Wild Turkeys have been incredibly successful in their re-introduction. With a population nearing seven million, you can now hunt turkeys in 49 states. Their success is due to good game management practices and the bird’s excellent ability to adapt to a wide range of habitats. Yet, game managers are seeing local population declines all around the United States and the signs seem to point to habitat loss. So what makes good Turkey habitat and how can we improve it?
A recent study out of southwest Wisconsin on the eastern wild turkey, meleagris gallopavo silvestris, may help to answer what makes good turkey nesting habitat. The research team from the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed multiple habitats at varying scales to determine the habitat type that female wild turkeys preferred best for spring nesting. To accomplish this, the team captured 129 female turkeys within their study area and attached small backpack transmitters to each. The team then monitored the turkeys during the 2010-2011 spring nesting seasons.
The researchers found that though eastern wild turkeys may spend a good majority of their time in dense forests, the females don’t like to nest there as the dense canopy forests tend to have less cover on the forest floor for nest protection. Likewise, open space and agricultural landscapes were great foraging areas, but did not provide good cover. This mirrors the behaviors of other sub-species of turkeys (as well as white-tailed deer) and has broader conservation implications for habitat selection.
At varying scales, the study found that eastern female turkeys desire to nest along forest ‘edge’ habitat. Forest ‘edges’ are often the most productive landscapes as they are home to varying degrees of successional habitats. In other words, between heavy forest and grassland is an “edge” or ribbon of habitat that often consists of chaparral, brush, or good cover with a high diversity of plant species.
In areas with heavy agriculture and private land where wildlife species are still desired, this study suggests the best way to improve habitat is to allow for a wide diversity of plants and cover on various parts of the land. The researchers also suggest that farm bill programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) offers incentives for farmers to allow some of their land to return to wildlife habitat.