Turkey hunting…for those of us who enjoy the perpetual quest of these birds on our own property and throughout the country, we have a deep appreciation for creating and maintaining turkey habitat, especially food plots. Within those habitats, maintaining a diversity of food sources is of most importance. And with such ideas, this leads us to discussions regarding turkey habitat projects to consider for this spring.
The cheapest way to create food this time of the year. Once it burns, these turkeys love it… and we love turkeys. Join us as Michael and Paw Paw have a good old fashioned controlled burn in Booger Bottom.
So what is the value in purposeful habitat projects and creating food plots? One answer in simple terms would be attraction to your property. Another would be habitat for turkey nesting. Finally, a great benefit to most habitat projects revolving around turkeys would be a large and diverse selection of foraging choices provides a buffer of sorts in regards to turkey nutrition
For instance, in a given year acorn production may be low but soft mast yields such as grapes may be high, insect production that is average and chufa food plot growth that is robust. A medley of food options (soft/hard mast, insects, herbaceous matter, etc.) will provide reliable, year-round nutrition to turkeys and sustain them with the energy to safely use their habitat, reproduce and maintain hunt-able and thriving populations.
While food plots are just one habitat project, they are often the focus. With that being said, it’s important to understand what a turkey’s diet consists of and how other habitat projects, such as mechanical disturbance and prescribed fire, can help attract turkey’s to the property you hunt.
Turkey Food Preferences: Native and Supplemental Food Plots
Native Food Plots
A Mississippi State Extension document titled “Forest Management for Wild Turkeys”(Pub. 2033) provides a fairly detailed description of common naturally occurring foods according to habitat type, for turkey. These food sources (insects, greens, soft and hard mast) are generally prevalent across all turkey habitats in the U.S., the specific species will simply vary by region.
More often than not, our initial thoughts regarding nourishment for turkey often steers to supplemental food plots. And rightfully so, this is a form of management most of us are familiar with and we can easily see the benefits of quickly and readily purchase the seeds for.
As with deer, spring and fall food plots are the general trend. In the case of turkey, ensure the plot is large enough in size to produce sufficient food and allow for the birds to see any predators that may be observing them. Point in case, narrow food plots near dense cover can become an ideal location for the predator/prey interaction to occur. Therefore, create food plots that are at least a 1/2 acre in size. A mosaic design is fine, just steer clear of narrowing a plot where predators can easily ambush turkey.
Already established deer plots can either be enhanced with some planting of additional species or replanted with species that work well for both deer and turkey. While most deer plots are planted late summer for fall attraction, turkey food plots should be planted in early spring. The right species planted at the right time can offer plenty of opportunities and nutrition for both deer and turkey. For example, if a hunting club only plants plots for deer, and primarily in the fall, you could use spring to plant some species that offer food plots for turkeys while at the same time feed deer throughout the spring and summer months. Additionally, there are fall plantings for deer that work great for turkeys, so planting for one species often means planting for the other.
Common spring food plots for turkey include:
These are all great sources of nutrition but they also have some additional benefits that we may not typically consider. For instance, as with new growth occurring in native food plots, these supplemental plots do a fair job of attracting insects and stimulating insect production. In addition, as in the case of sorghum or sunflowers, they can provide tall vertical structure which is essential to creating overhead cover to protect poults from aerial predators and provide shade during days of increasing temperatures. Spring plots that are planted to chufa or clover, which are low growing also present exceptional areas for toms to strut in during the spring mating season. When it comes to fall plantings, traditional species include oats, clover, wheat and rye which fortunately coincide with species typically planted for white-tailed deer.
Nick Mundt’s trail camera photo of a tom looking for love in an opening.
Supplemental food plots can and should be worked into the patchwork design of native food plots. Often times, the disced strips that are used during prescribed fire work can also serve as a location for supplemental food plots. Turkey will also use these sites as favored dusting locations. Openings created by selective timber harvest can be planted as well. These sites can all work together to provide ideal habitat for turkey, tremendous food sources and excellent hunting locations.
Enhancing Turkey Habitat
Now that we understand the broad diversity foods, that can or should be available from both native and supplemental food plots the relevant question is what can we do to enhance and continue to foster these food sources? There are a number of tactics to mention. The first beneficial technique is the proper implementation of prescribed fire.
Fire historically occurred throughout most turkey habitats and therefore is very beneficial to the land overall and especially forage production. It is a great tool used to clean-up old stagnant growth which is common in high rainfall areas, such as in the southeastern U.S. where grass, pine needles and heavy brush and vine growth can occur annually. These conditions reduce turkey’s ability to use the habitat safely and find forage. In addition fire aids the process of breaking down heavy materials such as timber cuttings and fallen trees and finally it stimulates beneficial regrowth of new grasses, forbs, vines and trees.
Good old fashioned controlled burn in Booger Bottom, Georgia.
Each of these outcomes of fire not only prompts valuable new growth, which is immediately used by turkey, it also provides new habitat for snails and worms, while attracting a plethora of insects to the regrowth areas. When conducted properly fire not only is great for the land and turkey but it also creates exceptional areas for big toms to strut and for hunters to fill a tag. Now in conjunction with fire and/or when used alone, shredding or mowing as well as discing are all extremely valuable tools to aid in creating and maintaining native and supplemental food plots.
Just as fire often doesn’t completely burn a given area but instead creates a beneficial mosaic pattern of burn and non-burn areas, so can these other tools be used to bring into being similar transformations thus positively impacting the production of native food plots. Patchwork mowing, shredding and light discing (not deep tilling) provides an immediate stimulation to grasses and forbs to begin new growth, thus providing a timely food source and further attracting insects and fostering insect production.
Michael and T-Bone prepping the Brush Hog®. As one would suspect, these mosaic management areas also create new strutting zones and thus hunting lanes.
In addition, these actions enhance the decomposition process of plants into the soil and thereby creating healthier soils, which benefits plants, snails, and worm production. Such food plots can be created on large or small properties, and in the case of native food plots are invaluable because the organisms involved have evolved in their given area and soils types and are therefore somewhat bullet proof from severe weather events such as drought, heavy snows, flooding, etc.
For a turkey enthusiast it is easy to see that there are many beneficial and simple techniques that can be implemented on large or small properties to provide food to turkey. But always remember to be a student of the birds we pursue…if possible, pause the techniques discussed for the spring months. Always minimize disturbance to the landscape during the breeding and nesting season. Also be mindful of the weather, although we cannot always predict it accurately, pay attention to long-term forecasts and understand how drought, floods or heavy winter conditions in combination with the management techniques may impact your birds. Keep it simple, stay educated, and watch your birds flourish.
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