The wild turkey is an important game animal in North Carolina and the Southeast. Recently, turkeys have made a comeback from low populations caused by excess hunting, habitat loss and domestic poultry diseases. Interest in wild turkey hunting also has increased accordingly during this time.

Wild turkeys are birds of the forest during the winter and are found in field margins, cutover areas and openings during the summer. Many activities carried on in these places affect turkey populations because they change turkey habitat. Due to their particular requirements, woodland changes influence wild turkeys more than other forest game species. The woodland owner’s management decisions, to a large extent, control the destiny of this popular and challenging game bird. Therefore, it is important to consider the wild turkeys’ requirements when planning woodland management.

Needs of the Wild Turkey

Wild turkeys must have suitable food, shelter, nesting and brooding places and a minimum of disturbance. Habitat requirements of wild turkeys are more critical than for other forest species such as deer, which can adapt to a broader range of conditions. Turkeys spend most of the year in flocks, so habitat must be sufficient to support a flock rather than just a few individual birds.

Good turkey habitat includes mature mast-producing hardwoods (mostly oaks), smaller hardwoods and a mixture of understory plants such as dogwood and cherry. Good habitat also contains insect-producing areas - such as small openings, agricultural fields, pastures and roadsides - and easy access to water. High quality turkey habitat will support one bird per 30 acres or a flock of 18 to 20 turkeys per square mile.

Since turkeys spend most of their time in flocks, the woodland owner who has insufficient acreage to maintain a resident flock must consider joining with other landowners to undertake management. If sufficient acreage of suitable habitat owned by several people can be shared, it may be possible to support a resident flock or perhaps several flocks. Management plans should evaluate the habitat provided by adjoining land (even if that owner does not manage for turkeys) and should compensate for deficiencies wherever possible.

Turkeys use a wide variety of foods. During the spring, they eat green leaves and grasses. In the summer and fall, preferred foods are berries, fruits, ripened seed heads and insects. As the principle winter food, acorns, are the most important ingredient in the turkeys’ diet and supply a necessary source of energy during cold weather. Young turkeys need a high protein diet, which is furnished by insects. Though seldom a problem in the Southeast, water is an important requirement (especially for turkey broods) and must be available within their traveling range of about one-fourth mile.

The wild turkeys’ need for cover varies somewhat according to the time of year. Mature timber for roosting is needed year-round, and several roost sites should be scattered throughout the flock’s range. Nesting cover is necessary and usually found along the edges of woods, in brushy areas, cutovers or old fields. Broods require some dense escape cover and small openings for feeding.

Habitat Management

If sufficient area is available to support a flock of turkeys, certain practices can improve the habitat. Management activities should be planned to include desirable habitat features that adjacent areas lack. An important consideration is that management practices for turkeys be compatible with other present or planned uses of the forest.

Oaks are the primary ingredient in wild turkey habitat. Therefore, the hardwood portions of the forest should be managed for maximum acorn production. That is, hardwood stands should include at least several large acorn-bearing oaks (age 50 to 100 years) per acre. Other mast producers (beech, hickory) should be managed the same way, and the presence of these species is vital in years of low acorn yield. Even small areas with just a few hardwood trees should be maintained if they are good mast-producers. If selective cutting or clearcutting in small units (preferably 25 acres or less) is practiced, a 70 to 80-year rotation is preferred. This sort of rotation makes certain that the stand will include a good share of mast-producing trees.

In addition to the large mast-producers, it is important to create and maintain understory species such as dogwood, wild cherry, grapes and berries since all of these are important in the turkeys’ year-round diet. These species should be protected wherever they appear during cutting and thinning operations.

Some timber management practices may harm wild turkeys. To control possible damaging effects, practice even-aged pine management only on those sites best suited for pine, and restrict the hardwood-to-pine conversion to those areas which will not grow quality hardwoods. Leave hardwood stream bottoms and drains uncut. Make clearcuts and pine conversion units small (preferably 25 acres or less) and irregular in shape, if possible. Large acreages of pure pines, particularly if the understory is sparse, are of little value as wild turkey habitat.

Fire can be a useful tool in managing your woodland, particularly in the Coastal Plain. Controlled burning at three- to five-year intervals can keep the understory open in pine stands and, at the same time, stimulate desirable food species such as legumes and grasses. Fire generally should not be used in hardwood stands, although it can be used in some situations by experts qualified in fire management.

Openings are important for feeding areas since they produce insects, seeds and berries. Small openings (several acres or less in size) are preferred, but turkeys will use crop and pasture fields, power lines, roads, log decks and old house sites. To manage these openings, maintain the existing ones and create more openings (up to 10% of the total area or even higher). Such openings can be planted to supplemental foods, a practice that can benefit turkey management. A variety of species can be planted for turkeys, some of which may serve other purposes such as livestock grazing. Crops frequently planted for turkeys include rye, wheat, millet, fescue, clover and chufa. You should seek advice from your County Extension Center on what is best suited for your situation.

Management of Turkey Hunting

Turkey hunting is an art, and successful turkey hunters spend a great deal of time and effort pursuing the birds. The private woodland owner can demand premium fees for choice turkey hunting.

In North Carolina, turkeys are hunted in the spring during the gobbling season. Only male birds are taken, with the hens left to hatch and rear the annual crop of young birds. The season usually runs about four weeks in April and May. Turkey hunters try to locate the area the birds are using, get into position before daylight and call a gobbler within range. This type of hunting means that an area cannot be saturated with many hunters. Instead, one or two hunters are all that is desired where one gobbler is present. The number of hunters which an area can accommodate will depend not only on the size of the area but also on its timber types and openings. Fees can be daily or for an entire season, from either individuals or organized groups. Advice on setting up a fee hunting system can be obtained from your local wildlife biologist.

Perhaps the biggest incentive for managing woodlands for turkeys may not be the revenue this game bird can produce but the satisfaction gained from providing a home for these interesting birds. Management efforts will add to their future welfare as well as provide some of the finest sport hunting.

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Published in January 1997

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