Five “Must-Haves” for More Turkeys
Remember, most crops favored by turkeys aren’t even planted until turkey season is over. Perennials such as clovers or native food sources should be your focus for the spring season. (Credit: Covert)
Most wildlife species require the "F+W+C+S Formula" (food, water, cover and sanctuary) functioning in an area for them to take up residence. For wild turkeys, it’s a bit more detailed and complicated. They do need each element listed, but turkeys are a bit more persnickety, everything needs to be just right for turkeys to take up habitation. There are also a couple of things you MUST NOT have for turkeys to be found consistently in the vicinity.
1) Turkey Chow
Wild turkeys need a wide array of food types at different times of the year. These foods would also vary region to region and thus subspecies to subspecies. An eastern gobbler in Missouri is going to have a different diet than a Merriam’s in South Dakota. While some would think that planting a corn field might take care of the majority of their food needs, they aren’t even close.
Crops like clover, corn, rye, fescue, oats, millet, sorghum and chufa are great places to begin, but turkeys will also require "bugging habitat" and native foods such as mast (acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts, pinyon pine nuts) and soft mast (wild cherry, grapes and berries), buds from deciduous trees and shrubs, and other natural foods.
My favorite planting for turkeys is a well-managed clover stand. I prefer BioLogic’s Clover Plus because of the specific mix of white and red clovers. I say "well-managed" because turkeys prefer the small-leaved white clovers in the blend. It has small-leaved, medium-leaved and large-leaved white clovers, but the small-leaved varieties will emerge to the forefront if the plot is mowed often and aggressively during the cooler parts of the growing season. Large-leaved varieties typically prefer being mowed less. If managing the plot to attract turkeys, I would suggest mowing four to six times during the growing season.
Remember, crops such as corn, sorghum and chufa are annuals. They aren’t even planted until turkey season is usually over. A perennial plot or native food sources are best to concentrate on for hunting time attraction.
While most times you shouldn’t need to supply special bugging habitat … I would. Most of the time, mowed open areas or your whitetail food plots create excellent bugging habitat, but insects can make up over 80 percent of a poult’s diet! My suggestion would be to provide some wildflowers and an assortment of other pollinators. Besides attracting invertebrates, many of these species will also produce seeds relished by turkeys and other birds.
Oak, cherry, plum and crabapple trees should be fertilized and released. The same can be said for raspberry patches, grape vines and native plants like staghorn sumac. The most important of these are oak trees. Turkeys savor acorns just like whitetails do. In my view, turkeys don’t seem to mind as much whether the acorns are from a white or red oak, but any acorn-producing oak is a good one.
2) Cool, Clear, Water
Duh, got to have it! Let’s add reliable to that. They must have a consistent, reliable water source. The dew in the bottom of a boot print or a creek that dries up during a drought doesn’t cut it for turkeys. In fact, they prefer to roost near water. Just like you, they need it every day.
Here’s where a turkey’s habitat requirements become a bit more sophisticated than that of a whitetail. Turkeys require roost trees, nesting habitat, open areas and escape cover. Most often they will reside in timbered areas during the winter and utilize food plots, agricultural fields, meadows and other clearings during the summer – where they can find food, but also escape quickly to cover.
Mature timber of some kind is required for roosting. Tree height and structure is more important than species; however, oaks, pine, maple and cottonwood are some of the favorites I’ve seen them use. Here is where some managers maybe goofed. If they don’t have mature timber, what should they do? I have seen turkeys roost in maple trees no more than 12-15 years old, but mature trees are favored. As they say, "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago … the second-best time is now."
Warm-season grasses, sometimes called bunch grasses, grow in thick clusters instead of spreading out to form a layer of sod. This type of growth allows for space between bunches; so your flock has nesting, foraging and escape cover all in one. In my view, these warm-season grasses are one of the most important habitat features; however, they can be tough to manage. They will require prescribed burning every three to five years, and the light, fluffy seeds are difficult to plant.
4) True Grit
A grit source is possibly the most overlooked habitat feature for attracting turkeys to a property. Managers are often missing grit, but don’t realize it. An old stream bed, a gravel county road or a wash-out on a ridge side can all be great grit supplies for your birds. They need these small pebbles to grind down food so it is more easily digested. If you don’t have this habitat feature, simply bringing in a couple yards of gravel and putting it out in several locations should suffice.
5) Sanctuary, security, safety, space, whatever you want to call it … leave them alone, idiot!
Obviously, we want to hunt turkeys, so we need to encroach into their territory sometimes, but protecting roost areas and nesting ground is especially important. They won’t tolerate much before they change something to avoid the disturbance and oftentimes moving to your neighbor’s property is all it takes – so give them some space.
Regrettably, this "safety thing" isn’t directed just at you and other humans. This means your dog, neighbors on a horseback ride and PREDATORS! You must keep your property relatively free of coyotes, bobcats and fox, but also nest predators like skunks, raccoons and opossums. It’s all but impossible to remove all predators, but it’s especially important for recruitment to concentrate your efforts just before nesting.
You must look at what turkeys need and on the other hand, things a turkey doesn’t like. The solution to more birds may be easier than you think. Over time, add desirable features and remove those that don’t benefit these magnificent birds. Just like all wild critters, they need food, water and cover – and what they don’t like is "pressure"! Give them these necessities and you’ll see and harvest more toms.