Few things warm a turkey hunter’s heart more than seeing a hen with a brood of newly hatched poults. It is much more satisfying if the sighting occurs on your property.
My wife Beth and I have spent our entire lives hunting turkeys. If you’ve ever hunted wild turkeys, you know what I mean when I say it gets into your blood and often becomes an obsession. It did for us.
We were fortunate to have wild turkeys use and call our small Alabama farm home when we purchased it. But we desired more.
Hunting wild turkeys is more than just killing them. Some of our most memorable hunts were when the gobblers we were hunting came out on top. However, some of our favorite dinners have come from encounters that the gobblers lost. With this in mind, we began looking for methods to improve the property’s wild turkey habitat.
Prepare nesting zones
Wild turkey mating season can begin as early as February and last as late as May, depending on where you live. Soon after being bred, a hen begins looking for a spot to lay her eggs.
Hens typically prefer a nesting place in an area with somewhat forested vegetation. When she has decided on a location, she digs a shallow depression and fills it with leaves, sticks, and her own feathers to build her nest. Hens require a location that provides privacy and cover, as well as food and water nearby.
When Beth and I decided to do our part to assist turkey hens in nesting and rearing poults on our little farm, we relied on years of monitoring turkeys and using the property to help identify spots where hens preferred to nest.
Finally, we narrowed our search to three places with suitable nesting cover and a water source. To improve them, we began by picking small sections on the edge of hardwood drains and girdling the bark of undesirable trees such as sweet gum and hickory.
We also used a chainsaw to drop random trees to offer cover and hasten the natural regrowth of understory plants. Some trees were sawed down but remained attached to the stump.
These trees survive by retaining their leaves and providing instant cover. This is referred to as hinge cutting.
Clear travel corridors
We tilled pasture grass in another region in the spring. The pasture we chose was near a six-year-old planted pine stand. The natural vegetation of dog fennel, briars, ragweed, and sedge had regained the site by the fall.
Today, we manage this natural vegetation by mowing patches in the summer on a three-year cycle. This gives the area three unique ages of vegetation.
The oldest vegetation is optimal for nesting, while the youngest is lush with fresh growth and offers turkeys with travel corridors.
Tame the trees
Our final attempt concentrated on a 30-acre loblolly pine stand established in 1997. We trimmed that stand in 2013 by plucking around half of the trees planted there. This exposed the forest floor to sunlight, and natural flora flourished almost immediately. We conducted a planned burn in early spring 2014 to remove young hardwood trees that had begun to sprout.
In the fall, undesirable hardwoods such as sweet gum, ash, and hickory that were too large to be controlled by fire were treated with a foliar dose of glyphosate.
Trees that were too large for foliar coverage were eliminated with an Arsenal hack-and-squirt application.
Today, this region is a classic mid-rotation pine plantation that provides year-round cover and nutrition for turkeys.
By simply not mowing specified areas, we allowed portions of field edges and fence rows to grow briars and other nesting covers in all three areas.
To decrease predation, we started catching raccoons and opossums with live traps baited with sardines. More nesting cover combined with fewer predators results in more successful nesting turkeys.
After 28 to 30 days of incubation, turkey poults hatch. Poults break loose from the shell of eggs by pipping the big end with a primitive egg tooth. Normally, all eggs hatch within 24 hours.
As the eggs hatch, the hen interacts with the poults by quiet clucks, purrs, and whines. The poults imprint on the hen as a result of this communication.
When the poults hatch, sight completes the imprinting process and allows the poults to identify the hen. Imprinting creates a relationship between the hen and the poults that is necessary for the poults’ survival.
During the first 48 hours after hatching, newly hatched poults feed on a yoke sac. Poults must locate protein after the yoke sac has been removed in order to survive. Insects are the source of that protein.
After 24 hours, hens normally lead the brood away from the nest in search of food and to avoid predators.
Plant food plots
The second stage of our “turkey-friendly farm” program was to guarantee that we had adequate nutrients for young poults. To do this, we plant clover fields near each of the three nesting locations in the fall. Clover attracts and holds large numbers of insects.
