Better Turkey Habitat

Improving turkey numbers on your land


Photo of several wild turkey hen poults in grassy field
Young turkey and other fowl are called poults.

Turkeys spend about one-half of the year (October to March) in winter habitat, which must provide adequate and reliable food, plus cover from bad weather. Prime winter habitat has at least 50 percent mature hardwood forest. Tree species important to turkeys include a variety of oaks. These trees, if mature, produce large quantities of acorns (or mast). Acorns and other mast are the staple of the turkey's winter diet. In agricultural areas, turkeys often depend on crop fields with waste grain for winter food. They also scratch through snow for other seeds. Therefore, supplemental feeding is not needed.

Nesting habitat is quite varied, but hens usually nest near the edges of old fields, along trails, in hay fields or in patches of briar or similar vegetation. Also, most turkey nests are located close to a source of permanent water. Turkeys are considered skittish nesters at best. During incubation, hens often abandon their nests if disturbed even once. However, adult hens (and sometimes juveniles) often attempt to establish another nest.

Summer and fall habitats consist of mowed hay fields, grazed pastures, glades or open woods. These areas are extremely important to hens and their poults. Low plant cover provides abundant insects and seeds.

In comparison to winter habitat, the size of summer and fall areas used by turkeys is relatively small, but vital. Acreage in openings may vary, but should make up more than 10 percent of the total annual range, with 30 percent approaching the optimum.

Wild turkeys require water and are not found in areas without permanent water. Construction of one small pond per square mile, or preferably one per quarter section, where no permanent water exists, improves turkey habitat and provides additional nesting sites. Wildlife ponds built in timbered areas need not be large, but should be deep to provide water during the driest part of the summer. A good size pond to construct is approximately 30 to 40 feet across and 8 feet in depth.

Acorns are the most important food for wild turkeys. In Missouri, acorns are eaten by turkeys every month of the year, but in the fall and winter more than a third of their diet consists of acorns. To provide a dependable source of natural foods for turkeys, landowners should strive for an equal distribution of age and size classes of trees on their timbered lands. Or, try to manage woodlands so approximately one-third of a timbered tract is in small trees, one-third in pole-sized trees and one-third in mature saw logs. This sort of balance ensures a dependable mast crop, plus the openings created when stands of saw logs are harvested are an added benefit.

Food plots for turkeys only supplement natural food supplies. They can, however, be helpful during extremely bad weather or during drastic shortages of natural food. Winter wheat is one of the best crops for both ease of establishment and use by turkeys. Forest clearings of 1 acre or larger, when planted to wheat in August or September, provide green wheat all winter. Most turkeys use winter wheat in early spring just before hens begin to lay. Hens and poults will use the grain all summer. In August, half of the field can be disked and the other half left standing. Volunteer wheat provides a source of green browse and some grain remains in the other portion. Wheat also provides the very important winter green portion of the turkey's diet; the stubble, if left, provides a good place for a hen and brood to catch insects.

Corn and beans also attract turkeys and are especially important during periods of severe weather in late winter and early spring when food supplies are low. Sometimes, cornstalks are left in fields after harvest, but leaving a few rows standing next to timber ensures a food supply in case of deep snow. A portion of the corn left standing should be knocked down for better use by turkeys.

To establish permanent food plots in forest clearings, apply recommended amounts of limestone, rock phosphate and fertilizer and seed in the fall (one-half bushel per acre of wheat and 2 pounds per acre of orchard grass). Then overseed one-half of the plot in the fall or winter (2 pounds per acre of Ladino clover and 2 pounds per acre of red clover and the other half with 10 pounds per acre of Korean or Summit lespedeza). These plantings should provide attractive, nutritious food for turkeys, deer and other wildlife for three to five years without further treatment. Apply no more than 20 pounds per acre of nitrogen plant food to avoid excessive vegetative growth. Turkeys prefer thin stands of vegetation and may not use dense, lush stands.

Abandoned fields surrounded by timber are an essential component of annual wild turkey range. The fields often include former house sites with bluegrass, an important food item during the spring and summer. Try to keep abandoned fields open and in a grass-legume mixture, if possible. Mowing or moderate grazing improves the quality of these fields for turkeys.

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