How to Support Wild Turkey Nesting Success

How to Support Wild Turkey Nesting Success

Hunters and land managers alike can help boost wild turkey recruitment rates.
Here are 15 ways to help out

Hens have it rough. It takes a lot to hatch poults, let alone keep them alive to adulthood. These mothers pour months of around-the-clock effort into raising young. These hens spend the first weeks and months of spring bulking up to carry themselves through the difficult, high-risk months that lie ahead.

Once the nesting period starts, it generally takes a hen 10-15 days to lay all their eggs, which will typically range from eight to 12 in total. After the laying period, incubation begins. For about 28 days, the hen lays on the nest day and night, putting itself at serious risk, to ensure production of healthy poults. Then, after hatching, the hen remains on the ground until the poults are strong enough to fly up and roost on limbs.

And if you don’t help her, she might not succeed. So, it starts with understanding what these tough ladies need to thrive. While biologists don’t fully know these things themselves, there are common threads. According to Jimmy Stafford with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) (https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/life-turkey-nest), hens tend to follow certain patterns, including nesting within 30 yards of good edge habitat; choosing nesting sites that have a lot of lateral cover (to shield from predators) but open space above (for hens to escape); and areas that offer good visibility of approaching predators.

There are other factors, too, and you can do certain things to help them succeed. The following are some of these.

1. Deploy Predator Management Tactics
One of the biggest limiters of poult recruitment rates is predation. Larger predators, such as bobcats, coyotes, and foxes, are skilled at taking larger turkeys. However, it’s nest raiders, such as opossums, raccoons, snakes, and other small animals, that impact numbers prior to the hatch. Aerial predators, such as hawks, owls, and other birds of prey, as well as larger predators, take a toll on young poults. While there is nothing you can do to reduce bird of prey numbers, you can trap and hunt mammalian predators, such as bobcats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, etc.

2. Maintain the Right Ratio of Cover to Open Areas
Turkeys don’t thrive on either too much cover or open areas. It needs to be the right ratio to push turkey population production to its utmost. Have the right combination of nesting cover, roosting trees, escape cover, and food sources.

3. Offer Diversity
Most tracts of land are small. But regardless of the size, it’s crucial to offer diversity. Look at what’s currently on the landscape. See what’s missing. Offer what turkeys need but don’t already have there.

4. Don’t Create Strips of Cover
If cover is what your land lacks, it’s important to do it the right way. And the wrong way is to create strips of cover. At first glance, smaller strips of cover might seem like good nesting grounds, but it isn’t. These are very easy for predators to patrol for prey, making it simple for opportunistic animals to locate and raid nests.

5. Create Blocks of Cover Instead
Rather than having strips of nesting cover, it’s better to establish larger blocks of it. This makes it more difficult for animals to discover nests, which saves the lives of hens and poults.

6. Remove Valueless Invasive
Plants Every square foot of land should be utilized in an effective manner. These need to be used for roosting, escape cover, food, or water. Removing invasive plants, and even native plants, that offer no value to wildlife, specifically turkeys, will improve poult-rearing success rates. Adult turkeys that have what they need to thrive ensures increased numbers of offspring that reach adulthood.

7. Plant Native Grasses
Some areas of your property might need a reset. If reducing certain areas to ground level, consider replacing these with sections of native grasses. (Most of which create incredible nesting cover.)

8. Optimize Early Successional Cover
Allowing portions of your property to grow for one to three years can generate quality early successional cover for nesting. If native grasses aren’t your thing, allow fallow ground to produce what it will naturally. Blackberries, honeysuckle, and other bushes can create quality cover. Furthermore, consider allotting this ground at higher elevations to prevent the likelihood of flooding.

9. Conduct Quality Timber Stand Improvement (TSI)
Those with unmanaged timber should conduct responsible timber stand improvement (TSI). This can be done several ways, but the goal is to open the canopy so sunlight reaches the forest floor, sparking new growth that nesting hens will benefit from.

10. Hack and Squirt in Sections
One of the most cost-effective methods of TSI is the hack-and-squirt method. This is an affordable way to open canopies and ensure sunlight reaches the ground floor and boosts new growth.

11. Use Prescribed Burns
Another method for TSI is a controlled burn. Implementing a well-planned, cool-season burn is an excellent way to convert land into good nesting cover, or to regenerate existing nesting sites. It’s all about resetting the biological clock.

12. Offer Plenty of Food Close to Nesting Cover
Nesting hens still eat. The closer food is to the nesting cover, the less ground hens must cover to meet their basic needs. Offering plenty of grub next to known nesting is a great way to help keep them alive.

13. Offer a Water Source Close to Nesting Cover
The same holds true for water. Creating water holes or ponds adjacent or within good cover is another way to shrink the size of a hen’s home range, which again, in theory, can help increase chances of survival.

14. Quit Using Pesticides
Bugs are major sources of food for wild turkeys. Using pesticides decreases food sources for hens and young poults alike. Stop using pesticides or use these limitedly.

15. Quit Shooting Hens During Fall Seasons
According to turkey biologist Michael Chamberlain (https://www.realtree.com/food-plots-and-land-management/articles/7-best-land-improvements-for-wild-turkeys), it takes about 100 hens to produce 10-12 2-year-old gobblers (at best). It’s a numbers game, and not one that favors the wild turkey. So, in an age where most turkey populations are declining, it might just be time to quit shooting hens during fall hunting seasons.

Wild Turkey Q&A

Q: What is the best food plot seed for turkeys?
A: Chufa is often said to be the best option. Clover is also good.

Q: When is the best time to trap predators?
A: Winter is the typical timeframe for trapping.

Q: How do nesting hens changing gobbler behavior?
A: This generally sparks toms to be more receptive to calling and decoying.

Q: Do poults begin roosting in trees immediately after hatching?
A: No. It can take weeks for them to develop this ability.

Q: Do all turkeys roost in trees?
A: No. Turkeys in Hawaii roost on the ground because they have no natural predators there.

Article and Photos by Josh Honeycutt

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