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Brood Habitat for Pennsylvania's Michaux State Forest

Deep in Pennsylvania's Michaux State Forest, a bright, grassy clearing buzzes with the sound of insects. The clearing is small and surrounded by mature hardwoods, some marked at their bases with faint scars left by heavy machinery. It's a man-made opening, cut over, mown, fertilized and seeded with a mix of grasses and legumes, but it may be the best place in the forest to find wild hen turkeys with their poults in the spring.

National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) volunteers and Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) employees cut this opening nearly 10 years ago as part of their effort to create more brood habitat for wild turkeys in the state forest. Today, the two organizations are continuing their work by keeping these clearings from growing up too thickly.

Wild Turkey Nesting Behavior:

Prenesting:
Winter flocks break up and hens become less social and more secretive. Hens begin searching for nest sites.

Nest Site Choice:
Hens choose nesting sites with moderately dense undergrowth. They search for low cover that also provides a view of the surroundings at ground level. They often choose sites at the base of trees, against fallen logs or beneath slash found in recently logged areas.

Nest Construction:
Hens scratch a shallow depression on the forest floor. The nest's form is created by the act of squatting and laying eggs more than by purposeful construction.

Laying:
Laying a full clutch of eggs takes about two weeks. Most hens lay only one egg per day. Early in the laying period hens spend most of their time away from their nest, roosting in trees, feeding and even mating, sometimes as far away as a mile.

Incubation:
Hens spend more time on their nests as each egg is laid, with continuous incubation beginning when the last egg is laid. The changing incubation time ensures that all chicks will hatch at the same time, regardless of when an egg was laid.

Hatching
All the eggs hatch at the same time. Each poult, or young turkey, cracks its own shell from inside using a sharp spike on its upper beak called an egg tooth. Hatching usually takes about 24 hours, and poults are ready to follow the hen within 12 to 24 hours after leaving their eggs. Poults are precocious, able to follow the hen and feed themselves within a day after hatching. Having quality brood habitat nearby which supports the insects these tiny turkeys require to grow quickly is vital to their survival!

For more information on turkey biology we recommend reading Jim Dickson's book, Wild Turkey Biology and Management. We sell the book in our Online store.

Young wild turkeys, known as poults, must eat lots of insects to get the protein they need to survive, but insects don't do well in the cool, shaded habitat found under mature forest cover. They prosper in small grassy openings, openings of the kind created by forest fires and high winds. With modern forestry practices reducing the impact of fire on the state forest, some other way of creating these openings was needed. Enter the NWTF.

"The most critical time in a wild turkey's life is when it is in the poult stage," said James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., NWTF's chief conservation officer. "If a turkey doesn't have good brood habitat with food and protection, it won't live to be an adult. We need to help create this brood habitat."

The Michaux State Forest encompasses more than 85,000 acres of a narrow mountain range extending northeast 40 miles from the Maryland border into south-central Pennsylvania. NWTF chapters in the area, including the Adams County Longbeards and the Michaux Yellow Breeches chapters, have been helping DCNR forest managers develop brood habitat in this forest for more than 15 years. Their money and volunteer work has created 41 openings, each only a few acres in size. The DCNR calls these openings "special wildlife management areas."

Phil Varndell is a forester with the DCNR's Bureau of Forestry who serves as wildlife coordinator for the Michaux. He believes that these special wildlife management areas make great brood habitat and thinks they have positively impacted turkey populations in the forest.

"I know the whole forest, been here 30 years and am an avid turkey hunter as well," he said. "I've seen turkey populations rise and fall over the years. Establishing small openings was an important step toward stabilizing those populations."

Left untended, the openings would eventually disappear, reclaimed by the forest from which they were cut. But the regular maintenance needed to prevent this costs money. For some years, no money was available, and some of the openings became too thick to support turkey broods. So NWTF chapters stepped in again to help, paying for contractors to mow, lime and fertilize the openings and sending volunteers to transplant oak, crabapple and hawthorn saplings into them to serve as fall and winter food sources.

"Ten years ago, little maintenance was done on these openings and they started growing up pretty bad, but with the NWTF's help we are now maintaining about 10 per year," said Varndell. "If you didn't maintain them, they would grow right up into undesirable woody vegetation. Now there's food sources in them all year long."

"The NWTF funds habitat improvement projects because these dollars make a difference," said Kennamer. "They provide the necessary food, cover and water that wildlife needs to survive."

Funding for the maintenance came from the NWTF's Super Fund and the Pennsylvania Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources. For more information on the project, contact Bob Eriksen, NWTF's Regional Wildlife Biologist for the area, at (908) 454-1882.

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