A cutting-edge study to examine the lives of Eastern wild turkeys has crossed the Sabine River from Louisiana into East Texas.
Louisiana State University (LSU) researchers with the cooperation of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) and help from the National Wild Turkey Federation are fitting Eastern turkeys with GPS collars to track their movements.
Higher Calling Wildlife’s Chester Moore got to document the first collaring effort in Texas.
He hit the field with Chad Argabright, a graduate student at LSU spearheading the project in the field and TPWD Wildlife Region 6 Leader Rusty Wood and his staff.
In this edition of Higher Calling Wildlife,-the podcast Chester interviews LSU’s Dr. Bret Collier who has studied the birds in Louisiana for a decade and is overseeing the the overall turkey collaring study that spans Texas and Louisiana.
In this show learn the following:
*The technology to track turkeys
*How the collars can track hens with poults in their feeding zones down to a 30 square foot area.
*Roosting habits of turkeys.
*An examination of turkey breeding dates.
*Predation on turkeys-(key predators)
*The controversy of hog predation on turkeys. Are hogs really a direct nest threat?
*Reasons for decline of Eastern turkeys in many states & much more.
COVID-19 has been found in whitetail deer in Texas and numerous Midwestern states.
And contrary to social media chatter, it’s not the coronavirus common to certain animals. It’s the same COVID-19 impacting people around the world.
In this special edition of Higher Calling Wildlife, host Chester Moore interviews veteran wildlife biologist Macey Ledbetter of Spring Creek Outdoors who works with deer on a daily basis through Texas.
In this episode the following points are addressed:
*Location (County) of COVID-19 deer study in Texas.
*Latest theories on how deer got the virus.
*Concerns about deer transmitting it to humans.
In addition Chester and Macey go deep into Chronic Wasting Disease talking about number of deer killed in Texas, possible genetic links to CWD susceptibility, how the disease impacts deer breeders and the possible overlooked transmitting species that no one seems to be examining in Texas.
Higher Calling Wildlife was recently named one of the top 20 wildlife podcasts on the planet and won Best Podcast in the Press Club of Southeast Texas “Excellence In Media” awards.
Higher Calling Wildlife is brought to you by Texas Fish & Game.
In this episode of Higher Calling Wildlife on the Waypoint Podcast Network, host Chester Moore and hog expert Jeff Stewart analyze a 2021 hog attack after Chester interviews the survivor who tells a terrifying story of his near-death encounter.
Sightings of “black panthers” are common in the United States, especially in Texas and the Southeastern region.
The problem as I covered in part 1 of this series is that there is no such species as a “black panther” anywhere in the world.
What about the large black cats seen in zoos and on television programs? Those are black leopards or black jaguars.
Melanism occurs when an excessive amount of black pigment dominates coloration of an animal. It happens in many animals ranging from squirrels to whitetail deer. Melanism is not uncommon in leopards in certain parts of their range. This is also true with jaguars. The black cats you see in zoos and on television are all melanistic leopards or jaguars.
The general assumption with “black panther” sightings in America is that these are black or melanistic cougars. The problem is there has never been a melanistic cougar observed by science either in a zoo, captive setting, killed by a hunter, mounted by a taxidermist or otherwise positively identified.
For melanistic cougars to be the answer to America’s “panther” question there would have to be many of them, and there is no proof of any of them.
Jaguars, however, do throw melanistic offspring and are native to Texas, western Louisiana, New Mexico, Arizona and California. They were wiped out north of Mexico more than 100 years ago, but a few individuals have been verified moving in and out of New Mexico and Arizona. And over the years, I have fielded three Texas jaguars reports I believe, two right on the Mexico line and one about 100 miles north of it.
Recent research shows that melanism is a dominant trait in jaguars. In other words, if a male jaguar for example moves into an area and starts breeding females there is a good chance much of the offspring will be melanistic as well.
Could a remnant population of jaguars survive that has the dominant melanistic genes? There is no way that’s an answer for the entire “black panther” phenomenon, but it is not out of the range of possibility for some of the sightings reported throughout the years.
It’s unlikely but within the realm of possibility.
Melanism is also present, albeit rare, in bobcats.
Melanistic bobcats have been killed and mounted in Texas. In fact, one by taxidermist Steve Moye was mounted leaping at a quail and hung in the Gander Mountain sporting goods store in Beaumont, Texas for the better part of a decade.
My experience shows that many people cannot differentiate between a bobcat and a cougar. Many are surprised that bobcats have tails at all. In fact some have tails as long as eight inches. A black bobcat could easily be labeled a “black panther” by someone who is not aware of melanism in the species.
In fact, I was sent a photo of a black bobcat back in 2011 that the reader believed was a “panther”.
