CONSERVATION: MANAGING LAND FOR YOUNG TURKEYS

Ideal land conditions lead to ideal game

Managing land to provide better brood habitat consists of prescribed burning, discing, and/or mowing.

Managing land to provide better brood habitat consists of prescribed burning, discing, and/or mowing.

BY JEREMY MARTIN, wildlife biologist

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

When you are managing for turkeys, how much time do you spend thinking about managing specifically for new hatchlings (known as poults)? 

Newborn turkeys have a tough road ahead of them to make it to that mature gobbler you want to see when you are turkey hunting. The first two weeks of a turkey’s life are spent solely on the ground, including roosting. Only an estimated 30 percent of poults make it to maturity. Managing for brood rearing habitat could be the most important management action you can take.

THE BEST NEST

In Florida, hens will usually nest between late March and early May. A typical clutch consists of 10 to 12 eggs that are incubated for 26 to 28 days. Poults typically hatch in May and June in Florida. On average, half of the nests laid are lost either to predation or abandonment. Of the nests that do survive, starvation, predation or exposure claim 50 percent of the poults within the first six weeks and fewer than three poults out of each nest will reach 2 months old.

Good brood habitat consists of open, grassy areas 1 to 3 feet in height, with an abundance of insects in close proximity to escape cover (thickets) and roosting areas (tall mature trees near or over water). Brood habitat needs a mixture of grasses and forbs to attract insects, but not so dense that it restricts the movement of the poults. You want the vegetation to be open enough to allow poults to move unimpeded but not so tall that hens can’t see approaching predators. 

Managing to provide better brood habitat consists of prescribed burning, discing, and/or mowing. These practices should be conducted on a two- to three-year rotation. Openings are particularly valuable as brood habitat. Maintaining some openings with thinner vegetation like grasses and forbs provides great bugging habitat for poults but having some thicker, higher vegetation nearby is important for escape cover. Openings can be planted to a grass/legume mixture to provide an abundance of seed and insects. Remember that poults need high protein during the first few months and insects are the main source of those proteins for young birds.

Native openings should be manipulated every two to three years to maintain the plant species and structure needed by the young poults. The openings – whether natural or planted – need to be at least an acre in size and irregularly shaped. Manipulation can consist of mowing, prescribed burning, or discing. Discing during different times of the year will produce an assortment of vegetation. Fall and winter discing will encourage heavy seed producing annual plants, such as ragweed. Discing between April and August will promote a mixture of native grasses and forbs. 

Openings planted to agronomic crops can be very beneficial to the poults as well. Plants like millet, sorghum, sunflowers, and clovers provide an abundance of seed and attract a variety of insects. These plants also provide the proper structure needed by the poults and hens. Cool season food plots can be left standing and warm season plots of sunflowers and millets can be planted from mid-April to late May. These plots, if managed correctly, can provide excellent brood habitat for the young poults.

HOME SWEET HOME

Nesting and brood habitat are often the two most limiting factors for turkey populations. While public management areas can focus on these habitats, turkey home ranges are over 1,000 acres in size, which means it’s the private lands that connect these public lands that are where most turkeys reside. 

The majority of land in Florida is privately owned, giving private landowners a key role in the conservation of wild turkeys. There is approximately 5.9 million acres of public land in Florida out of a total of 37.5 million acres. Roughly 84.3 percent of the land mass in Florida is privately owned. Because of this, private landowners play an important role in the management of wild turkeys. It is the actions of private landowners managing for wildlife on their land that keeps most populations from being relegated to only public lands. 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has private lands biologists who can provide you with technical advice on managing your land. To learn more about managing wildlife on your property, check out our habitat how-to section at the FWC’s Landowner Assistance Program by going to MyFWC.com/LAP. You can also contact a private lands regional biologist for technical assistance by calling the FWC regional office.