By Zak Danks
Turkey Program Coordinator
Hunters and landowners often ask what they can do to help wild turkeys. They usually ask about predator removal, harvesting fewer turkeys, and planting food plots. Some have done these things but haven’t seen more turkeys or turkeys spending more time on their land. After hearing them out, I emphasize what I consider a big limiting factor – brood habitat.
Hen turkeys look for conditions that help their poults survive and thrive. First, poults need easy access to bugs, like grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, and spiders, which provide the protein poults need to grow rapidly and replace feathers. To reach those bugs, poults must be able to move through vegetation easily. This isn’t possible for tiny poults facing a wall of thick grass. Weedy herbs, legumes, and sparse grass provide bare ground underneath a canopy of leaves – little covered highways for poult movement.
Second, a hen must watch for predators while poults feed. This is tough with many little ones but is easier if vegetation is not taller than she can see over. Poults must feed near or within vegetation that can conceal them. It’s hard for humans and hungry hawks or bobcats to see poults feeding underneath a protective umbrella of leaves – like the weedy, bug-rich, covered highways previously mentioned. Mowing at the wrong time spells doom for poults because that protective cover is lost.
Third, hens must find areas for poults to feed throughout the day. High protein demands require that poults eat constantly, so brood cover close to or within protective woodland cover reduces the chances of a predator ambush. Conversely, covering long distances to reach bug-rich feeding areas ups the predation risk. Forest openings (log landings, food plots, small fields) help reduce a brood’s travel burden. Likewise, carefully planned controlled burning, forest stand improvement, and timber harvest can mix brood cover within forested escape cover. These practices stimulate growth of plants like poison ivy, greenbriar, beggar’s lice, and panic grasses, all of which provide food or bugs within reach of poults and allow hens to see well.
So why worry about turkey brood habitat? Trapping racoons and hunting coyotes are great past-times, but expecting such efforts alone to benefit a local turkey population is unrealistic. It’s simply beyond the means of most landowners and hunting lessees to control predators over the vast acreages a turkey flock roams, at the intensive level needed, and for enough years to overcome the high reproductive potential of mammalian predators. And if cost weren’t enough, there’s the fact that other predators we can’t trap or hunt – raptors and snakes, for instance – will fill the predator void anyway. If hunting seasons are carefully structured (as Kentucky’s is) and we don’t pave over, bulldoze, or clear every acre turkeys could use, the most direct way to help is by providing brood habitat. Contact a KDFWR biologist for free guidance today!