Wild Turkey Habitat Management
Many people throughout the Northeastern United States have in the last several decades come to love the wild turkey. While many are happy just to see or hunt turkeys on other people's land, others want to manage their land to benefit turkeys. Let's take a look at what someone who owns 50-100 acres can expect to be able to do for the wild turkey.
One of the first things you need to consider is how much area a turkey can normally be expected to cover, also known as its home range. A turkey can and does cover a lot of ground in its daily travels and their home range varies by season and can range from 400 to 2,000 acres or more. Therefore, unless you own a large tract of land (at least several hundred acres), you do not need to provide for all of a turkey's annual needs on your land. What you should do is look at your land and the surrounding area and determine what habitat component is in the shortest supply, then try to provide that habitat type on your land. For instance, if your property is forested and surrounded by active agriculture, creating a small field will probably not be an effective method of attracting turkeys. Instead, maintaining it as a woodlot and managing for mature mast producing trees would be a better choice.
When turkey management first began, biologists thought that turkeys required very large stands of mature timber to survive. It is now recognized that turkeys do best in areas with a wide variety of habitat types and plant species. One recent researcher has described the ideal turkey habitat as one-half wooded, one quarter abandoned fields and one quarter active agriculture. In reality turkeys in the Northeast have three critical habitat needs which may be in short supply: 1) good nesting habitat, 2) good brood rearing habitat and 3) a good winter food source. If those three needs are met, interspersed with mature woodland, you have greatly increased the probability of having wild turkeys in the area. The only other component you might want to add is a late summer/fall food source. The primary benefit of this would be to hold the birds for your enjoyment, as fall food is seldom lacking in the Northeast.
If you do manage your land for turkeys by providing improved habitat, just what can you really hope to accomplish? Before deciding on a method of enhancing the value of your land for wild turkeys, think about your objectives. Do you want to be able to observe the birds year round or are there certain times of the year when you are more interested in having turkeys use your land? Wild turkeys respond well to habitat enhancement techniques such as food plots. Therefore, it is possible to attract the birds to your land. But because of their mobility and tendency to roam don't expect to see them every day! If you do decide to manage your land for wild turkeys, you will have the enjoyment of knowing you have a few more turkeys on your land. In many cases, they will be visible so you can enjoy watching them. Even if they are not visible from your house, you will have the enjoyment of knowing that they are using your property and you have improved their habitat. In terms of actual impacts on the turkey population, unless you provide a large amount of a critical habitat component that is seriously lacking, the impact on the population will be minimal. That is not to say that you will not improve nest success, poult survival or over winter survival in your immediate area. You may, but there will likely be minimal impacts on the population in the county or even the town you live in.
Finally, in most of the Northeast, some of the best wild turkey habitat is provided by small, family-owned, dairy farms. The woodlots, field-edges and hedgerows associated with small dairy farms provide ample nesting habitat. The hay fields and pastures provide high quality brood habitat. Waste grain from silage, corn and small grain production provides late summer and fall food. Finally, manure spread on the fields provides a constant winter food source. One of the best things that you can do for the wild turkey is to actively support the small dairy industry in your community and state. Keep them in business - they are the key to your local turkey population and other wildlife.