To learn how landowners can have more turkeys on their land, the link between turkey management and timber management and the latest research on turkey predation, Mississippi Sportsman talked with Dave Godwin, wild turkey program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP).

"If you want to have more turkeys on your land, increase the amount of prescribed burning you do," Godwin advised. "I conducted a five-year study on 130 radio-collared gobblers that yielded plenty of information on the effects of prescribed burning on turkey habitat. We witnessed gobblers feeding in a burned area while the ground was still smoking, which proved that gobblers love charcoaled insects, snails and snakes.

"After a burn, the green-up occurred, and the turkey began to feed on these young, tender plants. For three years after a burn, our study revealed that turkeys heavily utilized the burned site. In stands of timber that hadn't been burned within the last three years, there was low utilization by the turkeys, indicating that turkeys preferred a good barbecue dinner every three years."

If you burn your property in different sections every three years, you can significantly improve the habitat and the food resource for turkeys, as well as generate more turkeys on your land. Godwin recommends landowners not burn the entire property at the same time.

"Turkeys prefer patches of burned land," he said.

Also, thinning improves habitat for turkeys. After the thinning of a pine or hardwood stand, more of the forest floor opens up to sunlight, causing seeds to germinate. Young, tender shoots provide a productive food source and habitat for turkeys.

Mississippi's research proves the direct correlation of forest and turkey management. Landowners need to provide the type of habitat turkeys need and can use year-round, which includes nesting and brood-rearing cover. Without productive habitat on your land, turkeys won't inhabit it.

Next, identify the types of crops you can plant to drive turkeys to your property and sustain the turkey population on your land.

"We encourage landowners to plant crops that will be beneficial for more than one species," Godwin said. "My favorite crop is white clover because both turkeys and deer will eat it. White clover will yield a place where turkeys can find and eat insects, and it will grow almost anywhere.

"You also can plant specialized plants that will benefit turkeys, such as chufas, if you have the right soil."

Chufas grow best in sandy soils like those in the southern one-third of Mississippi. But in the rest of the state, you have to search for sandy-loam types of properties. Chufas will grow in other kinds of soil, but turkeys can dig-up chufas much easier in sandy loam than they can on lands that don't contain as much sand. Consider too when planting chufas that raccoons and hogs also love them, which can cause major problems.

"If I lived in an area with sandy soil, I'd plant several chufa patches because a chufa patch will attract and hold turkeys," Godwin said. "However, I don't recommend planting chufas in all sections and on every property in the state.

"But clovers grow well on almost any soil in Mississippi. I've found that most landowners, if they plan to plant crops for wildlife, will plant crops such as white clover that will be beneficial to deer, turkeys and other wildlife species."

Understand turkey predation

For years, most of us have named coyotes, foxes and bobcats as the primary predators on wild turkeys. However, Godwin's research has proved that actually the hunter has earned the rank as the No. 1 predator on turkey gobblers and the raccoon as the No. 1 predator on turkey eggs and nests.

"We have detailed data in Mississippi from two or three study areas where we've used radio-tracking collars to keep up with nest predation," Godwin said. "From our studies, we've learned that the raccoon is the No. 1 predator on turkey nests, the opossum is No. 2, skunks are No. 3, crows are No. 4 and snakes are No. 5."

Godwin explains that coyotes are poor nest predators, and aren't efficient at catching and eating adult gobblers.

"From studies we've conducted on the stomach contents of coyotes taken in Mississippi and coyote scat, there's very little evidence of turkey predation," Godwin reports. "The coyote's best chance for a turkey dinner is during the poult-rearing season. During the first two weeks of a turkey poult's life, he can't fly, causing young poults to roost on the ground. This time of year is when young turkeys most likely will be eaten by coyotes."

Also, Godwin mentions that bobcats can cause severe damage on turkey hens, especially when they're sitting on their nests. But the dog predators, like the coyote, the fox and the feral dog, haven't adapted well to finding and eating turkeys.

