Making a Home for Wild Turkeys in Maryland

By Ed Golden

A question frequently asked of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service personnel is "what can I do for wildlife?" Marylanders are increasingly interested in managing for wild turkeys. Expansion of the bird's range in the U.S. and, to no lesser degree in Maryland, have prompted these questions.

In 1973, an estimated 2,000 wilds turkeys roamed Maryland's westernmost counties. Today, thanks in large part to the Wildlife and Heritage Service's trap and transplant program, Maryland's wild turkey population exceeds 30,000 birds and will continue to increase for the next few years.

What can be done to foster wild turkey flocks on the Maryland landscape? Start with basics: food, cover, water, and space. When evaluating a piece of land, one must consider the availability of these components on a year-round basis. When a wildlife biologist or technician visits a landowner, whether it is privately-owned or government-owned property, this is exactly what he or she does. Landowners may fail to take seasonal changes in habitat into account. That is why a trained wildlife biologist or technician should make the evaluation. By working with the professional wildlife manager, landowners can learn what to look for on their property. The prime benefactor of this cooperation will be the wild turkey population.

In Maryland, with its growing urban and suburban areas, space must be a first consideration. For a wild turkey flock to maintain itself, the birds need 500 to 1,000 contiguous acres of land, usually at least 30 percent forested. This can be one of the protected forests along the rivers of Central Maryland, or a combination of fields and woodlots on the Eastern Shore or in Southern Maryland.

If there is adequate space, the next consideration should be food. When speaking of food for wild turkeys, most folks think instantly of acorns and food patches. Both of these are important to turkeys. However, since acorn production is not consistent from year to year, acorns are more likely to represent the "ice cream" in the food supply. Food patches of grain can also be used by turkey, but it can be expensive and, depending on the type of crop planted, not always beneficial or present when needed in winter.

While not to discount acorns or food patches, wild turkeys are opportunistic feeders. They will eat whatever is available from soft mast to wild annual grass seeds to insects. It is not unusual to see a turkey feeding on buds in trees or in shrubs, eating berries. The best management technique is to provide the widest variety of foods for the wild flock.

Acorns and other hard-shelled seeds are referred to as hard mast. Soft mast consists of fleshy seed such as cherries, crabappples and hawthorns. When managing a forest, soft mast should be highly favored because it is a more consistent annual product. Trees that benefit turkeys include a mixture of oaks, hickories, maples, ashes, gums and fruit-bearing shrubs. Wild grapes are also favored by turkeys and can provide food in early to mid winter.

For the mast trees to be productive, they musty be at least 14 to 16 inches in diameter at breast height. Diameter and size relative to maximum production varies, but the above size is a good measure to use. Mast production can be increased by thinning a forest stand. Thinning reduces competition with other trees and allows the crown of the tree to expand and be more productive. Care should be taken not to over cut when thinning, however. If over cut, the ground cover will increase. Because wild turkeys depend on eyesight for protection, they will be reluctant to use the area if visibility is hindered by brush.

The presence of spring seeps represents another consideration when managing for soft and hard mast in Western Maryland. Due to a spring's relatively constant temperature, it seldom freezes. Turkeys use seeps where they exist, feeding on seeds, grass and insects. To maximize seep use by turkeys, large mast-producing trees such as cherries, maples, ashes and oaks should be allowed to remain. The variety of seeds will drop in the seep area and provide winter food for turkeys during Maryland's coldest, snowiest winters.

Mast is mainly a fall and winter food supply for turkeys. What about the other seasons of the year? In the spring the hen turkey needs energy to begin her egg-laying process and to find areas to raise her brood. Scratching can be found adjacent to or in seeps and along trails and wood roads. At this time of the year, the females are seeking whatever is available in every new growth of green vegetation.

To provide this early green vegetation, roads and log landings can be seeded with cool weather grasses and legumes, e.g. orchard grass/clover mix, after a logging operation. Orchard grass "greens up" early in the spring and will grow late into the fall and early winter if the weather is not severe. Orchard grass also provides protein in the spring. Clover provides additional protein and will continue to grow in the warm months when the growth of orchard grasses decline. Clover also attracts grasshoppers and other insects on which turkey poults feed in the late spring and early summer. Fescues should not be used, as they provide little benefit to wildlife.

For turkey management to succeed in a forested area, a minimum of five percent of the land should be in herbaceous vegetation to provide brood habitat. This can consist of seeded logging roads, trails, and landings. However, the critical factor is having openings/fields --- a minimum of one to two acres in size --- located throughout the forested area. Also, they should be mowed annually to maintain the opening. Mowing should occur between mid-July and August so as not to affect songbird breeding activities. Again, a mixture of grass and clover can be applied here. To control cost, native grasses can be maintained in these openings. They usually do not develop a dense stand to hamper young poult movement and provide insect areas and seeds for young turkeys. The soil should be maintained at pH 6; an application of 10-10-10 fertilizer, at a rate of 150 pounds per acre every one or two years, is usually all an area needs for turkey management.

Management of openings in a grass-clover mixture, in conjunction with soft mast and gleanings from agricultural operations, will usually provide all the food needed by turkeys. Some people consider this type of management insufficient. Landowners who desire to plant food patches or leave grain for turkeys to feed on in the winter should plant a grain species that will withstand the elements and be standing when most needed. Corn left standing is a good winter food. There are millets and sorghums that remain standing into the winter. Buckwheat can also be planted but it is weak-stemmed and heavily used by deer, thus often unavailable when turkeys need it most. There are many other annual grains that turkeys will eat. Your district wildlife biologist can provide this information.

The last two components for turkey management --- cover and water --- are the subjects of many questions by wildlife managers. Many experts do not believe that turkeys need much cover because of their excellent eyesight. In areas with large human populations, heavy fall hunting pressure, illegal hunting, or periods of snow on the ground, cover, in the form of clearcuts, conifers and road closures can be beneficial.

Types of cover can be varied; most prominent would be two to five-year old clearcuts that are three to 10 years old, for use as escape cover. After the third year, there is usually a three to four-foot clear understory that allows turkeys an adequate sight line to use these areas for escape from humans or predators. Clearcuts also can provide buds and berries from low-growing shrubs for winter food if they are not planted in pine. Conifer stands with trees 10 to 14 inches in diameter with an open understory can provide a place for turkeys to scratch for food in the soft needles in winter and also provide roosting cover during the colder months.

Although not considered cover in the traditional sense, control of roads into an area is important to minimize disturbance during the breeding and brooding season. To protect from overharvest in areas open to fall hunting and to provide quality spring hunting, roads should remain closed except for emergencies. Nesting success, usually occurring in open areas, will also be enhanced if the above cover requirements are followed.

The final, but not the least important component, is water. Many believe that dew is adequate moisture for turkeys. This is probably true for most of the year. However, studies have shown that nesting hens need a source of standing or running fresh water within 200 yards of the nesting site. Observations in Maryland bear this out. With that in mind, if environmental regulations allow, some type of water resource should be included in managing wild turkey.

The techniques mentioned above are basic considerations in managing for wild turkeys. Following the above land management suggestions should provide the landowner with additional opportunities to enjoy Maryland's wild turkeys. Hopefully, this will provide the reader with an incentive to learn more about managing turkeys. For more information, call a Wildlife and Heritage biologist by contacting the regional Wildlife and Heritage offices nearest you.

Note: Edward Golden is a habitat biologist for the Western Region of the Wildlife and Heritage Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Mr. Golden earned a B.S. in Wildlife Management from the University of Wyoming and has over 32 years of experience in wildlife resource work. He enjoys hunting and raising beef cattle in his spare time.