Turkeys face an uphill battle from the moment their egg hits the nest. Improving your hunting land will allow more poults to mature and hold them there once they are grown
The average turkey hunter would probably be shocked at how few mature gobblers their land produces each year. World-renowned turkey researcher Michael Chamberlain explains it like this:
“Let’s say you have 100 hens in your population.
“80 of them attempt a nest — not all do.
“Around 20% hatch at least one egg — so 16 nests from 100 hens.
“Around 35% that hatch live the first month of life — so about 5.6 surviving clutches from those 100 hens.
“Brood size after the 1st month averages about 4 poults, let’s assume half are males.
“So, 5.6 surviving clutches x 2 gives us about 11 males from those 100 hens.
“Of those 11, some are lost before their first spring. The end result is that for every 100 hens in a population, on average less than 11 toms are produced. And since most toms are harvested when they’re 2-year-olds, just think about the odds of you harvesting a tom that’s 3 years old or older," says Chamberlain.
For most areas of the United States, it takes a few hundred (or even thousands of) acres to hold 100 hens. That means your farm is probably only producing a small handful of mature male turkeys each spring. Add in a high predator load or bad nesting conditions, and you might be lucky to break even for the year.
What can hunters do to maximize wild turkey production on their property? Try these tips.
“Good turkey habitat is a diverse mixture of things,” says Travis Sumner, habitat manager at the National Wild Turkey Federation. “Turkeys need three main things to thrive: roosting areas, nesting cover, and food. You can do things to your land to maximize all three.”
How much of your land should be devoted to each? Sumner says an ideal ratio would be around 15% food plots, 20% thick cover, and the remaining in timber. Good turkey timber can be hardwoods, pines, or a mixture of the two.
Having everything a turkey needs to live year-round on your property keeps the flocks from traveling to new areas where they may be more prone to predation or other dangers.
Manage Your Timber
“Good timber management is key for turkeys. You want some mature pines, hardwoods or, better yet, a mixture of the two. Mature timber provides roosting areas, cover, and food. Without it, you won’t hold turkeys on a property,” says Sumner.
Existing timber stands can be made better by clearing unwanted species like sweet gums and other trees that provide little benefit to turkeys and other wildlife, giving desired trees like oaks and beech more room to grow and less competition. Sumner also recommends a patchwork of prescribed burns throughout timber stands to open the forest floor to light and encourage the growth of good cover plants like greenbrier and blackberries or other brambles.
Good forest management also includes planning for the future by selectively harvesting some timber to open land, which encourages thick secondary growth, and by planting new timber for future growth. When choosing new timber varieties, most landowners think long-term mast production like oaks, but Sumner recommends the addition of smaller, soft mast or fruit-producing trees as well. “I’ve seen turkey crops that were absolutely full of dogwood berries, same goes for Chickasaw plums and persimmons,” he says.
Plant Food Plots
Food plots provide for turkeys in a couple of ways. First, turkeys like to eat the tender green growth or seeds produced by the plants themselves. Secondly, food plots attract insects in far greater numbers than forest or nesting cover does. Those insects provide critical turkey nutrition, especially for growing poults.
Sumner likes to plant numerous smaller plots on the property he manages, sometimes as small as 1 to 2 acres, instead of fewer plots of larger size. His favorite plots are most often perennial clovers like ladino or Durana, but he also likes to plant some annual clovers, especially along plot edges. “I’ve seen turkeys work a strip of crimson clover along a plot edge, eating both the bugs and the large clover buds, until they couldn’t hold anymore. Annual clovers like crimson are quick to grow and provide great food and poult cover,” says Sumner.
“After clovers, my next choice, if I’m in an area with loose, sandy soil where it will grow, is chufa,” says Sumner. Unlike other plots that are attractive for their above-ground growth, turkeys love chufa for its below-ground tubers that mature in late summer and fall. Turkeys greedily scratch up and eat the tubers throughout fall and winter, seasons that otherwise might provide sparse food choices. Sumner cautions to check with your local ag co-op or extension office, as some states list chufa as an invasive species since it is in the nutsedge family and discourage or prohibit its planting.
Other late summer and fall food plots that are beneficial to wild turkeys include sorghum, peas, buckwheat, and millet. These plots provide early tender green growth and hold high insect loads as they begin to grow, then mature into edible seeds in late summer and fall, keeping your flock in top condition going into winter months.
Sumner prefers to locate his food plots on the interior of his properties. “If my goal is to hold birds on a property, it stands to reason that I don’t want my food plots along the outer edges of the property where the birds can be seen and called to from neighboring properties,” he says. “Same goes for visibility from highways. I don’t want the birds to be harassed or called to from nearby roads in the days leading up to season.”
Probably the single most important thing you can do to increase nesting success and poult survival on a property is to provide adequate nesting cover. Good cover not only protects vulnerable eggs from predation by skunks, raccoons, opossums, and other nest predators, but it also provides cover to young poults, giving them a place to hide from predators like bobcats, coyotes, and hawks.
