10 Plants That Will Hold Turkeys on Your Hunting Property

By author of Timber 2 Table Wild Game Recipes

Land management isn’t just for deer hunters. Manage your property with this vegetation in mind, and you'll hold more turkeys year-around

White Oak Photo by Dionisvera

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1 | Oaks

Like the old saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is right now. According to National Wild Turkey Federation land manager Travis Sumner, oaks are critical wild turkey habitat. “Not only do they love to roost in big oak timber, acorns are one of the main food sources for wild turkeys throughout the fall and winter,” Sumner says.

Noted wild turkey researcher Mike Chamberlain says, “Oaks, across the species range, are the most important fall / winter food for turkeys.” A good stand of oak trees can make a difference in wild turkey winter survival. A mixture of oak species is an insurance policy against an acorn failure due to late freezes or other conditions. When one species fails to produce, others with different flowering times may still produce an acorn crop.

Since it takes around 20 years for an oak tree to start producing acorns, and even longer for peak production, planting trees might seem like a waste of time for wildlife management. If you are on a short-term lease, or future hunting rights on the property are questionable, faster-producing trees or food plots might be a better use of time and resources. But if you own the land or have a long-term lease, planting a few oak seedlings every spring is one of the best things you can do for future turkey populations.

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White pine Photo by Ukrolenochka

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2 | Pines

While pine trees are best known as roosting areas for Southern and Western wild turkeys, Chamberlain says he regularly encounters birds roosted high up in mature pine trees for cover. They also provide food sources in the form of tender new needle growth and seed production in the cones. 

Managed mature pine stands often feature a thick understory cover as well, perfect protection from predators for nesting hens. Pine timber stands can be managed with controlled burns without damaging the standing timber.

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Beech Photo by Nancy Kennedy

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3 | Beech

While not as well known for mast production, if you hunt east of the Mississippi River, your birds are probably eating mast from the American beech (called beechnuts) at some point in the winter. It can be a critical food source after many of the acorns in an area have been consumed. Although the American beech provides valuable food for turkeys, they are slow growing. In fact, beech trees often don’t start producing mast until they are 40 years old. Because they are so slow to produce, land managers tend to concentrate on increasing mast production in existing stands of timber.

With any mast-producing tree species, oak and beech included, production can be increased in two ways. First, remove competing trees and plants from around the mast-producing tree. This allows the tree to receive abundant sunlight and adequate water.

Next, just like any crop, mast-producing trees benefit from regular fertilization. Apply a balanced fertilizer around the edge of the drip line of the tree (the outer edge of the crown spread) at a rate of 2 pounds per 1,000 feet of crown space. For instance, an oak or beech tree with a crown that measures 60 feet by 60 feet would have a crown of 3,600 square feet. At 3.6 thousand times 2, you would need 7.2 pounds of fertilizer for the tree.

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Dogwood photo by lfo62

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4 | Dogwoods

Dogwood flowers signal peak gobbling times for many spring turkey hunters — but the leaves and fall fruits from the tree signal food to a wild turkey. According to James Earl Kennamer from the National Wild Turkey Federation, turkeys are particularly fond of dogwood fruit, and the berries are especially important to wildlife during years with poor acorn crops. For maximum fruit production, choose dogwood varieties native to your area of the country.

Dogwoods thrive as an understory to taller, more mature timber. Avoid wild open areas when planting seedlings. Plant dogwoods along timber edges or in mature timber areas with little secondary growth for best growth.

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American plum photo by Kravchenko

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5 | American Plum

Some plants offer a combination of food and cover for wild turkeys. The American plum is the perfect example. The bushy shrub provides great cover for nesting hens and young poults as it grows around the edges of open fields. One of the great things about the American plum is that it tends to spread easily, forming dense thickets that make it tough for predators to reach nests and hiding poults.

Besides great cover, plum fruits are a favorite wild turkey food. Sumner says he has watched mixed flocks of wild turkeys fill their crops with plums from late spring through early fall, depending on the tree variety. He recommends the Chickasaw plum variety as a fast-growing, high-production tree perfect for all wildlife, including wild turkeys.

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Persimmon Photo by Irinak

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6 | Persimmons

Many hunters immediately think of whitetail deer when they think of persimmon trees. Sumner says wild turkeys are also attracted to the ripe fruit as it drops in late fall. Turkeys will eat both the fruit and the large seeds inside, often scratching through the leaves in the winter season looking for leftover pits after the fruit itself is long gone.

While most native persimmons mature to fruit production in 6 to 7 years, many grafted varieties will produce fruit in half that time. Fruiting times also vary from one variety to another. Land managers can extend fruit production by planting multiple varieties on their property.

Persimmon trees are either male or female, but it’s nearly impossible to tell unless the tree is flowering. So it’s a good idea to plant several trees in close proximity to ensure adequate fertilization and maximize fruit production.

