By Tony Young
Whether you oversee a large tract of land or own a smaller parcel, there are many wildlife management techniques you can use to help attract wild turkeys in the area to your property — and keep the ones there that already call it home.
Wild turkeys, like white-tailed deer, are referred to ase “edge species” because of their need for more than one type of habitat. Most of the time, with large tracts of land, this isn’t a problem because the vast landscape is diverse enough. But in the case of small-acreage, one-habitat properties, it’s up to you as the landowner to create varied, preferred habitats if you expect turkeys to use the property.
For optimal turkey habitat, most experts believe a “rule of halves” should be applied to the landscape. What that means is, half of your property should be in mature forests and the other half in early-succession “openings,” such as fields, clearcuts or forests having between 40 and 60 square feet per basal area.
Basal area is a measurement used to determine the density of trees per acre. To better illustrate, land that falls into the 40-60 basal range has 40 to 60 average-sized (13.5 inches in diameter at the base) pine trees per acre — better recognized as “plantation style.”
To create even better and more varied habitats for turkeys, you should offer “differing age classes” of forests, early-successional areas and make prescribed burning a big part of your management plan.
What is meant by differing age classes is harvesting pine trees on a different section of your property on a 10-year cycle. Every 10 years, you cut and replant a different piece so after a few decades, the property consists of several sections having varying sized (aged) trees.
Early-succession habitat can be achieved on plantation cut areas with a 40-60 basal count because the trees are spaced out enough for sunlight to penetrate the forest floor, and with frequent fire, enables new growth of succulent woody ornamentals, native wiregrass and goldenrod.
It also is important to keep any hardwood hammocks, drains, ravines, bottoms, wetlands, and other unique habitats intact and free from timbering. Hardwoods are an essential element of wild turkey management and should be left in their natural state, if at all possible.
These thick hardwood lowlands provide travel corridors that turkeys and deer extensively use and feel comfortable moving through. And, most wild turkeys prefer to roost in trees over or near water so any pond or creek offers great potential roosting sites.
If there’s not any water on the property and you have the financial means to do so, dig a pond. Turkeys, as well as every other critter, need water to drink, so if you have that, then you have yet one more piece of the turkey-management puzzle.
“Buffer” strips of native grasses and woody ornamentals should be left unmowed where clearcut areas meet pine or hardwood forests. Hens require this thick understory cover for nesting, and when possible, prescribed burning should be applied that allows for a low, woody component to be scattered throughout most of the timber stands. Periodically lengthening your burning rotations will give you this desired effect and help provide suitable nesting habitat.
In Florida, most hens lay their eggs in late March or early April and the eggs take about 25 days to hatch, so care should be taken not to burn or mow through August. After hatching, poults will roost on the ground for the first 14 days, and during this period, approximately 70 percent of these young birds won’t survive, primarily because of predation from raccoons, opossums, coyotes, foxes and bobcats.
Attempts to control these predators are usually ineffective and economically unfeasible, so your efforts are better spent creating and maintaining good-quality brood habitat. To do this, leave certain areas in unplanted fields or in open woodlands containing an herbaceous understory so adequate brood rearing can take place.
Good brood habitat should hold food in the form of seeds, insects (an invaluable protein source) and tender new-growth vegetation for young poults to feed upon throughout the summer. It should consist of one- to three-foot-tall grass and weeds open enough to enable the young poults to be able to move about, yet dense enough to provide cover from the above mentioned predators.
There is great interest nationally in the planting of food plots for wildlife, including for turkeys. Within extensive closed off canopy forested areas, food plots and/or game feeders are essential to keeping turkeys on your property. Where an open forest structure is maintained by adequate timber thinning and the use of fire, such supplemental feeding is not as necessary because there is enough natural “browse” vegetation for game to feed on. However, food plots and feeders do attract turkeys and help to localize their movements.
But, if you financially can’t plant enough acreage to feed all of the game on your property and improve the health of their populations, then it’s not going to make a significant impact or improve the quality of the habitat. On very large tracts of land, sufficient supplemental feeding can be quite expensive, and in these cases, proper use of burning and timber thinning management are more economical ways of providing food for turkeys and other wildlife.
Food plots, though, are a lot more cost effective at feeding game than using feeders on moderate-sized pieces of property. In cases of smaller tracts, perhaps where food plots can’t be utilized because the landscape is all lowland and you have a closed canopy, game feeders filled with corn or soybeans are your only option to attracting turkeys.
Once the decision, though, has been made to create food plots, you need to know “where” to put them and how big and what shape you should make them. When thinking about good food plot sites, avoid excessively wet or dry areas, and don’t place them along heavily used roads to minimize disturbance and possible poaching.
Look to create these openings along an edge where upland pines meet a hardwood drain — which I already mentioned turkeys like to use. This way, you’ll have an area where three separate habitats converge. Try to evenly distribute these type food plots throughout the property, and it is recommended that two to three percent of the land is in these permanent openings.
The best food plots are long and narrow, and rectangular shaped that follow the contour of the land. A length-to-width ratio of about three-to-one is a good rule of thumb with the width being no less than 75 feet to avoid shading from the sun. When possible, create food plots where the length (longest part) runs east to west. That way, the planted crops will receive the most direct sunlight.
In the fall, cereal grains like wheat, oats and rye can be planted along with Austrian winter peas, clover, and brassicas like turnips, rape and kale. Turkeys like all of this, and except for clover, these crops all grow well in most of Florida.
Clover requires a higher soil pH — between 6.5 and 7 — and it often won’t grow in the sandy soils that make up most of our state. In the northern-tiered counties that border Alabama and Georgia, the soil is richer with red clay, and several varieties of clover and other legumes will grow well there. With poorer sandier soils, if you still want to plant clover, a soil test should be done, and lime should be applied at the recommended rate.
All of the above mentioned cool season forages can be planted by “broadcast” method after Oct. 1 in North Florida. And at least twice as much fertilizer should be used per pound of seed, if not more. Slightly cover the seed by pulling a drag over it, and try to put your crop in the ground when the soil is holding some moisture and rain is in the forecast.
In the spring after May 1, you can plow under your “browned up” fall crop and replace it with any combination of soybeans, cowpeas, browntop millet, sorghum or peanuts. And if you can afford it, turkeys are especially fond of chufa. That, along with these other warm season forages, can be broadcasted and planted just as the cool weather crops.
Another good thing about chufa, just like with most clover varieties — it is a perennial and will regenerate and “come back” for a few years. The secret to growing chufa, though, is not to replant it in the exact same location because it really strips nitrogen from the soil, and if you try to replant it in the same spot, it won’t come up very well.
Hopefully, utilizing some or all of these wildlife management practices will help bring in turkeys and increase the habitat’s carrying capacity for birds on your property. Here’s wishing you luck obtaining your management goals and objectives.
Tony Young has many years of experience managing turkeys, deer and timber on private property in the Panhandle. He’s an avid turkey hunter and worked seven years for the Florida Department of Agriculture. Currently, Tony’s the media relations coordinator for the hunting and game management division with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Tallahassee.