Although feral hogs rarely kill and eat turkeys or disturb their nests, they can limit the growth of a turkey flock because they compete with the wild turkey for food.

"We have evidence of coyotes and foxes killing hens on nests and/or eating eggs, and bobcats catching and eating a number of nesting hens, but the raccoon is the biggest nest predator in Mississippi," Godwin said.

From this research, Godwin has learned that a landowner or a hunting club can employ two conservation tools to increase turkey populations on their lands by inviting coon hunters to hunt their properties and take coons during coon season and/or inviting trappers onto their property to trap fur-bearers, including most of the predators that eat turkeys and destroy turkey nests.

"I encourage landowners to employ trappers and allow coon hunters to take the fur-bearers because they're an underused resource in Mississippi," Godwin said. "Right now, the raccoon population is primarily being managed by canine distemper. When coon populations increase greatly, there's usually an outbreak of canine distemper, causing a large number of coon deaths. Since we've seen the fur price on coons begin to rise, this may encourage trappers and coon hunters to take more fur bearers."

What turkeys eat

"Turkeys will eat almost anything that doesn't eat them first," Godwin said. "When jakes were legal in Mississippi, I'd visit management areas and look at the crops of gobblers to see what they'd been eating. From this investigation, I learned that jake gobblers ate numbers of different items, including red oak acorns, wild pecans, various insects, different types of green plants and leaves, snakes, lizards and good-sized acorns. But their favorite food in the spring seemed to be insects and hard mast crops."

When turkeys gobble

"We have a ton of information on when the peak gobbling occurs in various parts of the state," Godwin said. "Now, we're researching when gobbling actually starts and ends. We'd like to know when the gobblers start talking three weeks before the season, and when the turkeys stop gobbling three weeks after the season. We're currently gathering data on when turkeys stop and start gobbling by setting up random call-count routes throughout north and south Mississippi."

Godwin's research team has learned a tremendous amount of information about what causes turkeys to gobble. However, the biologists can't exactly predict the days when turkeys will gobble.

"Turkeys gobble all year, but the gobbling seems to peak during the spring," Godwin said. "You can make a turkey gobble in the middle of the summer or the winter, but turkey gobbles peak in the spring. Our research indicates that the length of the day, the turkeys' hormones and the weather conditions greatly influence when turkeys gobble.

"Clear days with high barometric pressure tend to be better gobbling days than overcast days with low barometric pressure. Windy days tend to be poor gobbling days. A contributing factor too may be that hunters can't hear as well on windy days as on days without wind.

"A sudden change in weather conditions also reduces gobbling activity. If turkeys are with hens, they don't gobble as much.

"So there are many variances of when turkeys gobble, and when they don't gobble. From the data we've collected, the peak gobbling days throughout the Mississippi vary widely. But the first week in April statewide seems to be when the most gobbling activity occurs."

Expect a good spring

"Overall, we expect to have a very productive turkey season this year," Godwin said. "We have a good, stable turkey population. We estimate that Mississippi has about 255,272 turkeys, and hunters harvested about 30,000 turkeys last season. We get that number from our hatch report and the 700-plus turkey cooperators who help us monitor turkey flocks statewide."

For more information on how to become a turkey cooperator, visit http://home.mdwfp.com/, go to the wildlife and hunting page, and then select turkey. You'll find a turkey-hunting application, the latest "Spittin' & Drummin'" report and information on how to become involved with the Mississippi Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey (SGHS), as well as links to two turkey forums the state operates.

You also can email your name, address and telephone number to Dave Godwin at dgodwin@cfr.msstate.edu, along with the reason you want to participate in the SGHS. Or call Godwin at 662-325-5119 or the Wildlife Bureau in Jackson at 601-432-2199.

 

Next month, we'll tell why hunters should not shoot jakes, how to find out the best week to hunt in your area of Mississippi, how and why to become a turkey cooperator and how volunteering to participate in this program will give you a chance to win a new shotgun.