March 19, 2014
By Daniel Greenfield, AGFC Biologist
Nothing sounds more like spring than a gobbling tom turkey. It is not by chance that some properties are better suited for viable turkey populations.
Turkey populations face several limiting factors such as habitat loss, weather, poaching, diseases, parasites, and predation. Quality turkey habitat consists of different types of cover, food and water. The following habitat requirements and habitat improvement practices will combat these limiting factors.
1. Nesting cover
This provides visual protection from predators for the hen, eggs, and turkey poults. Raccoons, opossums, skunks, various birds and reptiles are all responsible for predation on turkey eggs and poults.
Hen mortality is highest during nesting and brood rearing season because hens are staying on the ground with their nest and poults and not roosting in trees. It usually takes 28 days of incubation for the eggs to hatch.
Nesting cover should be composed of abundant grass, herbaceous and shrubby vegetation up to 3 feet high. Abandoned fields, timber regeneration sites, and soft edges between fields and forest are some examples of areas that can be utilized as nesting habitat for turkey.
Native warm season grasses (NWSG) also provide excellent nesting cover and are more beneficial than introduced grasses such as Bermuda or tall fescue because they provide essential vertical cover and don’t impede the travel of poults while looking for insects early in life.
Providing quality nesting cover is critical to hatching and growing turkey populations for improved hunting opportunities.
2. Brood-rearing cover
This provides poults (young of the year) with protein rich insects that are readily available and cover for hiding. It is important the cover be low enough to allow the hen to see approaching predators.
Openings having grass and forb vegetation interspersed with forest are ideal because they provide cover and various insect and plant species that poults depend on for growth and overall survival.
Examples of this type of cover are burned areas, cut over hardwoods, thinned pine stands, hayfields, wildlife openings/food plots, utility rights-of-way and grass dominated old fields.
Nesting cover and brood rearing cover can usually be enhanced or created on all properties by practices such as timber thinning, prescribed burning, light disking, native warm season grass establishment and management and creating new openings.It is important to remember not to do any practice during nesting and brood-rearing season that could disturb nesting hens or poults.
3. Roosting cover
This provides protection from predators. Turkeys typically like to roost 30 to 100 feet off the ground and sometimes prefer to roost near water. To address this need landowners or managers can simply leave mature hardwoods or pines throughout the property to serve as potential roost sites. Large dead snag trees may also be used for this purpose.
4. Escape cover
This can provide emergency protection from terrestrial and avian predators. Turkey poults are very vulnerable to predators until they are old enough to fly. Usually poults can fly up to low branches when they are about 10 days old and become strong fliers and begin roosting in larger trees when they are 3 to 4 weeks old. Native warm season grass stands and pockets of dense vegetation are typically ideal.
5. Food Plots
Plots planted for turkeys can also be beneficial but should never be used in place of sound habitat management. However, feeders are more detrimental than beneficial because raccoons, which are key turkey predators, benefit and thrive around feeders. Small mammals will draw in other predator species like coyotes and bobcats.
Disease can also be spread at feeder sites. Aflatoxin, which can be deadly to turkeys, is often found in corn designated for wildlife feed. Ask your seed dealer if the corn you are buying has high Alfatoxin levels.
All five of these habitat components are important and should be arranged on your property so that turkeys can utilize them on a yearly basis. Landowners and managers can utilize the Acres for Wildlife Program administered by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Farm Bill programs administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency to help establish native warm season grasses that will improve nesting cover on their property and get assistance with other habitat management practices.Remember, if you can hatch them, you can grow and hunt them.