Improve turkey habitat on your land with a chainsaw and a spare weekend.
Wild turkeys were not always regular residents of Minnesota’s cold, dense northern forests. Starting around 2010, though, we suddenly began seeing them more and more. Why? Forest management practices, especially the creation of small “openings,” are helping these adaptable birds survive in the “big woods” environment.
OPENINGS IN TIMBER
While ample forest cover for turkeys exists in northern Minnesota (and many other locations across the wild turkey range), openings are usually limited to large clearcuts, hayfields or pastures. Lacking are smaller openings within otherwise forested areas.
These small openings, often no larger than ½ to 1½ acres in size, can be so beneficial to wildlife that many people call them “wildlife openings.”
Openings cleared of overgrown shrubs or undesirable trees usually regenerate quickly with a flush of grasses, forbs and stump sprouts. Goldenrod and milkweed are common, beneficial plants springing up in northwoods’ openings.
Vegetation growing 2-3 feet tall makes great cover for nesting hens. It hides their nest well yet allows birds to see when standing. Grasses and forbs also support considerable insect life, such as nutritious grasshoppers, beetles and food that is essential to hens and poults in both spring and summer. Stump sprouts provide a bounty of buds and tender shoots that are easy for turkeys to reach, something important for winter feeding.
Before picking up the chainsaw, spend some time looking at an aerial map of your property. Do not construct openings near roads or property lines. Make them somewhere in the middle of your property where you will not intrude much.
“Locating these openings close to roost sights, water sources [and] areas with good soils will make them more productive,” said Travis Sumner, NWTF Hunting Heritage Center and habitat manager.
Rather than one large opening, consider a few smaller openings scattered across your land.
“Irregular shapes or design of your plots help create ‘edge’… openings created in the shape of an hourglass, banana, half-moon or long and linear work well,” Sumner said.
Obviously, avoid cutting productive mast trees like oak, hickory or crabapple. Also, protect mature roost trees such as pine or cottonwood.
“Diversity is the key to a successful food plot or wildlife opening,” Sumner explained. “Maintain your opening adjacent to plum thickets, fields or pastures, creeks and roost trees so [wild turkeys] don’t have to travel far.”
Hinge cutting trees is often touted as beneficial in terms of providing wildlife cover. This is where trees are felled but left partially connected to the stump. Turkeys, however, prefer to be able to move around freely and see predators, Sumner said. He advises to completely remove any felled tree or shrub and construct a brush pile along the side of the opening. The decaying brush pile can attract salamanders, frogs and slugs, which adult turkeys will also eat.
Maintain openings by cutting them again every five to 10 years, Sumner said.
“Rotational cutting of timber stands will also create great cover,” he said. “Each time timber is cut, it opens the forest floor to sunlight.”
This periodic maintenance resets the process, bringing food and cover down to the most useful turkey height again. Sumner said you can further enhance an opening by broadcasting clover seed as an additional food source.
Habitat improvements are critical to having healthy populations of wild turkeys. With just a chainsaw and a spare weekend, you can create a few wildlife openings that will improve turkey nesting and brood-rearing habitat on your property for years to come.