Sustaining wild turkey populations

The restoration of native wild turkey populations in Mississippi and across the South over the past 75 years is “one of the greatest wildlife conservation stories,” says Dave Godwin, turkey program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks at Starkville, Miss.

And, he says, it has been due, in large part, to farmers and other private landowners who have cooperated in establishing and maintaining habitat suited to the birds’ lifestyle.

About 95 percent of the land in Mississippi is privately owned, so it’s important, he says, that landowners participate in these programs.

“In the early 1900s, with wide-scale clearing of massive virgin forests, the wild turkey in Mississippi had just about been wiped out,” he said at a recent wildlife habitat management conference for landowners at Circle M Plantation, Paulette, Miss.

“Large-scale land use changes and exploitation of wildlife and natural resources had resulted in drastic habitat deterioration that pretty much put us out of the turkey business — 90 percent of the existing habitat was devoid of turkeys.

“Our agency was created in the 1930s and one of its major goals was to re-establish turkey populations. Those efforts were so successful that by the 1980s every region in the state had huntable turkey populations. It is a tremendous story of turkey restoration.”

But, Godwin says, creation and management of habitat continues to be a key need and “it’s important that farmers and other landowners understand what it takes for sustainable turkey populations.”

Among the requirements: A variety of habitat types, including forests, open lands, and old fields.

“Adequate forestland is critical to maintaining viable populations of wild turkeys,” he says, “particularly when management provides a mix of different forest types, ages, and openings that can provide various food sources, brood rearing habitat, edges for nesting, and room for courtship. Turkeys do well in forested landscapes with 15 percent to 65 percent openings, whether in fields, cropland, pastures, or early successional stages of forestland.”

Prescribed burning and use of herbicides to remove undesirable species and promote native grasses and other vegetation suited to turkeys are also useful practices, Godwin says.

“Urbanization, highways, golf courses, and other commercial development have fragmented and broken up habitat in many areas, but with careful management we’ve still been able to sustain very viable, stable turkey populations in nearly every Mississippi county,” Godwin says.

Turkeys have a high reproductive potential, he notes, but reproduction is highly variable, and if habitat is not suited to producing turkey poults each year, maintaining populations will be difficult.

Weather, particularly heavy rains during the spring nesting and brooding period, can adversely affect the numbers of poults. Good nesting and brooding habitat can result in higher populations and sustain them.

“Turkeys nest early — April/May is the key period — and how successful the brooding and hatch are can make or break a season.”

Nesting success in Mississippi and over most of the Southeast is only about 30 percent, Godwin says, but even at that low rate viable populations can be maintained with sufficient habitat.

Predators such as raccoons, possums, skunks, snakes, and crows can destroy eggs, and nests are sometimes destroyed during haying and other farm operations. Once hatched, chicks are vulnerable to predators such as hawks, foxes, bobcats, owls, etc., and losses can sometimes be high.

“During this period, they also need a lot of food, such as seeds, green vegetation, and insects, to promote quick growth,” Godwin says. “They are ‘opportunistic omnivores’ — they’ll eat almost any kind of plant or animal matter, but good plant matter is the key.

After two weeks, they begin to be able to climb and fly, and survival rate improves. Over most of the Southeast, annual survival rate of hens is about 40 percent. Gobbler survival rate is 40 to 90 percent. A state regulation to not harvest jakes allows them to carry over to the next season and attain more maturity.

“Quality, diverse habitat is vital to a quality, sustainable turkey population,” Godwin says. “The average home range of a turkey gobbler is 6 square miles, so you need to investigate opportunities to work with neighboring landowners to create large habitat areas.

“They like a lot of vertical structure to hide nests; herbaceous understory in pine forests is good brooding habitat. They need to be able to move through an area feely and have cover. You can help to limit disturbance during the nesting/brooding by closing off roads and other access.”

Open areas are also important — woods roads, fire lanes, powerline rights-of-way — 30 yards to 50 yards wide, 3 acres to 5 acres, are ideal.

When establishing pine plantations or harvesting trees, Godwin says, “Think about turkeys on the front end, in terms of location, site preparation, spacing, openings, hardwoods, etc.”

Thinning to allow sunlight penetration, prescribed burns every three years to five years to encourage growth of desirable herbaceous species, and use of herbicides can result in an understory that will provide food and cover for turkeys and other wildlife, he says. Herbicides such as Arsenal can be “very important tools” in controlling unwanted vegetation and is safe on legumes.

“We try to stay away from ryegrass, fescue, and bermudagrass because of their rank growth,” Godwin says. “Food plots can include browntop millet, chufa, ladino and crimson clover, corn, sorghum, Egyptian wheat, and winter wheat.”

The U.S. Forest Service estimates a doubling of pine plantations across the South over the next several decades, while natural pine forests are projected to decline by about half and mixed stands by about 22 percent.

As pine plantation acreage increases in Mississippi, specialists say more intensive management will be required to maintain diverse turkey habitats, and cooperative efforts by private landowners will continue to be critical to the sustainability of turkey populations.

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