Flock stability and habitat shifts of fall

Understanding flock dynamics and habitat requirements of turkeys during fall can help us better manage the land they use.

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”— F. Scott Fitzgerald

This quote surely resonates with me, as the doldrums of summer wane and the promise of fall hunting seasons approach. I begin to get restless, planning upcoming hunts, watching weather patterns and wind directions, thinking about which blind to sit, or which stand to select, or what time to set the clock. My mind races because of the excitement I know is forthcoming and the unpredictability of the hunts I’m about to experience.

In the wild turkey world, the transition from summer to fall is also profound. The chaos of breeding season and the stress of trying to raise clutches while avoiding predators evolves into a period of maintenance and relative stability in both behavior and habitat use.

Let’s look at how the flocks we enjoy seeing in the fall behave and what is necessary to ensure turkeys have quality fall and winter habitats available to them.

CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?

We’ve discussed in previous columns the importance of social hierarchies in the turkey world. By fall, those pecking orders have pretty much been established within flocks. Groups of toms, jakes and hens all have their own pecking orders as they assimilate into the larger flocks of birds we observe each fall.

Flocks of hens will be composed of both adults and juveniles that were produced from different broods in the local area. Conversely, flocks of jakes and toms typically do not mix, although they may use areas of the landscape simultaneously. The large flocks we observe often include multiple smaller groups of birds with their own pecking orders; some fighting may occur to determine the ranks of each group.

For the most part, though, the social world of the wild turkey in the fall and into winter is one of relative social stability. This social stability allows wild turkey flocks to develop routines that often center around habitat conditions within their fall and winter ranges.

ARE YOU NUTS?

Wild turkeys are highly adaptable and can exploit many vegetation communities [the various plants and ground cover that share a common environment] during fall. Food, in the way of hard and soft mast, dictates where turkeys spend time.

Turkeys continue to eat various seeds and forage on green vegetation during the fall, but throughout their range, they will select areas with abundant hard and soft mast when available. In landscapes dominated by agriculture, we also see turkeys readily eat waste grain in harvested crop fields.

In the end, however, research clearly shows that acorns are the most widely used food item in fall. Where turkeys have acorn-producing oaks available to them, the mast crop produced from those trees significantly influences their behavior. During years with poor mast crops, turkeys will move considerable distances to find oaks that are dropping acorns. Earlier research showed that flocks of turkeys often have fidelity to areas where hard mast is abundant, loyally returning to these areas annually. More recently, we’ve observed with GPS (global positioning system) telemetry that some flocks will move miles across the landscape from one hardwood drainage to another in search of acorns. When they find them, they settle down and use that area extensively. In years with abundant mast crops, flocks may move little on a daily basis, which can make trapping them tough when acorns are all over the ground! Give a turkey acorns laying all around versus some corn in front of a suspicious looking rocket net and the acorns will often carry the day.

Regardless, from a management standpoint, these observations are important to consider when managing landscapes for wild turkeys. It is imperative to maintain hardwood forests with species that produce hard mast, particularly oaks. And, we must not always look at oak forests with a “leave it alone” attitude. Research reveals that directed management strategies such as timber stand improvements and selective thinning can encourage increased mast production from oaks remaining in the forest.

Lastly, given that we know turkeys will sometimes travel miles to find hard mast, landowners should recognize that turkeys may use their properties up until fall, and then disappear until spring as they search for and use areas that provide suitable fall and winter habitat. If that occurs, consider working with neighbors to ensure that forests with critical mast-producing oaks and other species are not only available, but also actively managed. In the end, the relative stability of fall in the turkey world hinges on their ability to access quality habitat. That is a responsibility all of us — turkey hunters and land managers — must embrace and share.

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