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Wild Turkey Winter Habitat

In the Northeast, particularly northern New York, northern New England, and eastern Canada (and to a lesser extent southern New England, southern New York, and Pennsylvania) winter habitat is crucial for the survival of wild turkeys. In some parts of this area, turkeys now exist north of their historic range at the time of the arrival of European settlers. This is primarily because of the habitat changes that have occurred, such as farming in the St. Lawrence and Champlain Valleys. During northern winters, wild turkeys need a dependable food source that is close to thermal roosting cover and protected travel corridors. In more southern parts of New York and at lower elevations, there is less difference between fall and winter habitat.

The following are suggestions for managing specific habitats for winter habitat. Remember that these are suggestions only. There are no hard and fast rules and you can decide what methods you wish to employ on your land. Assistance with soil testing or fertilizer and liming recommendations is available through your local Cooperative Extension Office.

Picture of correctly managed spring seep
Spring Seep

Spring Seeps: Spring seeps (spots where ground water comes to the surface) are found in old pastures, fields, and forests. The warmer ground water keeps snow melted around the seep. The plant and animal life found in and near spring seeps are important winter food sources for turkeys. All seeps can be useful but seeps on south-facing slopes are most valuable.

Seeps may be managed or simply left alone. Stimulate the growth of herbaceous plants within the seep. This may be done in forested seeps by removing some of the forest canopy. However, leave about 70% canopy closure. Remove unproductive trees and leave mast producing trees near the seep. Seeps in open areas may be improved by keeping them from being invaded by varieties of woody stems that do not produce food items. Planting fruit-bearing shrubs near but not in the seeps can provide accessible winter food. If necessary, fence the seep to keep cattle out.

Annual food plots: If possible, place food plots for winter use on south facing slopes to take advantage of the sun's radiant energy. Test the soil, lime, and fertilize as necessary. For corn, plant at normal time and leave standing to provide food into the winter. In areas of high deer numbers, plant larger plots of corn (2 - 5 acres). Plant a mix of sorghum, millet, and sunflower in late spring and leave standing. Buckwheat should be planted later than normal (mid-June to early July) for a fall food source. Leave standing and over-seed with rye in September. Plant rye and wheat in September for a source of fall and spring food. Pure stands of sunflower should be at least ½ acre in size to protect from deer.

Picture of turkeys feeding on food plot in snow
Turkeys in cornfield

Thermal cover: Conifer stands provide a wind break, protection from extreme cold, and limit snow depth under the stand allowing turkeys to be mobile. Provide several acres of conifer trees for every hundred acres of habitat. Hemlock or white pine are good, but most species of native conifers will help.

Hardwood timber and tall shrubs: Manage for dependable mast producing species (such as oak, beech, cherry, ash, black walnut, or hickory). Develop a timber management plan in consultation with a professional forester to manage for your goals (e.g., uninterrupted mast production and regeneration of those species). In New York State, Assistance to Private Landowners is available through DEC's Bureau of Forest Resource Management. Don't forget the mid-story mast producing species such as hop hornbeam, ironwood, hazelnut, serviceberry, dogwoods, and viburnums. Plant fruit-producing trees and shrubs such as apple, crab apple, hawthorn, dogwoods, viburnums, highbush cranberry, staghorn sumac, and grapes. Discourage exotics like Russian olive, autumn olive, and multiflora rose.

Travel Corridors: During deep snow conditions turkeys will use travel corridors created by conifer cover. By providing narrow strips of conifer cover between other habitat types, turkey will be able to move more freely.

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