Understanding stream flows and waterside habitat

Having water on your property benefits many wildlife species. Wild turkeys relate to water throughout their lives and are known to regularly roost near or even over water. On many tracts of land, large roost trees are only present where the ground is too wet to farm, log or develop. Edges, bottomlands and riparian corridors (land adjacent to water) associated with streams, including seasonal streams, are important to wild turkeys. 

You don’t have to break much sweat to gain better understanding of stream flows from year-to-year and season-to-season. Such understanding, though, will help you better manage your property. Tracking water levels remotely has never been easier.

While a trickling creek may require good old-fashioned visual inspection, larger streams often have their waterflow measured at more than 1.9 million stations maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. Near real-time data such as height, velocity and temperature are accessible on the USGS National Water Information website (waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis).

The USGS site also lists historic data that can be useful when dealing with a new property. Wild turkeys readily fly or even wade across streams but forcing broods to cross water, especially during the high flows and flooding common in spring, can endanger poults. Position food plots, openings and cutback borders adjacent to roosting areas so that they don’t require a potentially dangerous stream crossing.

While wild turkeys in many regions use river bottomland much of the time during normal conditions, flooding streams can create issues if there isn’t enough suitable habitat on nearby higher ground for the birds to escape to for roosting and feeding.

The USGS website can help you better understand the likelihood of high water and allow you to focus on the best locations for high water refuge areas. Tasks such as determining safe crossing points and high-water marks are easier when comparing present conditions with historic trends. And, even if the stream in question does not have a gauge, most watersheds around the country have them located throughout the system. A little research can help you find the closest site with relatable data.


You’ll often find expansive woodland tracts near streams in the eastern U.S., offering wild turkeys countless places to roost. Conversely, throughout the arid Great Plains, large roost trees are sparse and primarily located near rivers, streams and small drainages. Western landowners and wildlife managers know hardy, fast-growing hardwoods, such as cottonwoods, are critical for wild turkey populations. A lone stand of trees located in a draw or along a stream may be the only place turkeys can roost for miles.

“Out here on the plains, wildlife can be found wherever there is water,” said Collin Smith, NWTF’s district biologist for Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. “Riparian areas provide a wide diversity of plant life, including shrubs and trees. Without riparian areas and cottonwoods for roosting, we would not have wild turkeys in the Great Plains; they just would not exist.”

Quality waterside habitat is vital to many species that use them for traveling, feeding, nesting, brood rearing and resting. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, open waterside woodlands, savannas and forest openings of one-half to 3 acres in size provide good brood habitat, especially when they contain a multitude of nutritious forage plant that attract insects.

Whether streamside habitat is located in floodplains or wooded environments at higher elevations in the mountain foothills, it supports a diversity of plants that contribute to healthy turkey populations. Getting water flow data, especially in those lower altitude riverine regions, can be an important tool for managing these tracts of land for wild turkeys and other wildlife.

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