If you are a turkey hunter, few things warm your heart more than the sighting of a hen with a brood of newly hatched poults. If the sighting is on your property it is even more gratifying.

My wife Tes and I have been turkey hunters our entire lives. If you hunt wild turkeys, you know what I mean when I say turkey hunting gets in your blood and often becomes an obsession. It has for us!

When we bought our small Alabama farm, we were blessed with the fact that wild turkeys used the farm and some called it home. But we wanted more. The sport of hunting wild turkeys is more than just the kill. Some of our most memorable hunts are when the gobblers we were chasing came out on the winning end of the deal. Encounters that the gobblers lost, however, have provided some of our favorite meals. With that in mind, we began searching for ways to enhance the property to make it more turkey friendly.

Wild Turkey Hens and Poults
As a the poults grow bigger, the hen leads her brood further and further from where they were hatched, in search of food.

Prep Nesting Zones

The mating ritual of wild turkeys begins as early as February and runs as late as May, depending on your region. Soon after a hen is bred, she starts looking for a place to lay eggs. Typically hens choose a nest site in an area covered with moderately wooded vegetation. When a site is chosen, she digs a shallow depression and adds leaves, sticks and her own feathers to form her nest. Hens need a site that offers seclusion and cover with food and water nearby.

When Tes and I decided to do what we could to help turkey hens nest and rear poults on our small farm, we relied on years of observing turkeys using the property to help identify areas where hens preferred to nest.

We finally focused on three areas with suitable nesting cover and a water source. To improve them, we began selecting small areas on the edge of hardwood drains and killing undesirable trees like sweet gum and hickory by girdling the bark.

We also dropped random trees with a chainsaw to add cover and speed the natural regeneration of understory vegetation. Some trees were sawed until they fell but remained attached to the stump. These trees stay alive and retain their leaves, producing instant cover. This practice is known as hinge cutting.

Mow Travel Corridors

In another area we tilled pasture land in the spring. The strip of pasture we chose was adjacent to a stand of six-year-old planted pines. By fall, the natural vegetation of dog fennel, briars, ragweed and sedge had reclaimed the land. Today we manage this natural vegetation by mowing strips on a three-year rotation in the summer. This provides three distinct ages of vegetation in the area. The oldest vegetation is best suited for nesting, while the youngest is lush with new growth and provides travel corridors for turkeys.

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Tame The Trees

Our final effort focused on a 25-acre stand of loblolly pines planted in 1995. In 2010 we thinned that stand by harvesting approximately half of the trees planted there. This opened the forest floor to sunlight, and almost immediately natural vegetation began to flourish. In early spring 2011 we performed a prescribed burn to remove young hardwood trees that had begun to grow.

Undesirable hardwoods such as sweet gum, ash and hickory too large to be controlled by fire were treated with a foliar application of glyphosate in the fall. Trees too large for foliar coverage were killed with a hack-and-squirt application of Arsenal. Today this area is a classic mid-rotation pine plantation that provides cover and nutrition for turkeys year round.

In all three areas we allowed portions of field edges and fence rows to grow briars and other nesting cover by simply not mowing specific areas. To reduce predation, we began setting live traps baited with sardines to catch raccoons and opossums. More nesting cover and fewer predators translates into more successful nesting turkeys.

Mid-Rotation Pine
Today this area is a classic mid-rotation pine plantation that provides cover and nutrition for turkeys year round.

Some Notes On Poults

Turkey poults hatch 28 to 30 days after incubation begins. Poults use a primitive egg tooth to pip the large end of eggs and break free from the shell. Normally, all eggs hatch in a 24-hour period. As the eggs begin to hatch, the hen communicates with poults with soft clucks, purrs and whines. This communication causes the poults to imprint on the hen. Once the poults hatch, sight completes the imprinting and helps the poults recognize the hen. Imprinting forms a bond between hen and poults that is essential to the poults’ survival.

Newly hatched poults utilize a yoke sac for nutrition the first 48 hours after hatching. After the yoke sac is gone, poults must find protein to survive. That protein comes in the form of insects. Hens typically lead the brood away from the nest after 24 hours in search of food and to avoid predators.

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Plant Food Plots

The second phase of our “turkey friendly farm” program was to ensure we had nutrition available for young poults. To accomplish this, we plant clover fields in the fall near each of the three nesting areas. Clover attracts and holds hoards of insects. To make it easy for the poults to forage in clover fields, we mow lanes through the stand to allow small poults to move in and out of taller plants in search of insects.

Clover fields are located near or in an existing food plot planted to attract deer in fall and winter. These mixes include clover, oats and wheat. When the wheat and oats mature in late spring, we mow strips through those fields to scatter cereal grains. The grains attract the hens to the area, and they soon find the insect-rich clover fields. We continue to mow strips through deer plots on weekly intervals until the entire field has been mowed.

The final touch is to disk dust lanes in the fields. These lanes are only the width of one disk, but we make multiple passes to create deep, loose dirt. The finely chopped dirt is perfect for a turkey dirt bath that helps the birds deal with mites and insects.

Bird Of A Feather

As surviving poults age, they grow at a phenomenal rate. By one month they are comparable to the size of adult pheasants. With size comes strength and mobility. Now the hen leads her brood further and further from where they were hatched in search of food.

At this stage poults still feed on insects but increasingly depend on seeds and vegetation for sustenance. At this time it is common for hens with poults to join with other hens with poults. It could be that there is safety in numbers or this is just the social nature of wild turkeys, but within these groupings the social status of each individual is established.

Older poults dominate younger poults and large poults dominate smaller poults. The hens dominate all poults and one hen dominates all other hens in the flock. This behavior is called establishing a pecking order, and hierarchy is established by fighting for it.

plant cover for wild turkeys
Plant cover, wheat, barley and other grains to attract insects as a food source for turkeys.

The Take On Jakes

By six months of age, male poults, or jakes, are driven out of the flock and form jake flocks. Mature gobblers gather in small flocks soon after breeding ends and play no role in rearing poults. Hens and female poults, or jennies, comprise the large flocks commonly seen in fall and winter. In the spring these flocks disperse and the mating/ nesting ritual begins again.

One thing we do to encourage these flocks to remain on our farm in summer and fall is to allow pastures to grow seed heads. Bahia grass is common in pastures in our area. When allowed to mature, Bahia seed is a preferred food source for wild turkeys. They move through the grass stripping seed heads as they go. Along the way they find larger insects such as grasshoppers and crickets.

Keep ’Em On The Range

Wild turkeys spend their lives in a home range. When poults first hatch their home range can be as small as 100 acres. As they grow older and larger, the hen leads them where they need to go to find food, water and cover. Basically, she is introducing her young to her own home range, which can be as large as 6 square miles. To be more successful, encourage your neighbors to consider what they can do to enhance their property for wild turkeys.

By the time poults reach breeding age they have adopted the area in which they were reared as their own home range. They will likely breed, nest and rear their poults in that same area. If you desire more wild turkeys on your property, the best way to accomplish that goal is to make your farm turkey friendly. You will be amazed at the difference it will make! 

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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