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Buckwheat Photo by Goran Horvat

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7 | Buckwheat

One of the biggest threats to wild turkeys is nest and poult production. From nest predators like raccoons, opossums, and skunks, to poult predation by foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and hawks, a wild turkey faces an uphill battle to survive from the second their egg is laid.

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While predator control, when legal, is a great way to help the turkeys on your property, providing adequate nesting and hiding cover is the absolute best way to ensure the maximum poult production each spring.

Buckwheat:

Often overlooked, buckwheat is one of those plants that can provide both food and cover for wild turkeys. Sumner says he likes summer buckwheat plots for both reasons: “The turkeys use a good stand of buckwheat in a number of ways. They will pick at the young, tender growth as it comes up, it carries a large insect load for growing poults, the seeds are eaten in the late summer/fall, and it provides great cover for young turkeys.”

For most of the Midwest, this fast-growing food plot can be planted anytime after frost, from late spring through mid- to late summer. Early stands of buckwheat offer the most benefit to young poults in the form of cover. Later stands can provide a much-needed food source going into cold winters.

(Don't Miss: How to Plant Buckwheat)

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Native Grass Photo by Shane Jordan USDA

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8 | Native Grasses

One of the best cover habitats for wild turkeys, from nesting, to the poult stage, and even for adult birds, according to Sumner, is a good stand of native warm season grass (NWSG). These grasses grow in thick bunches with an open structure in between, leaving a maze of alleys and paths beneath the grass canopy and allowing free movement within the stand. For those reasons NWSG provides prime nesting sites, excellent escape cover, and effective brood rearing habitat for a variety of game birds and grassland wildlife species, including turkeys.

As with mature pine stands, one of the best ways to manage stands of NWSG is with controlled burns. Burning removes built-up thatch layers, exposing bare ground to the seed that falls as the grass burns. The roots systems of NWSG are not damaged by the burn and sprout back with young tender growth almost immediately.

Sumner recommends not burning large sections of grass at a time, but instead doing it in a patchwork pattern so that the grasses grow in several stages. This puts new, tender growth next to established growth for cover, should turkeys need to quickly escape from predators.

If burning isn’t an option, Sumner says that light disking to break up the ground for good seed to soil contact is also a good way to manage stands of native grass. Like burning, work the stands in sections, leaving some mature growth for cover.

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Clover Photo by Brad Pendley

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9 | Clover

One of the best ways to hold turkeys on your property and increase population numbers, Sumner says, is to plant food plots. His favorite is clover. Turkeys utilize clover plots both for their tender growth and for the tremendous number of insects they hold.

While perennial white clovers like Durana and ladino make up the bulk of his plots, Sumner likes to add strips of annual clovers like crimson around the edges of his open plots and thick cover areas. “Crimson clover is fast growing, the turkeys love it, and you can get a really dense stand without a lot of work. I’ve watched turkeys spend an entire day feeding in a stand of crimson clover,” he says.

For much of the nation, clover can be planted either in fall or early spring. Many land managers like to overseed clover on frozen ground in the very early spring, relying on the natural freezing and thawing of the soil to cover the seed.

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Chufa Photo by Brad Pendley

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10 | Chufa

After clover, Sumner’s second favorite food plot for wild turkeys is chufa. A member of the sedge family, chufa is attractive to turkeys not for its leaf or seed, but for the tubers it grows just under the surface. Once turkeys discover the tubers, they will spend the entire fall and winter scratching at the soil to uncover them.

Chufa grows best in loose sandy soil. Planted in late spring or early summer, chufa matures in about 100 days, so tubers are mature and ready to eat going into lean winter months when other food sources may be dwindling.

Because chufa is a member of the sedge family, Sumner cautions that some states regulate or even prohibit its planting because of similarities to invasive species of sedge. It’s best to check with your state’s Department of Agriculture or your local cooperative extension office before planting.

 

These plants can contribute to dynamite hunting areas during the season. And beyond that, adding or managing these crops on your property will help hold more turkeys year-round, provide increased food and cover during hard winter months, and increase poult production and retention each spring — benefiting your hunting land for years to come.

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Whitetail deer are the most popular game animal in the country. So popular, in fact, that there's an entire industry built around land management for whitetails. From specialized farming equipment, to seed companies, to tree nurseries, if it benefits deer, someone will sell it to you.

The next most popular game animal in the U.S.? The wild turkey. While land management to benefit wild turkeys isn’t to the scale of deer yet, it is picking up steam. What can you do to improve your property for turkeys? Try these tips

Wild turkeys need three things to thrive: Safe roosting areas, year-round food sources, and nesting cover thick enough to protect eggs and young poults. You can provide all three on your property through the addition or management of certain trees, plants, and crops, and the following 10 are some of the best.