It's common for a jumbo winter flock of turkeys to seemingly disappear before season. What's going with that?
We've all been there. You're sitting in your deer stand, maybe in a river bottom or on a timbered ridge, and you watch turkey after turkey parade by in a flock so large you lose count halfway through. Man, this spring turkey season is going to be awesome here, you think to yourself.
Finally, season rolls around. All those turkeys you watched all winter? They're gone. Not a sign of them. So why do turkeys flock up in the late fall and winter to begin with? And where did they go between then and turkey season?
Turkeys likely flock up in the winter for a couple of reasons, said Mark Hatfield, National Director of Conservation Services at the National Wild Turkey Federation. First, turkeys go where the food is, and in the winter, most of that food is going to be concentrated around hard mast like timber tracts or wooded river and creek bottoms. Next, there's probably a little bit of a safety-in-numbers thing. More eyes make it easier to watch for predators. There is little competition among turkeys in the winter, so they hang around together without much conflict. What you see in the really large flocks is most likely several hens with their poults from the previous spring.
According to noted turkey researcher Dr. Michael Chamberlain, there may be another reason hen and poult groups gather together. While it is believed those huge winter flocks provide more safety from predators through more eyeballs, there is also suspicion that those flocks facilitate mixing of social groups that may contain related birds. For hens, early researchers reported that social groups blended in big winter flocks to establish pecking orders, and then split out in March in a way where related hens are no longer together, Chamberlain said.
When it comes to flock mates, wild turkeys tend to group with birds similar to themselves. Hens without poults will hang out together, mature gobblers do too, as do jakes. The biggest flocks you see will often be multiple hens with their nearly grown poults. Since all turkeys center around the same food sources in the winter, it isn't unusual to see crossover groups feeding together in the same area.
Winter ranges tend to be smaller than those used in spring and summer. In ag areas or timber with high mast availability, winter flock ranges can be as small as a few hundred acres. Those same birds may then scatter over thousands of acres in the spring and summer.
As winter progresses and breeding season draws near, things start to change for wild turkeys. Winter flocks start to break up and disperse. In adult male wild turkeys, lengthening daylight triggers an increase in testosterone. Because wild turkeys mate based on a pecking order, with the dominant male doing the bulk of the breeding for several hens, this is a time of almost daily battle among toms that had existed together relatively peacefully up until this point.
As dominance is established, the toms will expand and move their ranges from the winter areas to spring and summer ranges. Chamberlain says adult male birds can move miles during this transition to spring territories. For private landowners who own small tracts, toms moving like this can be frustrating on one end or great on the other — it simply depends on whether you lose your birds or gain someone else's. Chamberlain also notes that turkeys tend to migrate back to the same area each spring, possibly signifying that there are certain places — known to as leks — on the landscape that are critical for breeding and reproduction.
Year-and-a-half-old male birds in the fall, the jakes from the previous spring, will be two year olds during the upcoming spring breading season. These birds will often join the same age class male birds from other family groups and remain together throughout the season. While these two-year-old birds don't often get the chance to breed, they have mastered the art of gobbling and do it with gusto, accounting for the bulk of the gobbling heard by hunters each season. These groups of two-year-olds will battle throughout the spring to establish dominance among their peers. This dominance will eventually transfer over to the next breeding season. Not surprisingly, these two-year-old birds that always seem ready to come to a call usually make up the bulk of the hunter harvests each spring.
In adult females, the focus shifts from finding food to searching out suitable nesting habitat. Mature and juvenile hen flocks start to disperse into smaller groups of eight to 10 birds, and, as spring gets closer, into groups of three to four. As breeding season draws closer, these hen groups will start to roam farther away from the concentrated wintering area to search out areas with the best nesting and brooding habitat.
Want Gobblers? Attract the Hens
Ask any turkey hunter if they would like to have more gobblers around during season. Their answer is likely to be a resounding yes. So how can hunters and land managers draw more male birds to their areas as winter flocks break up? By making it as appealing as possible to the hens. The gobblers are going to go to the hens, and the hens are looking for just the right mix of nesting and brooding cover.
Wild turkey hens prefer to nest in areas that provide the most protection from predators. Ideal nest sites generally have dense, herbaceous cover and some shrub cover at the ground level, with some form of woody structure around the nest. Think brushy field edges with blackberry brambles, CRP native grass fields, young, un-thinned stands of pine, and areas of thick regrowth from previous year's managed burns or timber harvests. Effective nest cover will protect and hide the hen and the nest from wandering predators.
Wild turkeys tend to nest near edges, like field to timber or brush transition zones, overgrown fence rows, along power line right of ways, or near logging roads or fire breaks. If your property doesn't have areas like these, chances are good that dispersing hens will keep searching and not stay on your property.
While they seek out heavy cover for nesting, hens also know they will need more open areas to raise their brood once they hatch out. To do this, they look for cover that provides food and protection for growing poults. According to Chamberlain, finding the right cover to protect freshly hatched poults from both heat and cold extremes is as important as food when it comes to successfully keeping a young turkey alive.
Ideal brood rearing habitat should be a mixture of food and cover like clover, native grass areas, brushy hardwood forrest floors that have been managed to increase understory growth, and pine plantations that have been thinned and managed over the years to keep the understory open to allow growth of dense herbaceous vegetation.
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While these areas need to provide enough cover for newly hatched and growing poults, they also need to be open enough to allow the hen to watch for approaching predators. If the cover is so thick that the hen isn't comfortable allowing her poults to forage, she won't stay in the area.
If a hen turkey could tell you about her dream location, she'd likely describe a farm that looks like a patchwork quilt of heavy cover, open food plots full of insects for growing poults to feed on, controlled burn areas with lots of tender new growth, and mature timber for roosting. She'd prefer all of this in close proximity so that she can quickly rush her poults to safety if she spots a predator heading their way. Studies have shown that the likelihood of a hen successfully rearing poults falls drastically the farther they have to move to find food and cover. The closer you can make your land to this ideal, the more hens you will hold and the more gobblers you will draw from surrounding farms.
The next time you drive by a big winter flock of turkeys down the road from your hunting land, ask yourself if you've done everything you can to make your property inviting to the birds once they start to split up. If you have, then you might just end up on the good side of the winter flock breakup.
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