Nesting and Brooding Habitat for Turkeys
Annual reproduction is critical to wild turkey populations, because of this, nesting and brood rearing habitat are possibly the most important components of turkey habitat. In order to better understand the habitat requirements for wild turkey, behaviors of the turkey need to be understood.
Turkeys are ground nesters and they nest during the spring. After mating, hens actively start looking for nesting habitat. Once a hen finds a suitable area, she will start laying 1 egg per day and will average 10-12 eggs on her first attempt. During this process, the hen will only visit the nest for will only visit the nest for short daily periods to lay 1 egg; she may lightly cover the nest before leaving. After the laying process, the hen will begin incubation which takes 28 days. During incubation, the hen will only leave the nests for very brief periods. A successful nesting attempt averages 40-50 days.
Within the Oak-Prairie District, most nesting occurs in April and May. A common characteristic of nesting habitat, regardless of location or subspecies of turkey, is the presence of knee high grasses and weeds. Hens seek out areas such as fallen limbs, shrubby fence rows, road sides, and edges of pastures and woodlands to nest. The eastern subspecies prefer to nest under small shrubs within or adjacent to wooded tracts. The Rio Grande subspecies will nest in pastures with scattered mesquite or other types of shrubs, often near drainages. Once again, the most critical factor is knee high grasses. The abundance of nesting habitat in the Rios territory can easily be correlated with the amount of winter and spring precipitation. Dry winters normally mean poor nesting habitat and poor reproduction. Easterns are not as dependent upon rainfall.
Brood habitat is very similar to nesting habitat since knee high herbaceous cover is also critical. Remember, turkey poults live almost entirely on insects their first 8 weeks of life, because of this brood habitat must be able to provide three important factors, they are, 1) adequate herbaceous coverage to support high insect populations, 2) cover must allow hens and poults efficient foraging, and 3) cover should enable turkeys to detect and escape
predators. Basically to check for brood habitat, kneel down, if you can see 40-60 feet through the grass but not much more, that is ideal.
Nesting and brood and maintained in various ways. Areas should be set aside around woodlands and pastures to allow the growth of small thickets. These areas are good for nesting. Leaving buffers of at least 30 feet around meadows would be ideal. A major problem with nesting is that it coincides with the 1st hay cutting in the spring. Hopefully by maintaining buffers around hay meadows, turkey hens will avoid nesting in the middle of the meadow and will seek the buffers.
If you have woodlands on your property, for turkeys they need to be somewhat open in the midstory and have a well developed herbaceous forest floor. In order to have a herbaceous understory, dominant tree canopies should only cover 60-70%. When opening up the canopy, you basically have to walk a fine line to keep the stand open enough for turkeys but not turn into an overgrown thicket. Prescribed burning of the woodlands on a 3-5 year rotation is probably the best maintenance method.
Lastly, grazing can be integrated with turkey management. Once again, the key is to maintain knee high grasses through mid-June and to leave scattered brush throughout the property for nest sites. Ideal grazing would consist of rotational grazing, this would help all species of wildlife as well as your cattle herd.