I fault no one for not properly identifying animals or having questions. I consider it an honor and a privilege to get to check out the hundreds of photos sent my direction. But my conclusion is people have a very hard time identifying cats in the wild.
Besides people who don’t understand basic animal identification, the biggest problem in misidentifying cougars and bobcats is scale. A large bobcat seen at a distance with nothing to compare it to, looks much larger than it really is.
The jaguarundi is another prime candidate for “black panther” sightings. A large jaguarundi in the common dark gray or chocolate brown phase, crossing a road in front of a motorist or appearing before an unsuspecting hunter could easily be labeled a “black panther.”
Because very few people are aware of jaguarundis, it’s highly unlikely they would report seeing one. Everyone can relate to a “black panther” and virtually no one has ever heard of a jaguarundi.
These cats are native to Texas (and all the way south into South America) but there has been no verified sighting in years. I do believe as some research suggests, there are isolated pockets of them north of their currently accepted range.
Is the jaguarundi responsible for many “black panther” reports in the United States?
Are they the source of some sightings?
I have no doubt.
Some suggest the “black panther” sightings are the result of a “circus train” crash where its animals got loose. This story has been repeated over and over in Texas, and throughout the South with exact locations changing with the retelling.
I find no evidence of this.
If black leopards were to escape, the chance of them surviving and producing offspring wide-ranging enough for a phenomenon like this to take place is beyond far-fetched.
Additionally, why would only black leopards escape? Where are the lions, tigers and elephants?
Considering the bulk of a wild cat’s hunting skills are taught, this is not even remotely likely.
There is no way there are hundreds, if not thousands of black leopards running around the country due to a circus train crash. So far, all intensive re-wilding efforts of tigers have failed so how could circus leopards escape, survive and create a nation-wide population?
Isolated cases of exotic cats escaping have occurred, but in my opinion they are not the source of many sightings in Texas or at any other location in North America.
In my opinion the majority of these black panther these black longtails of domestic lineage discussed in part 1 of the series, standard cougars seen in low light conditions, black bobcats (because we have proof they exist), jaguarundis in parts of their historical range and I even leave the door open for a few of them even being jaguars.
The thing people have to consider is we are dealing with cats, not some creature with unknown abilities.
I have personally been sent hundreds of game camera photos of bobcats. Cougars which are one of the planet’s most elusive animals show up on game cameras in the American West all the time and even super rare and shy animals like snow leopards are common on these cameras set by researchers.
So, if these mysterious cats are all either black cougars or black jaguars why does no one get a clear daytime trail camera photo or even a clear night shot? The same exact areas have cameras getting pictures of bobcats and standard cougars so why are the black ones so elusive?
I don’t believe they are.
I believe the main answer is the “black longtail” of very domestic lineage discussed in part 1 of the series. I have seen many of these photos and even captured one on camera myself.
It’s not an exciting answer if you want this mysterious cat to be something more grand than a feral and perhaps even evolving version of Felis catus but in my opinion it is the clear answer for a vast majority of sightings.
Something else to ponder there are “black panther” sightings throughout the UK, in Australia and other areas with no indigenous leopards or jaguars.
Ask yourself what cat is very common in these areas that is commonly black?
Yep, Felis catus.
I will be doing more features on this topic and communicating with biologists and genetic experts on how feral cats in the wild might be adapting and changing in ways that makes them as wild as any leopard.
If you open any field guide to wild cats of the world, there will be no species as a “black panther”.
All of the large black cats you see on television and in zoos are black (melanistic) jaguars and leopards. They are not a separate species but a variant of those cats that show an overload of black pigment in sort of reverse fashion of albinism.
With that said, there are thousands of reports of “black panthers” in the United States.
Having investigated this phenomenon since the beginning of my career most who share a report assume what they saw was a black cougar (mountain lion).
The problem is there has never been a black cougar born in a zoo or captive setting (and there are thousands there), killed and brought in by a hunter or observed by a biologist.
There are some fake black cougar mounts out there including this one sent to us by researcher Todd Jurasek who saw it in Oklahoma. There are even taxidermists advertising dying cougars black but there are none in the wild to kill and mount.
As noted on my “Moore Outdoors’ program on Newstalk AM 560 KLVI that airs tonight, all but two of the many photographs sent to me that were allegedly “black panthers” were feral house cats.
One of these cats was a jaguarundi and the other was a black bobcat.
Some of the photos were indeed big but they were house cats.
I did an article for Texas Fish & Game in 2019 entitled Mystery Of The Black Longtail. In it I explained the name for these cats I gave them in my Field Guide To Texas Wild Cats book. You can buy that book for $15 signed by emailing email@example.com for pay information.
