Electronic Field Guide » Featured Wildlife Species » Wild Turkey » Habitat Management

Prepared by Kevin Yoder and Margaret Brittingham (Ecosystem Science and Management)

Natural gas development will change the landscape of northern and western Pennsylvania over the next decade.  Development will include the creation of new well pads and pipelines in extensively forested habitats.  These large, heavily forested areas of Pennsylvania currently support lower turkey population densities than other areas of the state that have more diverse habitats.  The reclamation of well pads, pipelines, and other associated disturbances can provide alternative habitats that may not be found in the surrounding forest. The goal of this section is to identify some important and limiting habitats of the wild turkey in Pennsylvania, and to discuss how reclaiming disturbed lands can provide those essential habitats.

Nesting Habitat
Turkeys nest in a variety of habitats with lateral cover that conceals them from predators.  Turkeys frequently nest in small openings in the woods and along forest roads, rights-of-way, and field and forest edges.  All of these areas have well developed vegetation 1 meter above the ground.

There are two potential problems with nesting on pipeline rights-of-way.  One is that pipelines are maintained as early successional habitat through periodic mowing or application of herbicides.  Mowing removes vegetation that conceals a nesting hen, so turkeys may not nest on pipelines in the same year that mowing occurs.  Maintenance activities conducted during the nesting period can destroy nests of turkeys and other ground-nesting songbirds and may even kill the birds. To prevent this problem, the Pennsylvania Game Commission recommends no or very limited surface disturbance along the pipeline between April 15 and July 31.  The other problem associated with nesting along pipelines is that predators frequently also travel these linear corridors.  One of the best ways to reduce potential predation along rights-of-way is to allow some shrubs and small trees to grow on the pipeline.  This will restrict predator movements and conceal nesting turkeys. 

Brooding Habitat
Young turkey poults have the most specific habitat requirements of any stage of the wild turkey’s life cycle. Herbaceous growth and abundant invertebrates characterize the habitats that poults use, which are also known as brooding habitat.  The availability of quality brooding habitat is very important in the survival and growth rates of turkey poults, and may be a limiting factor in some areas.
The essential feature of turkey brood habitat is adequate herbaceous vegetation that supports high numbers of insects while also providing overhead cover and ground cover sparse enough to allow the poults to move easily as they hunt insects.  Brooding habitats have high, but not dense, herbaceous vegetation.  When herbaceous vegetation becomes too thick, turkey poults cannot move freely.  The best brooding habitats contain a mixture of forbs (broad-leafed herbaceous plants other than grasses) and grasses.  Optimal brooding habitat has ground coverage of 60–100%, with forbs, graminoids (grass or grass-like plants), and ferns composing at least 50% of the ground coverage.  Herbaceous canopy height of brooding habitat should be 20–60 cm tall.  At this height the vegetation is high enough to conceal the hen and poults, but low enough to permit the hen to see the surrounding habitat.
An important component of brooding habitat is an abundance of invertebrates that poults can catch and eat.  For the first 3 or 4 weeks after hatching, poults follow the hen and feed on various insects.  During this time, invertebrates, which contain more protein than plant material to support growth of the poults, may account for 57–99% of the poults’ diet. Poults typically forage for insects in herbaceous openings, which support a higher abundance of invertebrates than forested areas. They may also forage on new herbaceous growth in these openings.  As poults grow, they use increasingly more habitat types and different food sources.  Most broods range over an area of 100–200 hectares (250–500 acres) during the summer.  Part of the variation in range size may relate to habitat quality.
The planting method and seeding rates may influence the potential of a reclaimed site as brooding habitat.  Using a grain drill to plant the perimeters of a reclaimed area could help increase brood use through improved poult mobility.  Hydroseeding may be less costly and more efficient, but hydroseeding forms a mat of vegetation and does not create row spaces similar to those formed by grain drills.  Monocultures of cool-season grasses such as timothy (Phleum pratense), orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata), bluegrass (Poa pratensis), and fescue (Festuca spp.) are not recommended because they tend to grow too densely and harbor relatively few invertebrates.  Instead, choose seeding mixtures composed of several different species of forbs and legumes.
The presence of quality brooding habitat is very important for poult growth and survival.  The lack of brooding habitat may be a limiting factor in areas where openings or other forms of brooding habitats are few, including in portions of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has identified maintaining and improving the conditions of brooding habitat across the state as an important approach to improving wild turkey habitat. 

