiccate really easy if their skin, their exo-skeleton, isn’t moist, and it causes them to die. And when you burn an area and turn it black for a few days before it greens up and grows, you remove a bunch of leaf litter or thick, dead vegetation, well, that’s ideal tick habitat. And you take that away, just for a few days, until it greens up again, bunches of ticks are going to die.
GRANT: I’ll take that a bit further. A lot of people know I love to read non-fiction. I love to read about the early explorers and there was an explorer that went through the Ozarks here and he never talked about getting a tick. Now, he was really specific. Man, he talked about smelling smoke from the fires that Native Americans set and all the game he saw, and part of that trip was in the winter. It was cold. It was snowy. So, I get he didn’t get ticks on those days.
GRANT: But even here, on a nice, warm day in February, it warms up, we could be out, we could get a tick. He never once mentioned ticks.
GRANT: And almost all the explorers I read, none of them mention ticks. And I think that’s because there was so much fire, pre-European settlements, from the Native Americans, that tick populations were controlled.
GRANT: Now we can’t have that amount of fire now, due to all the development. But we can certainly use prescribed fire as a tool more than it’s currently being used.
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GRANT: In addition to making better turkey habitat and promoting more prescribed fire, some state agencies probably need to consider expanding trapping seasons, there’s so few trappers, we need to give those folks that are really fighting that turkey battle, some tools so they can help turkey populations on a local level.
GRANT: We remove a lot of raccoons and possums here at the Proving Grounds. But Missouri’s trapping season stops at the end of January. And we notice that, by turkey nesting and brooding time, our trail cameras are seeing more, you know, raccoons and possums, because the young of the year are going to disperse.
GRANT: Those yearling males are going to disperse during the raccoon breeding season, which is now, this late winter timeframe. So, raccoons are going to disperse. Those yearling males that were born last year, they’re dispersing, and they’re going to fill that void where we’ve removed some raccoons.
GRANT: Now, recently, the Missouri Department of Conservation and their commissioners met. They have a monthly meeting. It’s awesome. It’s open to the public. And they voted to expand the trapping season here in Missouri. That’s awesome. I believe the vote was to expand it through February. It currently ends in January.
GRANT: And that’s a great start. But I’m going to ask the commissioners to consider expanding that trapping season, during the turkey nesting and brooding season. There’s a lot of scientific data for this. The waterfowl guys, (Indiscernible) learned years ago, that if you remove waterfowl nest predators right before and during the nesting season, there is a much higher nesting survival rate.
GRANT: Deer people learned over three decades ago. Dr. Beeson, down in Texas, on the Welder Wildlife Refuge, that if you remove coyotes right during or before the fawning season, there’s a much higher survival rate of fawns.
GRANT: The neotropical bird people, they know that if they will remove nest predators right before the nesting season to have a higher survival rate.
GRANT: I think turkeys deserve that same consideration. And not everyone’s going to trap. The typical argument is, well, the furs may not be prime. There’s not much of a fur market anyway, to be honest. And not everyone can trap.
GRANT: We used to have refuges for deer. And we were stocked. A nation of deer from refuges. We probably need to be thinking about having some areas that are really good turkey refuges, so, that we can replenish turkey populations, should our populations get that low.
GRANT: Man, I know, I’m going to get hate mail over this, I already feel it coming. But just slow down before you hit the keyboard there. Think about it.
GRANT: We want really good quality habitat. We want to teach people, help people, empower people to make high-quality wildlife habitat.
GRANT: Anytime you make good quality deer habitat or turkey habitat, you help a whole host of other game and non-game species.
GRANT: Our balance between predator and prey is out of balance in many areas, due to habitat change, reduced trapping, all these issues. And we have to step in as wildlife managers and work to restore that balance.
GRANT: So, most species, both ends of the spectrum, predator and prey are in balance. When you’ve only got, you know, two percent or ten percent or 15 percent of poults surviving, we have to tip that balance a little bit back, into the turkey’s favor.
GRANT: And we need some tools to do that.
GRANT: Ticks are a big issue in a lot of places and educating and facilitating, for people to build these prescribed fires, not only are they going to improve wildlife habitat, but decrease the number of ticks on the landscape, which is better for human health. And there are also parasites on deer and other critters – decrease the amount of parasites on many wildlife species also.
GRANT: Learning how these ecosystems work is a great way to enjoy creation. But it’s even more important to take time, every day to be quiet and seek the Creator’s will for your life.
GRANT: Thanks for watching GrowingDeer.