By John S. Powers, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

The Eastern wild turkey is a popular game species in Alabama and across the Southeast. For many, the pursuit of this challenging bird, especially during the spring, borders on obsession. 

Wild turkeys in Alabama are a forest species, but show great adaptability with regard to forest type. Hardwood forests, mixed pine hardwood stands, and historically the open pine savannas of the lower coastal plain have all proved excellent turkey habitat, as long as either scattered openings or open canopies existed.

Trends in forest management leading to the conversion of large tracts of land to commercial pine production have reduced habitat suitability for wild turkeys in many areas. Managing large contiguous blocks of land on short rotations for pine pulp production does not lend itself well to providing the habitat characteristics necessary for wild turkey survival and reproduction. Turkeys can and do thrive in areas managed for pine somewhat less intensively. especially where planning takes their habitat needs into consideration.

Critical habitat requirements for eastern wild turkeys are several. Turkeys must have open areas. Some of these should be maintained such that they have primarily herbaceous ground cover. These areas are of vital importance, especially in the spring and early summer seasons. Openings provide insects at ground level, which are necessary for poults during the first few weeks of their lives. These areas also provide grazing opportunities for adult turkeys during a time in which hard mast and many soft mast species are unavailable. Other openings or portions of openings should be allowed to develop denser, brushier types of cover. This cover type is required by hens during the nesting season. Ideally, nesting and ?ugging?grazing habitats should be provided relatively close to each other. Portions of openings can be maintained in each habitat type if openings are of sufficient size.

About 10 percent of acreage should be maintained in some type of open habitat type. While turkeys will use openings of any size, they tend to prefer openings of 5-20 acres. Old fields, logging ramps and roads, and electrical/gas line right-of-ways offer potential for developing openings at relatively low cost. Suitable cover may be developed and maintained through periodic mowing, disking, or burning, and may be improved through supplemental plantings of suitable grasses, grains, forbs, clovers, and other legumes. Mowing, disking, and burning should not be carried out between March 15 and July 1 to avoid disturbance or destruction of nests.

Turkeys also require a variety of hard and soft mast types for food, especially during the late summer, fall, and winter seasons. Mast-producing species may be provided in a variety of ways. Most simply, sites most suitable for hardwoods, should be retained in hardwoods. These areas are often poorly suited to pine production, and their retention may result in relatively little loss commercially. Many of these areas are found along streams and drains. Such sites should be maintained in streamside management zones.

In areas with little existing hardwood timber, clearcuts should never be more than 200 acres in size and, where possible, should be less than 100 acres and of irregular shape. For turkeys, the longer the rotation length the better, with stands generally improving in habitat suitability after 30 years in age. Where possible, scattered mast producers should be retained during the harvesting process. Thinning should begin in the sapling stage and continue at 5-10 year intervals until the stand is 30-40 years old. This practice will allow a variety of hard and soft mast producers to become established in both the overstory and the midstory and, when combined with prescribed burning on a 3-5 year rotation, will result in a relatively open stand suitable for use by turkeys. Longer rotations will also provide the mature timber required for roosting sites. Care should be taken that at least 50 percent of the timber is pole size or larger, and these stands should not be isolated from each other by large tract of small pines.

Supplemental planting of a variety of hard and soft mast-producing species may be used to improve production until conditions within stands improves. Good species to plant include oaks, hickories, wild plums, wild cherries, autumn olive, and persimmon. Perhaps the best ?uick fix?available for areas lacking existing mast producers is the chufa. The small tubers produced by this nutgrass are both a high quality food and are readily used by wild turkeys. Chufas may be planted in plots as small as one tenth of an acre. In general, however, larger plots (up to two acres) tend to produce better and are less subject to losses prior to germination from feeding turkeys, raccoons, deer and feral hogs.

So, are pine plantations good for turkeys? They can be when managed correctly. The landowner that makes wise management decisions can have good turkey populations.

For more information, please contact the Wildlife Section at 334-242-3469.