And I believe they are the source of the vast majority of “black panther” sightings.
I believe this for three key reasons.
People Cannot Judge Size: I have received hundreds of photos of bobcats people sent to me thinking they were cougars. I have now come to the conclusion many cougar sightings in nontraditional habitat are bobcats. I have personally identified dozens of “black panther” sightings as domestic cats.
Distribution: Feral house cats are distributed throughout North America, have large populations in many forested areas and are the only known black cat to dwell continent-wide. I have received multiple photos of readers wondering what kind of wild cat they captured on their game camera. It turned out they were white, tabby and other colored feral house cats. People are not prepared to see a feral cat in the woods but they are abundant. When they see a black one they often label it “panther”.
3. New research in Australia, which has a massive feral cat problem suggests these cats are growing to much bigger sizes than anyone would expect. Recent stats attributed to Oklahoma wildlife officials state sizes of up to 35 pounds for feral cats.
The long tail on these cats intrigues me.
Many of these cat photos that have been sent to me have extra long tails. This is the photo sent to me five years ago that inspired the name “Black Longtail”. This is from Texas from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous.
The tail length of these cats is intriguing and matches some of the lengths of the extra large feral cats reported in Australia.
I got a photo myself recently in front of a hog trap I set in a woodlot near my home in Texas. At the time of this writing my main computer was down for repair and it has a night shot of this cat on the hard drive. I will do a second post with that photo as soon as it gets back from the shop. Look at the length of the tail on this cat and the tall ears.
Interesting, isn’t it?
These animals having domestic origin does not make them less intriguing.
As noted on my radio broadcast I do not believe they are the total answer to America’s “black panther” phenomenon but I do believe they are the source of the vast majority of sightings.
Do you have photos of a mysterious black cat? I would love to see them.
I begrudge no one for making assumptions about their sightings. Not everyone is a wildlife expert and there are many voices on social media and in the blogosphere that are touting theories that make things confusing.
“Incredibly excited to have Chester Moore and Higher Calling Wildlife join the Waypoint Podcast Network. This inspirational, conservation themed program will be a great addition to Waypoint’s ever-growing outdoor lineup” added Waypoint President, Todd Hansen.
Moore said the feeling is mutual.
“It’s an honor and privilege to be part of the Waypoint Podcast Network. It will be great to be part of a group that includes longtime industry friends and colleagues and to be part of a united front to promote excellence in outdoors podcasting,’ Moore said.
Here are some photos of color phase birds, beginning with Dan Williams who submitted this photo from Tyler County. Tyler is one of the counties that does not currently have an Eastern turkey season and is in the extreme southernmost extent of the birds range in Texas.
It’s great to see there are some turkeys there.
This shot shows three of five birds in view with at least partial smoke color phase. The interesting thing about the bird on the right is it is smoke phase but has the standard red head. Many are gray.
Jimmy Jessup sent in this shot from south-central Louisiana. You can see the cinnamon color phase on the back half of this bird. It has the partial coloration of the Merriam’s bearded hen I photographed in Colorado in 2019. In the same area in 2020 I photographed several birds with partial cinnamon color.
David Troyer submitted this shot of his son Nathaniel with the mount of his stunning smoke-colored gobbler taken in Ohio. This is probably the most uniformly-colored smoke phase bird I have seen. Truly sunning.
Corey Anderson who was profiled with his big smoke-colored gobbler in our last article submitted these more recent photos from Minnesota.
This bird looks like an intermediate of the smoke and white phase. What a beauty!
Encountering wildlife is exciting.
Encountering wild creatures rare amongst their own populations is super exciting.
Moby Dick wouldn’t be as cool if he were a standard edition sperm whale, would he?
If you have photos or videos of color phase turkeys, please submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to share them with our readers and use them as part of an as yet to be announced educational project that will take place in the spring.
To subscribe to this blog and get weekly cutting edge wildlife news and commentary, enter your email at the prompt on the top right of the page.
I thought a smoke-phase bird in East Texas would be pretty cool to write about.
Then I read the post.
The photo was taken in Orange County where I live, an area supposedly devoid of turkey for the last 40 years.
I have been researching turkeys in Orange County for the last couple of years when I got a reliable report passed on to me from my good friend and wildlife photographer Gerald Burliegh.
But this was concrete evidence and it was a color-phase jake (inmature gobbler) at that.
James Broderick who captured the photos of this bird on his trail camera was kind enough to share them with us and the information on where the pictures were taken.
They were 3-4 miles from the other solid Orange County report and in a zone that has marginal to good turkey habitat.
Broderick was interested in knowing if this was a wild bird or a domestic strain of turkey.