Native plants like greenbrier, blackberries, and other ground covers work well as nesting cover, but Sumner says one of the best things you can do for your property is to plant native grasses. “While native grasses take a couple years to establish, they offer excellent cover and food for nests, poults, and even adult birds.”
One of the best ways to increase and maintain cover in both open fields and mature timber plots is the controlled burn. By burning sections of your property on a rotational basis, you open ground to sunlight, release dormant seeds, and increase the growth of native ground covers. The best time to burn a property is late winter or very early spring, giving the new vegetation time to establish before poults hatch.
Sumner cautions not to burn large areas at once. “I like to burn small blocks. If you look at it from above, it would look like a patchwork quilt. This provides varying ages of cover for the turkeys, from thick, mature stands, to fresh new growth, and keeps the turkeys from having to stray too far away from thicker cover to find food,” he says.
While burns are an effective way to enhance nesting cover on a property, they can cause catastrophic damage if allowed to burn in an uncontrolled manner. Consult your state game and fish department or foresters for help when planning and implementing a controlled burn. Always follow safety guidelines like monitoring the weather for possible high winds, using adequate firebreaks, and having the right safety tools nearby to control any unwanted flames. Work with professionals to come up with a plan before burning.
If weather, lack of manpower, or other limitations prevent you from burning your property, Sumner says the next best option is to disturb the soil by pulling a disk over the area. “You don’t need to go deep, or work the soil completely. Just drag the disk over the area enough to open up the soil enough for seeds to make good soil contact and sprout.”
Did you notice that only around 16% of the hens at the beginning of this article hatched at least one poult? Raiding nest predators are a big factor in that. While providing adequate nesting cover helps, cutting down on the number of predators out there in search of an easy meal probably helps too. “I am a big fan of removing as many predators as possible from the land I manage,” says Sumner. “Not just nest predators, either. We actively trap coyotes, bobcats, and foxes that prey on poults and even adult birds whenever the law allows.”
We have been actively trapping predators on our farm here in central Kentucky for several years now. Last spring saw some of our best poult production numbers since we have owned the property. Sure, good weather during nesting season helped, but we have noticed a steady decline in raccoon, opossum, and skunk numbers on our trail cameras over the past few years.
While cutting down on predators can increase your nesting success, Chamberlain cautions that it isn’t as simple as X number of extra turkeys per predator removed. “While there is science to show that predator management can be effective at increasing nest success and survival of young birds at a local scale, to be effective, predator management must be intensive and targeted at the right time — immediately before nesting,” says Chamberlain. Depending on your state’s trapping regulations, that isn’t always possible.
Chamberlain adds that predator management must be conducted repeatedly through time, as predator species recolonize managed areas, sometimes very rapidly (think days, not weeks). Predator management in the absence of other strategies (like habitat management) is unlikely to bear results. Research has also shown that, to be most effective, removing all predator species is necessary to achieve significant results.
According to Sumner, providing a clean water source is one of the most often overlooked aspects of managing property for wild turkeys. “Just like every other animal, turkeys need water to survive, but that water needs to be clean and free of silt and pollution,” he says.
To supply clean water, Sumner suggests following good management practices around ponds and streams. “Planting buffer zones near the water to prevent and filter erosion helps to keep water sources clean and clear. So does using rock to line steep banks and ditches that flow into ponds or other water sources,” says Sumner.
If you are planning to add water sources to your property, consider placing them near or under mature timber, when possible. Mature turkeys often prefer roost areas above standing water. Providing these locations can help hold birds on your property as they search for roosting areas.
Will following these tips magically turn your property into a turkey factory overnight? Probably not. The odds of a wild turkey gobbler reaching 3 or more years old are still pretty astronomical. But following good land management practices will definitely increase population numbers over time. Even more important, they will make your property more attractive to existing wild turkeys than surrounding land, which means it will hold more birds than nearby areas.
Sumner ended our conversation with one more point. Once a wild turkey gobbler reaches maturity, its main predator is us, the turkey hunter. Practicing restraint is one of the best ways to increase gobbler numbers on the properties we hunt. “We let trail cameras and scouting tell us how many, or how few, mature birds we can take off a property. If we aren’t seeing good numbers, we might take as few as four mature birds off of a thousand acres in a season,” he says.
Leaving enough mature gobblers to breed a large percentage of the hens in an area is crucial to an increase in population. Since wild turkey hens are programmed to mate with the dominant birds in a flock, if all of those birds suddenly disappear (get taken by hunters) before the bulk of breeding occurs, the pecking order has to be reestablished among remaining subdominant gobblers before hens will breed with them. This extends the nesting season and exposes late clutches to heavier predation and less favorable weather conditions, further decreasing survivability — something to keep in mind as part of your overall turkey management plan.
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