Wild Turkey Biology and Habitat Management

Wild Turkey Biology and Habitat Management

Eastern Wild Turkey Gobbler in Gadsden County – photo by Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

The above picture of a strutting Eastern Wild Turkey is a sight that many hunters look forward to seeing every spring here in the panhandle of Florida.  In order to manage wild turkeys and their habitat it is good to understand some basic facts about their biology.

Wild turkeys are considered a generalist species, meaning that they can eat a wide variety of foods, primarily seeds, insects, and vegetation.  They prefer relatively open ground cover so that they can see well and easily move through their surroundings, but they aren’t picky about where they live as long as it provides them year-round groceries and safety.  They are also a very adaptable species. Turkeys prefer low, moderately open herbaceous vegetation (less than three feet in height) that they can see through, or see over, and through which they can easily move in relatively close proximity to forested cover.  Such open habitat conditions help them see and avoid predators and these areas will typically provide sufficient food in terms of edible plants, fruit, seeds, and insects.

Wild turkeys are considered, ecologically, to be a “prey species” and have evolved as a common food source for numerous animals—seems everything is trying to eat them.  Turkey eggs, young (i.e.,poults), and adults are preyed on by such animals as bobcats, raccoons, skunks, opossum, fox , coyotes, armadillos, crows, owls, hawks, bald eagles, and a variety of snakes.  Being prey to so many different animals has shaped the turkey’s biology and behavior.  Turkeys experience high mortality rates and don’t live very long, on average, <2 years. They are particularly vulnerable during nesting and immediately after hatching.  Because of this high mortality, reproduction is really important for turkey populations to replace the individuals that don’t survive from year to year.  Wild turkeys have adapted to being a prey species in part, though, by having a high reproductive potential.  Hens have the capacity to lay large clutches of eggs.  If a nest is destroyed or disturbed, especially during the egg laying or early incubation period, the hen will often re-nest. Turkeys are also polygamous, with males capable of breeding multiple females, which further boosts their reproductive potential.

Turkey hen with poults foraging in a grassy field in Gadsden County – photo by Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

Newly hatched turkeys, referred to as poults, need grassy, open areas so they can find an abundance of insects.  Such areas are usually the most critical, and often the most lacking habitat in Florida.  Under ideal conditions for turkeys, grassy openings would occupy approximately 25 percent of a turkey’s home range.  Additionally, it is of equal importance to have such openings scattered throughout an area, varying in size from 1 to 20 acres such that they are small, or irregular in shape, to maximize the amount of adjacent escape cover (moderately dense vegetation or forested areas that can provide concealment from predators or other disturbances).  Large, expansive openings (e.g., large pastures) without any escape cover are not as useful for turkeys since they generally will not venture more than 100 yards away from suitable cover.

Good habitat allows turkeys to SEE approaching danger and to MOVE unimpeded (either to move away from danger or simply to move freely while foraging without risk of ambush).  In other words, good habitat provides the right vegetative structure.  When thinking about habitat for turkeys, it’s good to always think from a turkey’s point of view….about 3 feet off the ground!  Turkeys like open areas where they can see well and easily move.

Burning pine land in Gadsden County to improve wild turkey habitat – photo by Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

One of the best management techniques to manage vegetation structure and composition is prescribed fire.  Fire can be very destructive, but if properly applied, fire can be quite beneficial to wildlife and is one of the best things you can do for wild turkeys.  When applied correctly, fire has  many benefits. Some of the benefits of fire to turkeys and other wildlife include: control of hardwood by setting back woody shrubs and trees in the under story; improving vegetation height and structure; stimulating new herbaceous growth at ground level; stimulating flowering and increased fruit production in some plants; it improves nutritional value and increases palatability of vegetation.  All of this leads to increased insect abundance and fewer parasites in the environment.  Prescribed fire also has benefits for the landowner.  Applied properly and regularly, prescribed fire will reduce risk of catastrophic wildfire which can destroy a timber stand.  It reduces hardwood competition so favored pines grow faster and healthier; and reduces the risk of disease, particularly after a thinning or timber cut, by removing logging debris that would otherwise attract insects and disease-causing agents.  It can also help control invasive species, and best of all it’s the least expensive option on a cost per acre basis.

Gobblers in pine stand after burn – Game Camera photo by Shep Eubanks

Another good practice is simply mowing or bush-hogging. Even in areas that aren’t super thick (such as around forest and field edges, or seasonal wetlands), mowing and bush-hogging alone, even without fire, are beneficial as they have much the same effect on the habitat as fire.  Basically, you’re removing grown up vegetation and allowing light to reach the ground again. Within pine plantations, roads often provide some of the best, or only, turkey habitat simply because the surrounding vegetation becomes too dense so roads are used for feeding and moving throughout the area. In this regard, wide roads increase the amount of open habitat which provides lots of insects, seeds, and edible vegetation. They also reduce the opportunity for predators to ambush turkeys which can readily occur on narrow roads.  Having wide roads is a good land management practice that lets roads dry-out quicker so that they can hold up to traffic better.

If you have pine dominated timber stands on your property, proper thinning is not only good for turkeys, but it’s good for your stand. Young pine stands, particularly those in sapling or early pole stages, are often too thick for wild turkeys, except as escape cover.  They get so dense that they shade out everything underneath.  They may produce some pine seeds when they get older, but for most of the year, there’s nothing to eat and nothing to attract turkeys to the area.  For turkeys, thinning opens up the canopy and allows sunlight to reach the forest floor, which in turn stimulates plant growth of grasses, forbs and soft-mast producing shrubs.