It’s a good question because there are domestic birds with similar patterns.
My answer to this is “No, this is a wild bird.”
The royal palm is the most common domestic turkey with a lighter color phase that also has dark mixed in. The above photo is taken from a farm down the road from my house in Orange County. The bird in question is NOT a royal palm.
The Narrgansett can have a lot of gray and white mixed in or can be more Eastern turkey-like as this gobbler I photographed at another farm a few years ago. In my opinion the bird in question is not a domestic bird. I also saw a video taken of the bird and it acted like a wild bird.
This area is infested with coyotes and bobcats and in my opinion any domestic bird ranging in those woods would be dead in a few days. This bird has been photographed over the period of a few weeks.
Reader Corey Anderson sent in this photo of a smoke phase Eastern turkey he bagged in Minnessotta. You can see it has a very similar pattern to the smoke-phase bird in Orange County. Nearly all smoke-phase birds I have seen have the standard tail color.
My Turkey Revolution project that began in 2019 has the goal of using photojournalism to raise awareness to wild turkeys and habitat issues. In year two my goal was to photograph an Eastern turkey in the Pineywoods of East Texas.
After much work, the result was photographing this big gobbler that was still on roost at 8:30 a.m.
I had assumed most of Newton County’s birds were the result of restocking out of state birds but after speaking with Texas Parks & Wildlife Department turkey program leader Jason Hardin, I discovered that was not the case.
The bird I photographed did not have a leg band so it was at least a second-generation wild bird or so I thought.
“You will not likely see any banded wild turkeys in Newton County. The area has not received a stocking in 20 years. My records show four release sites scattered north to south across Newton County,” Hardin said.
“Restocking efforts began slowly in the late 1970s and concluded in 2000. There may have been some earlier restocking efforts, but those would have consisted of Rio Grande wild turkeys and pen-reared turkeys (illegal to release today in Texas for the purpose of establishing a wild turkey population).”
There were no stockings on record in Orange County.
“Newton County birds are part of a larger population that expands west out of Louisiana. Once you get to Sabine County, Toledo Bend reservoir serves as a fragmenting feature on the landscape,” Hardin said.
“Turkey numbers begin to decline rapidly as you move north to Shelby County due to the connectivity with the larger metapopulation in Louisiana.”
Hardin said Louisiana wild turkey genetics flow into Newton County.
“They make their way here naturally through regular population expansion. The lake reduces that potential for ingress to those areas north of the Toledo Bend lake dam,” he said.
And that would most likely be the source of a few birds in Orange County.
Above is a map of Louisiana Eastern turkey hunting zones. Hunting for turkeys is allowed in these areas and it pretty much sums up counties with huntable populations. Calcasieu Parish has hunting north of Interstate 10 and that is the Parish that borders Orange County,TX.
Louisiana has areas with birds that have no hunting due to small populations so this shows enough birds to justify hunting and it’s right across the border from not only Orange County but as a crow (or turkey) flies from the smoke-phase bird in the photo its just a couple of miles, perhaps three at the most.
Other Interesting Factors
The bird in the photo has a small beard, showing it is a “jake” or young gobbler. It would be entering its third year of life and past its second spring period so it has put on weight and should have a longer beard by spring 2022.
A study in New York shows jakes move farther than other turkeys more often due to seeking out new territories.
And it makes sense biologically. Young male black bears for example do the same and it helps spread around genetics.
And if you look at this map from biolgoical datbase Springer Link it shows turkey subspecies distribution before the massive habitat changes and stockings that put birds in states like California and Idaho. You can cearly see the Eastern turkey inhabited all of East Texas, including Orange County on the Louisiana border.
According to officials with the National Wild Turkey Federation, turkeys can move up to three miles per day. They will also hang out in an area and then just disappear for greener pastures so to speak.
Why So Exciting?
For me this is exciting because it shows wild turkeys in my county where in an entire career of wildlife journalism and getting thousands of wildlife sightings reports, have only heard of two reliable turkey sightings.
More importantly it shows us these great birds still have things to teach us.
Just when we think we have it all figured out, a smoke-colored gobbler shows up in Orange County.
And it echoes a recent personal experience.
Sitting in my deer stand on the border of Newton and Orange County (about a half mile from the Orange line) I heard an unmistakable turkey assembly call in early November. This is the sound of a hen gathering her flock.
And I have verified a group of turkeys just a few miles north of there.
Scoffers will go the domestic bird route for the Orange County bird no matter the proof and that’s fine.
The research I have conducted here shows wild turkeys should be in Orange County, TX. And it seems a few more birds are inhabiting southern Newton County than they have in the past.
Now, we just need to figure out how we can make room for more of them in both counties.
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