Attracting wild turkeys
Wild turkeys, notoriously picky about their living conditions, require a more specialized environment than many other types of wildlife. You can, however, manage your land to attract and retain wild turkeys by knowing something about their preferred foods and habitat.
Preferred foods of wild turkeys
Generally, turkeys thrive in and near mature forests that produce abundant amounts of mast, the fruits and nuts of woody plants. In the spring, they tend to eat leaves and grasses, and in the fall, they feed more on fruits, berries, seeds and insects. Acorns are a crucial source of nutrients for wild turkeys, especially in the wintertime. To attract and retain wild turkeys, landowners should promote the growth of their favored food sources.
Besides the critical acorn-producing oak, other plant species that are favorable for turkey habitat include:
- Beech (Beechnuts are an alternate food source when acorn supplies are low.)
- Hickory (As with beechnuts, hickory nuts are an alternate winter food source.)
- Wild cherry
Wild turkey habitat
In addition to food, turkeys need access to water, open areas, cover and suitable areas for nesting and roosting. Turkeys prefer to reside in the forest during the winter and near the edges of clearings in the summer, where they can forage but also quickly take cover. Clearings also serve as brood range, where baby turkeys (poults) can find protein-rich insects and spiders that make up their primary food sources during their first month of life.
Wild turkeys will range over several miles to find suitable areas for roosting and food. High-quality turkey habitat will support one bird per 30 acres or a flock of 18 to 20 turkeys per square mile, according to North Carolina state forestry specialists. Since turkeys often travel in flocks, you may want to cooperate with other adjacent landowners to maintain a habitat of suitable size.
According to Clemson Extension Forestry and Natural Resources, nesting cover and mature timber for roosting are critical. Turkeys also will use natural land contours, such as rolling hills in pastures, as a form of cover to hide from predators. Turkeys don't often roost in the same place each night and so need access to multiple sites suitable for roosting.
Penn State Cooperative Extension notes that landowners also may do well to promote the growth of warm-season grasses, also known as "bunch grasses." These dense grasses grow in thick bunches instead of spreading. Groups of these bunches, allowing for access gaps and open spaces in between, serve as cover for nesting and foraging turkeys.
Land management techniques to attract wild turkeys
Perhaps the most important land management technique to promote wild turkey habitat is not cutting too many mature oaks and other mast-producing trees. Clearing too much land or planting all of your land to pines will limit the amount of turkeys that can live in an area. Turkeys, however, can thrive in pine forests with some undergrowth and near agricultural areas, provided that suitable stands or strips of mature hardwoods are preserved nearby.
North Carolina Cooperative Extension recommends that each acre of a tree stand should include several large acorn-bearing oaks from the ages of 50 to 100 years. For landowners managing forests for hardwood timber production, they recommend following a 70 to 80 year rotation. Virginia Cooperative Extension even recommends hardwood tree rotations of 125 years or more, by restricting tree harvests to 8 percent of land at 10-year intervals.
When harvesting hardwoods, strive to limit cleared areas to 25 acres or less and try to create irregularly shaped clearings, say North Carolina specialists. At the same time, all landowners should try to maintain small clearings totaling at least 10 percent of their forests. Turkeys prefer multiple clearings of a few acres or less. Remember that portions of crop fields and pastures, power line clearings or fire breaks, infrequently used logging roads, log decks and old home sites may count towards that 10 percent total.
Take care not to disturb turkeys unnecessarily. They spook easily and will avoid roads with any amount of traffic, although sparsely traveled logging roads should present few problems.
Supplemental food plots
Planting supplemental food plots in clearings can be a very valuable management technique to attract and retain turkey flocks. Virginia forestry specialists recommend planting legumes and grasses, such as clover and winter wheat. This will provide green forage for adult turkeys in the late winter and early spring and insect-rich habitat for poults and wheat seed for adults in the late spring and early summer. Allowing some wild grapes to grow will provide another food source for turkeys in the winter. North Carolina Extension specialists also recommend rye, millet, fescue and chufa as supplemental crops.
In addition to chufa and clover, specialists with Clemson Extension Forestry and Natural Resources recommend field corn, oats, ryegrass and sorghum. Turkeys will forage on field corn from fall into winter; be sure to plant at least an acre to allow enough corn for other wildlife foragers, such as deer. Plant sorghum in wide strips to allow turkeys to travel through this densely growing crop.