By Ron Eakes, Certified Wildlife Biologist
Manage for a three-inch turkey? Have you lost your mind? I’m interested in 20-pound gobblers.” In order to grow a 20 pound gobbler you have to start with something, and that something is an egg that hatches into a fuzzy golf ball with toothpicks for legs; in other words, a poult about three inches tall.
During an average nesting season approximately half of all turkey nests initiated are lost; either as a result of nest predation or nest abandonment. Most years, approximately 50 percent of the poults that do hatch die as a result of starvation, exposure or predation within the first four to six weeks. With an average clutch size of 10-12 eggs, meaning for every nest laid less than three poults ever reach the age of two months. With these facts in mind, managing nesting and brood range should be a primary concern for anyone interested in wild turkeys.
Turkeys are ground nesters and use a variety of cover types. Preferred nesting sites are most often associated with some form of dense cover including clearcuts, young pine plantations, blackberry or plum thickets, hedgerows, roadsides, old fields or similar habitats. These areas provide dense cover in which hens can hide their nests from potential predators and provide protection during inclement weather.
Turkeys will nest in more open areas including mature woodlands but tend to suffer greater nest losses than those using thicker cover. Wild turkey brood range is often described as grassy forest openings but actually can include pastures, fields, croplands, orchards, logging decks, roadsides, power line and gas line right of ways, and even open forest stands or savannas. High quality brood range usually contains a mixture of grasses, broadleaf weeds and forbs and scattered low growing woody vegetation. These areas are extremely attractive to insects, spiders and other invertebrates that are the primary food source for young poults. Additionally, the height of the vegetation is an important component of good brood range. Vegetation should average from 10-30 inches tall; this provides concealment for young poults as they feed, while allowing adult hens a clear view of the surrounding area and any approaching predators.
Brood range can include a mixture of natural openings and herbaceous plant communities as well as supplemental openings planted in species such as millets, sunflowers or clovers. Heavy turf forming grasses such as fescue or bermuda should be avoided. Turf forming grasses typically become too thick to provide good brood range, especially for young poults. Developing linear openings by planting woods road shoulders or roadbeds that are seldom used can be an effective technique when establishing brood range either with native plant communities or supplemental plantings.
Mowing, discing, fertilizing and/or burning natural openings should be incorporated into any wild turkey brood management plan to improve plant species diversity, vegetative structure and reduce supplemental planting costs. Native openings should be disced every two-to-three years to maintain plant growth desirable for wild turkeys and reduce excessive encroachment by woody species. Fall and winter discing encourages heavy seed producing annual plants. April discing promotes native grasses, while June discing favors plants that attract insects and produce seed. Mowing on a three-year cycle will encourage the growth of blackberry, greenbriar and other soft mast producers used by both poults and adults. Prescribed burning, during January through early March, on a three-year cycle also can be used to maintain natural openings.
Openings, natural or planted, should be irregular shaped and at least one acre in size. A minimum of 5-10 percent of the total land acreage should be maintained in openings, but this can be as much as 25 to even 50 percent if properly distributed and maintained.
Selective herbicides with the active ingredient imazapyr have proven effective in controlling hardwood brush without affecting legumes. Proper herbicide use can enhance seed-bearing plants’ ability to produce heavier and more nutritious seeds in the absence of competing brush. In treated areas, an abundance of native forbs and legumes will attract insects, which in turn attract turkey broods. One application of a selective herbicide may last up to ten years, making its use a cost effective management tool. However, unlike prescribed fire, herbicides do not reduce the amount of dead wood nor recycle nutrients into the soil.
Additionally, roller drum chopping and mowing are effective treatment methods for creating or maintaining wild turkey brood range, but are not as cost effective as controlled burning or herbicides. A combination of roll drum chopping or mowing along with herbicide application and controlled burning will improve the natural habitat and brood range for turkeys and result in less time and money spent planting supplemental openings.
Although often overlooked, managing for wild turkey nesting cover and brood range are critical components in managing and enhancing wild turkey populations.