The wild turkey is an omnivore with its annual diet consisting of 90% plant and 10% animal matter. Mast, fruits, seeds, greens and agricultural crops are the principal plant food groups consumed. Acorns make up about one third of their diet. Soft-mast producing shrubs like wild grape, dogwood, black gum, wild cherry, hackberry and similar species are also important foods, particularly when hard mast crops fail. Grasses and seeds are important winter and spring foods, while insects comprise the majority of the summer diet for young turkey poults.
A mixture of forested and open lands provides the best turkey habitat. Open lands should comprise 10-50 % of the area. The size and distribution of open areas is important with a system of well dispersed smaller clearings being most favorable. Turkeys typically do not use the center of clearings larger than 20 acres. Turkeys prefer mature woodlands comprised of a mixture of tree species with open understories growing with herbaceous (nonwoody) plants. Turkeys usually select areas with dense brush, tall grass and fallen tree tops (i.e., recent clear cuts) for nesting.
Forested areas with moderate herbaceous understories, forest clearings, forest savannahs, power-line right of ways, old home sites, and spring seeps are important brood habitat. These areas usually have an abundance of insect and the moderate vegetation which allows the young poults to move freely. Grazed woodlots may improve the suitability of some forest stands that are otherwise too dense for wild turkey, but grazing also has the potential to damage other forest resources and should be conducted carefully! Brood range can be created in forested stands by thinning to a basal area of 40-60 and control burning the thinned stand.
Timber lands should be managed to optimize hard and soft mast production and to provide a dispersed system of permanent forest openings. The even-aged harvest method is recommended to maintain oak regeneration, to create open understory conditions and to provide stand diversity. Long timber rotations are recommended to provide a high percentage of trees of mast producing age. Because white oaks live longer, longer rotation ages for this group are recommended. At least 60 % of the trees on your property should be in mast producing age (50+ years). Rotations from 120-200 years are recommended for wild turkey, depending on the forest type. A forest management plan to balance age classes should offer a mosaic of older and young stands. Timber operations should be dispersed and not concentrated. One example would be a rotation age of 120 years with 8% of the timber removed every 10 years. Clearcutting and modified shelterwood cuts are common silvicultural methods to ensure adequate oak regeneration in Virginia. The size of regeneration cuts should range from 5-20 acres and should be narrow with an undulating perimeter. Planning some cuts in the proximity to open areas may enhance reproduction. Grape arbors should be encouraged and grape vine control should not be practiced.
In Timber Stand Improvement practices, shrubs beneficial to wild turkey should be retained (i.e. dogwood, grape, black gum, American hornbeam, serviceberry, crabapple and others). Spring seeps should be protected and timber should not be harvested within a zone of at least 100' of a seep. Pine plantations with short rotations offer poor turkey range. Conversion of hardwoods to pine is also considered detrimental to wild turkey populations.
However, small pine plantings in clumps < 1/2 acre in size may increase habitat diversity for turkey because they provide thermal cover and roost sites. Pine stands that have been control burned are also used by turkeys.
All existing open areas with grass/forb/legume mixtures should be maintained for young turkeys. Mowing and other mechanical means should be employed to keep these habitats in a condition featuring moderate herbaceous growth and high insect levels. Fertilizing and liming are generally not necessary as heavy forage production prohibits turkey use.
Disking fields encourages native plant diversity and generally improves habitat suitability as brood range. Mowing and disking should not be conducted during the nesting season (May-June). For brood range roads should be daylighted or cut back 50-75' to increase sunlight and be planted with a grass/forb/legume mixture. Prohibit vehicle access to maintain turkey use. The quality of large pastures and clearings can be improved by planting hedgerows of shrubs and trees to provide corridors to the interior of these areas. These hedgerows will provide access to the unused habitats and will also increase mast availability and diversity. Dogs have been identified as serious predators of wild turkeys in the southeast and therefore should be controlled during critical nesting and brood rearing seasons.