We mow pathways through the stand to let small poults travel in and out of taller plants in pursuit of insects, making it easier for the poults to feed in clover fields.
Clover fields are planted near or within an existing feeding plot to attract deer in the fall and winter. Clover, oats, and wheat are among the ingredients in these blends.
We mow strips through the wheat and oat fields in late April to distribute cereal grains. The grains attract the chickens, who quickly discover the insect-rich clover fields. We’ll keep mowing strips across deer plots at weekly intervals until the entire field is mowed.
The final step is to create dust lanes in the fields. Although these lanes are only one disk wide, we make multiple passes to generate deep, loose dirt. The finely chopped soil is ideal for a turkey dirt bath, which aids with mite and pest control.
Surviving poults develop at an incredible rate as they get older. By one month, they are comparable to adult pheasants in size. Size brings with it strength and movement. The hen now conducts her brood away from where they were hatched in search of sustenance.
Poults still graze on insects at this stage, but they are increasingly reliant on seeds and foliage for nutrition. At this time of year, hens with poults frequently congregate with other chickens with poults.
It’s possible that there’s safety in numbers or that this is just the social character of wild turkeys, but inside these groups, each individual’s social position is established.
Older poults outnumber younger poults, and giant poults outnumber little poults. All poults are dominated by the hens, and one hen dominates all other hens in the flock. This is known as building a pecking order, and it is established by fighting for it.
Male poults, or jakes, are pushed out of the flock by six months of age and form jake flocks. Mature gobblers congregate in small groups soon after breeding finishes and do not participate in poult rearing.
Large flocks of hens and female poults, or jennies, are frequent in the fall and winter. These flocks disperse in the spring, and the mating/nesting ritual resumes.
Allowing pastures to establish seed heads is one way we encourage these flocks to stay on our farm in the summer and fall.
In our area, Bahia grass is common in pastures. Bahia seed, when allowed to grow, is a favorite food source for wild turkeys. They move through the grass, pulling off seed heads. Along the trip, they come across larger insects like grasshoppers and crickets.
Keep ’em close by
Wild turkeys spend their entire lives in their home range. Poults’ home ranges might be as small as 100 acres when they initially hatch.
The hen takes her brood to where they need to go for food, water, and cover as they get older and larger. Essentially, she is introducing her young to her own home range, which may be up to 6 square miles in size.
Encourage your neighbors to think about what they can do to improve their land for wild turkeys if you want to be more successful.
When poults reach breeding age, they have established their own home range in the area where they were raised. They will most likely reproduce, nest, and rear their young in the same location.
Dressing a turkey
Wild turkey meat differs significantly from supermarket turkey. It has relatively little fat. The wings and legs are extremely robust, with huge ligaments that allow a large bird to fly and outrun predators.
In our location, a mature wild turkey gobbler weighs about 18 pounds.
The breast and thighs of a wild turkey are the greatest sections for our table, according to our experience. Smoked, fried, or grilled breast flesh is delicious. Thighs work best when made into burgers or sausage.
Boiling liver, heart, gizzard, wing butts, and legs in water creates a delectable elixir to pour over our dog’s dry meal.
The organs are extracted immediately after the bird is harvested.
The bird is then skinned by lying it on its back and cutting the skin along the breastbone, from the crop to the bottom of the breast.
Pull down the skin and feathers to reveal the entire breast. Then, from the breast to the foot, cut the skin on the thigh and leg. At this stage, cut the various halves of the breast off the bone with a sharp, thin-bladed knife. Skin and feathers from the legs and thighs should be removed.
After removing the skin, cut the thigh and leg off the carcass at the joint that connects them to the bird’s body. Cut through the joint that connects the leg and the thigh to separate them. Cut through the joint that connects the wing to the breast to separate it from the carcass.
Push the skin and feathers down the wing until they reach the first joint, then cut through it to remove the wing butt.
You now have all of the edible meat on a wild turkey ready to eat. With practice, the entire process can be completed in under 15 minutes.
If you want to attract more wild turkeys to your land, the easiest way to do so is to make your land turkey friendly. You’ll be shocked at how much of a difference it makes!
This article was submitted by Darryl Potter.
Suggested resources for preppers: