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Managing Land for Wild Turkey Habitat

Home Range

Turkeys in a forested area.
Turkey prefer a mix of forest, farmland,
and abandoned fields.

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. Their home range varies by season and can range from 400 to 2,000 acres or more. 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.

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. 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.

Habitat Types

Turkeys thrive 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 the Northeast, turkeys have three critical habitat needs which may be in short supply:

  • good nesting habitat
  • good brood rearing habitat
  • 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.

Supporting Local Dairy Farms

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.

Spring Habitat

Picture of turkey nest showing eggs in the nest
Turkey Nest

For optimal reproduction turkeys require good nesting habitat. Wild turkey hens begin to nest before most of the new growth begins in the spring. Therefore, at least for initial nests, hens need some residual cover from the previous year to conceal their nest from predators. Generally, nesting habitat consists of low, horizontal cover such as low brush, standing raspberry canes from last year, or anything else that obstructs visibility between ground level and about 2 feet.

To aid in preventing increased predator involvement, be sure there are numerous patches of this type of cover in the vicinity. These patches of brushy cover will be used no matter where they are located, but it is better if nesting cover is close to brood habitat. Later in the spring, when new growth begins, hens will readily renest in areas where a nest may have failed earlier.

After the poults hatch, they require good brood habitat for survival and growth. Brood habitat consists of grasses and forbs (flowering groundcover) that will encourage insect populations that the poults need as a food supply.The ground cover needs to be dense enough to encourage insects, but not so dense as to inhibit the poults' movement. Brood habitat needs to be near or adjacent to brushy and wooded areas that provide escape cover and roosting trees. Orchards or groves of trees spaced widely enough to allow sunlight penetration and allow room for mowing provide ideal brood habitat when the grassy areas are mowed once or twice a year. The trees provide overhead cover, making the hens feel more secure.

Summer and Fall Habitat

Late summer and fall habitat is generally the least limiting of a wild turkey's needs in the Northeast. It is however, a time that many wild turkey enthusiasts want to see wild turkeys using their land. At this time of year a turkey needs wooded areas for concealment, roosting trees, and a good food supply to ensure they go into the winter in good physical condition.

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 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.

Creating Ideal Turkey Habitat

Picture of logged over area that has been well cleaned after cutting
Logged Area

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.

Forested Areas

Logged areas, landings and roads: Leave some scattered treetops, but clear most of the tops and branches to allow natural regeneration.

If grassy openings are lacking in the vicinity you may decide to make some of the logged area into permanent openings by spreading lime and seeding grasses, sedges (nut grasses) and clovers. These areas generally need annual mowing to control weedy invasions and re-application of fertilizer/lime and over-seeding every few years. These treatments are known as "top-dressing". Clover mixes should not be mowed lower than six inches.

Woodlot edges: Thin (remove some of the trees to let sunlight reach the ground) up to 50 feet adjacent to open areas to encourage shrubs and brushy growth. Leave some scattered tree tops or branches for horizontal cover.

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.

Shrubs surrounded by fencing for protection from deer
Mast producing shrubs

Don't forget the mid-story mast producing species such as:

  • hop hornbeam
  • ironwood
  • hazelnut
  • serviceberry
  • dogwoods
  • viburnums

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.

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.

Fields and Pastures
Picture correctly managed old field
Old Field

Hay fields and pastures: Many re-nesting hens will use hayfields. Delay mowing as long as possible (at least mid-July). Hay and pasture seed mixes should contain taller less dense grasses like timothy, orchard grass, perennial rye, and white clover. Avoid cool season grass mixtures that contain fescue as they can develop thick sod and stems which young turkeys may have difficulty traveling through. You might consider native warm season grasses like switch grasses or blue stem that mature later and can be cut for hay in late July.

Old fields: Maintain shrubby patches within the old field, cut brush and trees, and leave scattered piles of branches. Mow periodically to keep much of the field in grasses or other herbaceous cover. Encourage clumps of raspberry, blackberry, goldenrod, and aster (any heavy stem herbaceous cover) by brush-hogging every two to three years. Leave some trees (apple, black locust, crab apple, black haw, wild raisin, ash, oaks, cherry, etc.) to create a savannah type habitat. In pastures grazing will maintain a short grass cover. In old fields encourage grasses and forbs by periodic mowing or spot herbicide application to discourage woody brush. If dense grasses exist, annual mowing may be necessary.

Food Plots

Test soil, lime and fertilize, as necessary, prior to planting. Occasionally top-dress area with lime and fertilizer in order to maintain grasses and legumes. If invasion of weeds are noticed, test the soil and add lime and fertilizer.

Annual food plots: Annual food plots should be small, roughly ½ to 5 acres unless planting corn in areas of high deer population. In which case, plant larger plots of 2-5 acres. Place food plots for winter use on south facing slopes to take advantage of the sun's radiant energy.

  • Corn- Plant at normal time and leave standing to provide food into the winter.
  • Sorghum/Millet/Sunflower- Plant in late spring and leave standing. Pure stands of sunflower should be at least ½ acre in size to protect from deer.
  • Buckwheat- Plant later than normal (mid June to early July) for a fall food source. Leave standing.
  • Rye/Wheat- Plant in September, over-seeding the buckwheat, for a fall and spring food source.
Individual seeding a plot

Perennial food plots, shrubs and openings: Plant clovers, native grasses, and lower lespedeza varieties. When necessary, mow very late fall or early spring. Clover mixes shouldn't be mowed less than 6 inches. Reseed only as necessary (every 5+ years). Discourage exotics like Russian olive, autumn olive, and multiflora rose.

Plant fruit/nut producing trees and shrubs such as:

  • apple
  • crab apple
  • hazelnut
  • serviceberry
  • hawthorn
  • dogwoods
  • viburnums
  • highbush cranberry
  • staghorn sumac
  • grapes

Shrubs may be planted in "hedgerow" type arrangements. Trees may be arranged on the edge of the plot that receives the most sun (preferably adjacent to the forest edge). Trees may also be planted orchard-style with 15 to 25 foot spacing.

Crop fields: Plant and harvest grain crops such as corn or oats in the normal manner, leaving some at the edges of the fields standing. Try to leave at least ten rows standing.

Miscellaneous Habitat
Turkeys in a cornfield during winter
Turkeys in cornfield

Power lines and other right-of-ways: Encourage regular maintenance by the power company to maintain grasses and forbs. Mid to late summer mowing is best. Some companies have vegetation management policies that allow establishment of low-growing shrubs and trees on their right-of-ways.

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 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.

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