February 2014
Outdoor Life

Does Your Turkey Habitat Pass the Test?

  If you find a turkey nest, leave it alone. The hen will usually come back to care for the eggs. If you visit more than once, you are creating a trail that can be used by coyotes, foxes, bobcats and raccoons.

It’s a satisfying feeling to watch a flock or two of wild turkeys thriving among the forests and fields of your farm property. This doesn’t happen by accident. To create and maintain a healthy flock population on your place, you can follow a few proven techniques to make sure you have turkeys on your place for future generations to enjoy.

Protect From Predators

This time of year, the food sources of the woods are running low, and turkeys will be venturing out into open fields in search of seeds and winter forage. This is also a time when turkeys are vulnerable to attacks from coyotes and foxes. However, the landowner can unwittingly become a predator to hens and poults. During late spring and early summer, you might jump a hen off her nest. If this happens, certainly don’t try to incubate the eggs or bring family and friends out to see the nest.

The hen will often return to the nest if traffic is low. If you return a few times to "check on the nest," you are creating a trail that can be used by predators such as skunks, opossums, raccoons, foxes and coyotes. If you do stumble upon a nest, quietly back away without disturbing the cover. The hen will often come back and sit on the eggs until they hatch.

This cow is ready to be rotated to a new area for grazing. Constant low grazing can ruin turkey habitat.  

To control the population of predators, many landowners will trap or shoot them as the opportunity presents itself. This plan is not very effective in the long term. A more effective plan for protecting the turkeys involves creating more nesting and escape cover.

One way to create more cover actually involves less work. When you bush hog or mow fields, leave about 30 feet of the field edges unmowed. This is especially helpful during May and early June while the hens are nesting and raising poults.

In addition, if it is possible, keep cattle, sheep and horses out of the field edges from around April to June so the hens can have more nesting areas. We’ve all had the discouraging experience of cutting hay or bush hogging to find that we’ve exposed a nest or crushed the eggs with a tractor tire.

Things We Can’t Control

Certainly weather is the main thing a landowner cannot control while attempting to provide habitat for wild turkeys. Unfortunately, weather is the most important aspect of wild turkey production. Turkey poults have a higher mortality rate if May and June are rainy months. On the other hand, if the sun comes out regularly and dries the poults after a brief rain, they will fare better.

  This unmowed dry grass creates ideal nesting habitats.

The hen takes care of the poults when they are young by covering them with her wings much like a mother hen will do with her chicks. If poults can survive until around September, they have a much better chance of survival to adulthood. Obviously, rain is a good thing, because it stimulates grass and plant growth, and this in turn stimulates insect production. Both of these are required by young poults.

Create the Cover

There might not currently be much cover for wild turkeys on your property if you are using all available land for pastures and hay. However, it doesn’t take much effort or money to create ideal nesting cover and structure for hiding. Young poults have small legs, and it’s critical for them to be able to put their feet on clean dirt or ground. In addition, the poults need enough plant structure to allow the birds to move through forage as they feed on insects. For the first six weeks of life, insects make up 90 percent of a turkey poult’s diet.

Feathering for our Feathered Friends

There is a simple process called feathering that can easily create the necessary cover for a healthy turkey flock. Feathering simply means allowing the field edges to grow up in natural vegetation and leaving the edges unmowed. This may not look appealing to the eye to see the edge of your fields grown up, but it does lead to better chances for seeing turkeys on your place.

In these unmowed areas, you will have overgrown, dried grasses that make ideal nesting areas, and the briars and woody vegetation that begins to appear provide needed escape cover. In a couple of years, you should begin to see positive results from your feathering if there are any turkeys in your area.

Left to right, once the field edges are allowed to grow for a couple of years, cover and bugging areas are created. It might not look too pretty, but letting your field edges grow up in briars can provide valuable escape cover for young turkeys.

Turkeys and livestock learn to adapt and live with each other if only a few simple steps are taken. Don’t allow cattle to graze forage too low, especially if the forage consists of native species of grasses. Fescue is a bunchgrass and is not ideal for the travel of young poults. I would not suggest killing the fescue, but consider planting some of the lower production pastures in native grasses, which are more ideal for young turkeys.

This February while you are planning your springtime turkey hunts, take some time to plan out a management strategy for holding turkeys on your property. You might find that all you need to do is let the field edges go unmowed, and time your mowing and hay production so nests won’t get destroyed. With nesting areas and cover, you can help your property pass the habitat test for wild turkeys.

John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.