Without doing a thing, nature always provided us with three to four gobblers to chase.
Those were the good old days at Dad’s place and I’ll admit, I took it for granted that it would always be that way. By now it is no secret that turkey numbers are declining in many locations across the U.S. and for a number of different reasons. Poor weather in the spring coupled with habitat loss and increased numbers of nest predators have ravaged turkey populations and left die-hard turkey hunters scratching their heads. Trust me, I did a lot of head-scratching this year myself until early this spring when a trail cam picture gave me a ray of hope.
Dad has roughly 110 acres in Southeast Missouri. A former dairy farm turned beef cattle operation, it lies just close enough to town where urban sprawl has impacted the wild turkey. As farms are sold, they aren’t planted in corn or beans. They are planted in subdivisions and single-family homes. A big “ah ha” moment came a few years back when ten acres of nesting area was cleared to build homes. It wasn’t too long after that when I noticed I was getting trail camera photos of four to six raccoons in one image and no wild turkeys. The whitetails have adapted just fine but turkeys are different. They may use the same habitat and require similar things but being a species that is predated from the moment their momma lays their egg, a turkey’s chances of survival are not great. Take away great nesting habitat with an influx of predators and it really is no surprise the birds all but vanished from the landscape.
Turkeys have all but vanished on my northern Missouri property as well despite a lot of sweat equity removing invasive species, doing timber stand improvement (TSI), and building permanent forest openings flush with clover and other desirable species. On one of my long drives home, I broke down every element (food, cover, and predators) and began hatching a plan but how successful could I be on two tracts of land totaling 150 acres 150 miles apart? The answer is, I would not be; Unless of course, I recruited a little help. That is when I picked up the phone and started making some calls.
Building a team
A major talking point for organizations like the National Deer Association are cooperatives or groups of people who come together to agree upon and work towards a common goal; With regards to the NDA, whitetail habitat. It is hard to make a significant impact on 40 or 110 acres with regards to improving a species population but if you are able to string together 400, 500, or more acres, well now you have something in the works.
My neighbor and his family manage a 280-acre cattle farm that adjoins my dad’s farm and we compare notes often. Aside from a wad of jakes caught on camera, I did not see a long beard this spring and my neighbor had seen only one on camera. After Missouri season closed, I called him up and asked the question: Do you want to work together to improve the turkey population on our properties with the goal of having three to four long beards roaming our combined 380 acres? Once he understood the tactics, the answer was an easy yes!
Paul Campbell is so passionate about the American wild turkey, he turned it into his job! Campbell, a national director of development for the National Wild Turkey Federation believes that by working together, we can help the flock rebound. Campbell stated, “For over 70 years Turkey hunters and Conservationists from across this great country have answered the call for help from the Wild Turkey. It’s time once again for Turkey hunters to refocus, change our mindset and come together to help America’s greatest bird. We all know the challenges Wild Turkeys are experiencing. This is our moment to embrace the challenge and create generational impact like the hunters and Conservationists before us. The opportunities to create meaningful change are in front of us. We are stronger together.”
As previously stated, I cannot significantly impact the flock in 40 and 110-acre blocks but by banding together with other landowners, we can control habitat and nest predator populations with just a little teamwork.
Any cooperative, whether for whitetail, deer or quail, is a multiyear plan. A food plot is a quick and easy tactic to add a food source but turkeys are pretty good at finding groceries. A plot just makes it a little easy to find green browse and bugs. To be successful look at and discuss the main issues that affects a hen to raise a successful brood. These things might include:
- Nesting habitat
- Brood habitat
- Food (bugs)
- Nest predators
Zach Vucurevich, owner of Whetstone Habitat is a huge proponent of all things habitat related but he is quick to point out we need to be intentional when it comes to managing wild turkey habitat. Vucurevich stated, “People need to approach turkey management with the same tenacity and vigor they do for whitetail. Gone are the “good old days” of exceptional population growth for the birds without much input from the hunters. We hunters have had our fun during times of plenty, now it is time we buckle down with some deliberate, active turkey management!”
On my portion of dirt, I have three main objectives this summer.
- Forest stand improvement
- Removal of invasive species
- Removing nest predators
My neighbor to the north has a chunk of his dirt in CRP and owns the best nesting habitat. His area of emphasis will be on predator removal with an emphasis on coyotes and raccoons.
How fast can you expect results?
The scientific answer is….it depends. You can do all the right things and a cold, wet spring may negatively impact the hatch but two summers ago, we went from zero poults on my Northern Missouri farm to 15 simply by removing nine nest predators off 40 acres. We know trapping works but how many critters should you aim to remove each year? Dr. Grant Woods of Growing Deer TV has long championed the idea of removing nest predators as a tool for wild turkey management. In the 2022-2023 trapping season, 139 predators were removed from the proving grounds which resulted in one predator for every six acres. If you watch Growing Deer on YouTube you will see there is no turkey shortage on Dr. Wood’s ground. I think the answer to how many to remove is as many as you can knowing that if you are working on habitat (brood and nesting) you will attract more hens and more ladies will naturally bring more long beards to the yard.
You can measure your success by looking at:
- Number of poults
- The overall number of turkeys including poults on trail camera or observation
- Number of predators on trail camera or observation
And like obtaining and maintaining a high level of physical fitness, this is a process, and for long-term success, you have to be consistent. If you remove 20 raccoons, skunks, and coyotes this year but quit, the predator population will quickly rebound. Once you get after it, stay after it!
The conversation with my neighbor in Southeast Missouri went so well, I picked up the phone and called my neighbor in Northern Missouri to ask if he and other landowners would be interested in a wild turkey cooperative up north. The answer was “yes” without hesitation. My 40 acres combined with his 200 and his neighbor’s 200-300 acres gives us a pretty good block of dirt to work with. Soon we will be sitting down to discuss goals, tactics, and execution of the plan.
Even if you aren’t obsessed with the wild turkey like I am, this kind of habitat work will reach across species. What you do for the turkeys will improve the habitat for whitetail deer, quail, and other small game species. I am not sure I can claim that more wild turkeys on the landscape are an overall indicator of the health of your habitat, but I will say it may show you have balance in your habitat.
What are you doing to improve the flock where you hunt? Leave us a comment and Stay #FitToHunt