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Start Now Creating Wildlife Openings

By: Dr. James Earl Kennamer

High quality wildlife openings provide critical habitat for young turkeys during the spring and summer and also enhance wild turkey winter habitat. Whether you are improving turkey habitat on your own property, a hunting club, or if you are involved with a NWTF chapter project, now is the time to create openings or rejuvenate existing ones.

The presence of high quality wildlife openings can enhance your spring turkey hunting. Hens are attracted to these openings and bring gobblers with them.

As a general rule, you should have three to five acres of wildlife openings for every 100 acres of forest. If your area lacks openings, you may need to create new ones. Conversely, existing openings need to be maintained.

Your first step is to inventory existing openings. Aerial photographs, easily obtained at your county highway department or property assessor's office, are indispensable tools for locating existing openings and access points for equipment. Aerial photographs and topographical maps are also handy for locating potential wildlife opening sites.

Not all wildlife opening sites are created equal. Wildlife openings should be established where insect production will be the highest. Look for sites that have good soil moisture and fertility. Sites near streams and wetland areas are excellent as long as they aren't too wet. Openings that become very dry during the early summer, or are low in fertility, usually will not promote succulent grass growth needed to attract an abundance of insects.

Determine soil pH and fertility by testing the soil. Soil tests are simple and cost just a few dollars. Contact your local Natural Resource Conservation Service office or agricultural extension office for information on soil testing. If you cannot complete soil tests, a good rule of thumb is to add 250 pounds of 5-10-5 fertilizer and one to two tons of lime per acre. Remember, fertilizer is your biggest expense to plant openings. The soil test will not only save you money, you will get optimum growth for your planting.

Size and distribution of wildlife openings is another important consideration. Opening size should range from one-half acre to 10 acres. Choose an opening shape that maximizes edge effect on the field border. For example, long, linear openings are better than square openings of the same acreage because it creates more edge. Wildlife openings should also be well distributed across the area. Several small wildlife openings well distributed across the property will benefit more turkeys than one large opening.

Openings should not be surrounded by dense cover. Make sure roads leading to openings don't have thick brush along their edge. Thick brush will permit predators the opportunity to ambush young turkeys. In addition, create openings adjacent to mature forest with relatively open ground cover.

Utilize existing roads, rights-of-way (ROW), and existing fields as wildlife openings. These already cleared areas can provide quality, cost effective sites for wildlife openings. Daylighting roads by removing trees along the road's edge to allow more sunlight to reach the ground is usually necessary to enhance plant growth. ROWs that have the necessary site requirements (soil moisture, fertility, etc.) provide the ultimate linear wildlife opening and can be improved by planting legumes. Existing fields can be improved by planting strips of legumes and other beneficial plants along the perimeter. Again, select portions of the field, ROW, or pipeline that are adjacent to good turkey habitat and that have the proper soil conditions. Note: Obtain permission from ROW and pipeline owner before establishing openings.

Plant selection

Legumes, such as clover, are excellent for enhancing openings and help create ideal brood habitat. Insects thrive in openings planted with legumes and their availability is critical to turkey poults. Insects are high in protein and make up more than 90 percent of a turkey poult's diet, providing a source of food and water. A variety of perennial and annual clovers are available, including Redland II, alsike, ladino and white Dutch clover, and they will last several years with minimal maintenance. The reseeding annuals, such as crimson clover, will produce forage for up to six years if managed by mowing and light harrowing.

Plant a variety of plants that supply turkeys with their year-round dietary needs for the most effective use of your time and money. For example, planting a mixture of winter wheat and clover during the fall will provide a winter food supply and excellent brood habitat the following spring. Several rows of corn, planted in early spring, provide excellent cover for poults during the spring, and if left standing through the winter, provide good winter food, especially in climates where deep snow prevails. Chufa is another excellent addition for providing winter food.

Rejuvenating old legume stands

Reseeding annuals and perennials, such as crimson clover and Redland II clover, should be lightly harrowed every two to three years during August. Harrowing will cover the seed produced by the parent plants and allow germination and establishment of a new clover stand. Also, mow perennials in late summer and early fall to remove the taller plant species that shade out the smaller clovers. Remember, most clovers are cool season plants that flourish during the cooler months.

Establishing and maintaining wildlife openings are important habitat management practices. Success results from proper planning and paying attention to detail. Selecting sites with the best soil conditions will yield more benefits to turkeys for your dollar and planting a variety of plants to meet both spring and winter needs will improve the year-round potential of wildlife openings. These efforts will pay dividends in a healthy turkey population for many years to come.

Note: The NWTF offers several publications to aid in developing wildlife openings. The NWTF Wildlife Bulletin Series, is available by calling 1-800-THE-NWTF.

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