In heavily forested landscapes, the creation of quality brooding habitat may increase poult survival.  The proper reclamation of natural gas well pads and pipelines to herbaceous openings can create brooding habitat in extensive forests where this habitat may be absent.  An interspersion of herbaceous openings, along with the edges they create, enhances the quality of brooding habitat for turkeys.  The suggested amount of turkey brooding habitat in the landscape ranges from 10 to 15%.  However, the size and interspersion of clearings within an individual turkey's home range may be more important than the total percentage of clearings over a given area.
Reclaimed well pads and pipelines should be managed for poults less than one month old because of the poults' high mortality rates, small home ranges, specialized food habits, and specific habitat requirements.  Previous reclamation projects on surface mines were successful in creating quality brooding habitat, and similar results can be achieved on reclaimed well pads and pipelines.  For more information on creating brooding habitat on reclaimed well pads and pipelines, please refer to the article Herbaceous Openings.
Foraging Habitat
Turkeys feed on a variety of plant stalks, leaves, seeds, hard and soft mast, and insects.  An average turkey diet consists of 90% plant and 10% animal material.  Turkeys feed on many different native plant species, but plantings of agricultural species can supplement the native forage and provide alternative food sources when few are available.  Clearings planted to wheat (Triticum aestivum), rye (Secale cereale), oats (Avena fatua) alfalfa (Medicago sativa), or clover (Trifolium spp.) can be beneficial in providing succulent green forage and seeds for wild turkeys.  Native herbaceous species that grow in agricultural plantings should not be discouraged.  Wild turkeys will sometimes consume “weeds” that established on their own more than the agricultural crops that were planted.  These include yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis europaea), sedges (Carex spp.), deertongue (Panicum clandistinum), and blackberry (Rubus spp.). 

Foraging areas can be created through plantings on reclaimed disturbed areas and by maintaining clearings and rights-of-way in green forage by periodic controlled burning, mowing, or tilling.  However, caution must be taken to ensure that excessive maintenance does not degrade the habitat.  Both mowing and herbicides can decrease insect biomass and density and can also destroy turkey and songbird nests.  When mowing herbaceous cover, mow portions of a site, or mow from the center of the field, outward, leaving an unmowed strip at the edge of the field. 

Fall and Winter Habitat
A shift from summer to fall range includes a shift from field to forest habitat.  This happens as the amount of insects and nutritious plant material decreases, and mast availability increases.  During the fall and winter, turkeys eat a variety of hard and soft mast, which is high in energy and builds up fat supplies.  Natural sources of mast include oaks (Quercus spp.), beech (Fagus grandifolia), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), ash (Fraxinus spp.), hickories (Carya spp.), pines (Pinus spp.), cherries (Prunus spp.), sumacs (Rhus spp.), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), and hawthorn (Craetagus spp.).  Turkeys depend on buds and fruits from shrubs, grain crops, and ferns above snow level when snow prevents wild turkeys from scratching to bare ground.

Some trees, such as beech and oaks, are inconsistent mast producers, so the size of the mast crop varies greatly each year.  During poor mast years, the lack of food availability during the winter may limit turkey populations in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania.  Planting a variety of hard and soft mast species on reclaimed well pads can provide an alternative food source during years of mast failures.  Planting mast-producing trees or shrubs such as dogwood (Cornus spp.), scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia), hawthorns, viburnums (Viburnum spp.), and hackberry will increase the diversity of foods and improve fall habitats by providing late-season food sources.  Shrubs, trees, and vines that hold fruit late into winter are especially important when deep snow limits turkey movement and foraging efficiency.  Though shrubs provide abundant food, dense shrub layers restrict turkey movements and visibility.  Optimum shrub densities for both food and mobility occur when shrub crown cover is around 20%.

Planting conifers in remote valleys at higher elevations is another way to enhance winter range.  Though both conifers and hardwoods are used for roosting, wild turkeys in northern ranges select large conifers such as white pine and eastern hemlock.  Winter shelter for turkeys can be provided by maintaining or creating conifer cover in 5–10% of the forested landscape.  Conifer patches should be about 2 hectares (5 acres) to provide sufficient thermal cover.  To reduce the need to travel through snow, conifer groves should be located near other components of turkey winter range, such as spring seeps.  For more information on how to improve wild turkey winter habitat, please refer to the articles Shrub-Scrub Habitat and Conifers for Wildlife in this field guide.
Water may influence habitat selection during dry periods and in dry landscapes.  Unfrozen water is important during the winter because vegetation can be found along these spring seeps and streams.  Roosting sites are commonly located near water.  The best opportunity to create a water source through reclamation may be when recontouring a well pad.  By creating a catch basin or trench on the lower end of a sloped pad, water runoff can be captured and stored in a settling pond.  This not only creates a water source but also reduces erosion and sedimentation of local streams.