Wild Turkey Conservation In Michigan

The winter of 2013-14 will go down in history as one of the worst for wildlife in Michigan history.  The persistent cold and deep fluffy snow made it nearly impossible for animals to find food near the ground.  This is particularly hard on wild turkeys.  While research has shown that turkeys can tolerate very cold temperatures, they need adequate food to keep from losing significant body weight and eventually starving to death.  But they can’t walk on loose fluffy snow, or dig through it for natural foods.

The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and state wildlife agencies successfully established wild turkey populations in all suitable habitat by the early 2000’s.  But even as we did that we knew that birds living on the northern limit of the range would be subjected to the occasional killing winter.  Just like deer, populations will be greatly diminished, but will rebound when we have mild winters once again.

What can you do to help?

Many research projects in the Upper Great Lakes show that the presence of agricultural foods makes the difference between life and death to northern turkeys.  One clearly states, “During a winter with persistent deep snow, birds relying on natural food had substantial weight losses and mortality exceeded 60%.   Birds eating corn did not lose weight and mortality was less than 10% of the population.” 

NWTF members can get grain seed for winter plots from the NWTF Conservation Seed Program, where outdated corn, sunflowers, soybeans, and other seed from large seed companies is distributed to NWTF members for only the shipping and handling fee, approximately 10 percent of the retail cost.  To join your local NWTF chapter, visit http://www.nwtf.org/michigan/hh_banquets.html and contact the chapter president.  We take orders in the fall for spring seed, but we may still have some available for this spring.

“This program allows NWTF members to make a significant contribution to wild turkey winter survival in the Upper Midwest,” said Rick Horton, NWTF Midwest conservation field supervisor. “Ideal plots are planted near woody cover, where large concentrations of turkeys roost in the winter.”

Food Plot Tips

Successfully establishing an agricultural seed food plot is not as simple as dragging the ground and scattering seed.  You must think, act, and react like a farmer.  If you are not equipped to properly plant a plot, consider working in partnership with a local farmer and having him plant it for you.

·         Select the site – The selected site should be large enough to get full sun and not be overly shaded by surrounding trees.  But for turkeys it is best if it is near winter roost sites or trees suitable for roosting, like large old pines.  It is ideal if the trees are on the north side of the food plot, blocking prevailing winds and allowing southern exposure.  The plot also must be big enough to provide food for the entire winter, while also feeding deer, bear, and raccoons.  Ideally this is 5-10 acres.

·         Preparing the soil – If it is a first-time food plot you will need to remove all stumps and rocks, and then plow the soil well, followed by dragging to level it out.  Then you should take soil samples to your local farmer coop or farm service agency to test the pH and nutrient contents.  These will have to be adjusted to suit the crop you intend to grow by adding lime and fertilizer accordingly.

·         Select your seed – To be best for turkeys, select crops that will stick above the snow, like corn, sorghum, or sunflowers.  Make sure your seed will mature in your expected growing season!  Many times folks will sell you seed varieties that are suited for southern farms with longer growing seasons and it will not mature in northern locations.  Check the bag for that info and online or at feed stores for local conditions.

·         Planting the seed – Some seed is suited to hand seeding and dragging, but most of them do much better when they are drilled in with a grain drill to the proper depth and at the proper seeding rate.  This information is readily available online or at feed supply stores.

·         Controlling weeds – While weedy plots are ok from a wildlife standpoint, the idea is to have a crop that develops good grain for food.  Too much weed growth competes with the crop for nutrients and sunlight, inhibiting seed growth.  Many of our seeds are “Roundup-Ready”, meaning you can spray the field with Roundup after there is a first flush of growth to kill the weeds, but it won’t harm the crop.

·         Weather – Like all farmers, pray for the right amount of rain, at the right time.

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 Other Habitat Improvements

While food plots provide needed winter food, they have to be planted every year and production can be at the whims of the weather.  Another option is to plant trees and shrubs that will hold fruit into the winter.  The NWTF has been planting flowering crab trees in the northern portion of the state for years.  These produce a small fruit that will stay on the tree until the following spring if not eaten by turkeys, ruffed grouse, or other songbirds.  Other good shrubs include highbush cranberry, winterberry, and Michigan holly.

Wild turkeys do best in areas with roughly a 50:50 mix of forested and open habitat.  So in a coarse sense landowners should look at the surrounding area and see what’s lacking.  If it’s heavily forested, consider creating grassy openings for brood rearing.   If it’s very open consider planting trees and shrubs to create nesting cover and eventual roosting trees.

Consider the following practices as well:

·         Managing oak stands for mast production by treating any invasive species, then removing non-mast trees and thinning the stand to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor.  The remaining trees will produce more nuts, and the sunlight will allow some new ones to grow in the stand.

·         Plant native warm season grasses and prairie forbs in openings.  The greater the diversity of plants, the greater the diversity of seeds and insects for young turkeys to feed on.

·         Reintroduce fire by burning fields and forests.  This helps them remain healthy by killing plants not adapted to fire and maintaining early successional stages.  Safety is critical so work with your local natural resources agency staff to plan burns.

·         Actively manage forests for young growth through thoughtful harvesting practices.  Young aspen and oak forests are attractive for a wide array of animals, including deer, grouse, woodcock, songbirds, and of course wild turkeys.

·         Plant blocks of pines and spruce to provide winter cover for wildlife.



Save the Habitat.  Save the Hunt.

The NWTF recognizes the many threats that face the hunting lifestyle today, and is actively working to protect the future opportunities for sportsmen and women.  We have launched the Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. initiative. It's an aggressive charge that mobilizes science, fundraising and our devoted volunteers not only to keep the NWTF alive but also to give it more purpose than ever. We're committed to raising $1.2 billion to conserve and enhance more than 4 million acres of essential upland wildlife habitat, create at least 1.5 million new hunters and open access to 500,000 new acres for hunting, shooting and outdoor enjoyment. 

Won’t you help us in Michigan?  Join the NWTF.

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