If you have an interest in turkeys, do most management activities outside of the nesting season, which generally runs from the middle of March through June.  From a practical standpoint that is not always possible, so on the positive side, if a nest is destroyed (whether by predators or management efforts), a hen will quite often re-nest.  Also, the overall importance of management will often outweigh the loss of 1 or 2 nests.  The time that turkey nests are at a premium is when a turkey population is low or just trying to get established into an area.  In such cases every nest is valuable.

For more information consult with your local Extension Agent .

 

 

Aquatic Weed Control – Common Salvinia

Aquatic Weed Control – Common Salvinia

Common Salvinia Covering Farm pond in Gadsden County
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS Gadsden County Extension

Close up of common Salvinia
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS Gadsden County Extension

Aquatic weed problems are common in the panhandle of Florida.  Common Salvinia (Salvinia minima) is a persistent  invasive weed problem found in many ponds in Gadsden County. There are ten species of salvinia in the tropical Americas but none are native to Florida.  They are actually floating ferns that measure about 3/4 inch in length.  Typically it is found in still waters that contain high organic matter.  It can be found free-floating or in the mud.  The leaves are round to somewhat broadly elliptic, (0.4–1 in long), with the upper surface having 4-pronged hairs and the lower surface is  hairy.  It commonly occurs in freshwater ponds and swamps from the peninsula to the central panhandle of Florida.

Reproduction is by spores, or fragmentation of plants, and it can proliferate rapidly allowing it to be an aggressive invasive species. When these colonies cover the surface of a pond as pictured above they need to be controlled as the risk of oxygen depletion and fish kill is a possibility. If the pond is heavily infested with weeds, it may be possible (depending on the herbicide chosen) to treat the pond in sections and let each section decompose for about two weeks before treating another section. Aeration, particularly at night, for several days after treatment may help control the oxygen depletion.

Control measures include raking or seining, but remember that fragmentation propagates the plant. Grass carp will consume salvinia but are usually not effective for total control.   Chemical control measures include :carfentrazone, diquat, fluridone, flumioxazin, glyphosate, imazamox, and penoxsulam.

For more information reference these IFAS publications:

Efficacy of Herbicide Active ingredients Against Aquatic Weeds

Common salvinia

For help with controlling Common salvinia consult with your local Extension Agent for weed control recommendations, as needed.

Mast Producing Crops for Wildlife

Mast Producing Crops for Wildlife

North Florida  buck feeding on acorns at the edge of a food plot.  Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

It’s that time of year when landowners, hunters, and other wildlife enthusiasts begin to plan and prepare fall and winter food plots to attract wildlife like the nice buck in the photo.

Annual food plots are expensive and labor intensive to plant every year and with that thought in mind, an option you may want to consider is planting mast producing crops around your property to improve your wildlife habitat.  Mast producing species are of two types of species, “hard mast” (oaks, chestnut, hickory, chinkapin, American Beech, etc.), and “soft mast” (crabapple, persimmon, grape, apple, blackberry, pears, plums, pawpaws, etc.).  There are many mast producing trees and shrubs that can be utilized and will provide food and cover for a variety of wildlife species.  This article will focus on two, sawtooth oak (or other oaks) and southern crabapple.

Sawtooth Oak

Oaks are of tremendous importance to wildlife and there are dozens of species in the United States.  In many areas acorns comprise 25 to 50% of a wild turkeys diet in the fall (see photos 1, 2, and 3) and probably 50% of the whitetail deer diet as well during fall and winter.  White oak acorns average around 6% crude protein versus 4.5% to 5% in red oak acorns.  These acorns are also around 50% carbohydrates and 4% fat for white oak and 6% fat for red oak.

The Sawtooth Oak is in the Red Oak family and typically produces acorns annually once they are mature.  The acorns are comparable to white oak acorns in terms of deer preference as compared to many other red oak species.  Most red oak acorns are high in tannins reducing palatability but this does not seem to hold true for sawtooth oak.  They are a very quick maturing species and will normally begin bearing around 8 years of age.  The acorn production at maturity is prolific as you can see in the photo and can reach over 1,000 pounds per tree in a good year when fully mature.  They can reach a mature height of 50 to 70 feet.  There are two varieties of sawtooth oak, the original sawtooth and the Gobbler sawtooth oak, which has a smaller acorn that is better suited for wild turkeys. The average lifespan of the sawtooth oak is about 50 years

Photo 1 – Seventeen year old planting of sawtooth oaks in Gadsden County Florida. Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

 

Photo 2 – Gadsden County gobblers feeding on Gobbler sawtooth oak acorns
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

Photo 3 – Gobbler sawtooth oak acorns in Gadsden County. Notice the smaller size compared to the regular sawtooth oak acorn which is the size of a white oak acorn.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

Southern Crabapple

Southern Crabapple is one of 25 species of the genus Malus that includes apples.  They generally are well adapted to well drained but moist soils and medium to heavy soil types.  They will grow best in a pH range of 5.5 – 6.5 and prefer full sun but will grow in partial shade as can be seen in photo 4.  They are very easy to establish and produce beautiful blooms in March and April in our area as seen in photo 5. There are many other varieties of crabapples such as Dolgo that are available on the market in addition to southern and will probably work very well in north Florida.  The fruit on southern crabapple is typically yellow green to green and average 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter.  They are relished by deer and normally fall from the tree in early October.

Photo 4 – Southern crabapple tree planted on edge of pine plantation stand. Photo taken in late March during bloom.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

Photo 5 – Showy light pink to white bloom of southern crabapple in early April during bloom.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

A good resource publication on general principles related o this topic is Establishing and Maintaining Wildlife Food Sources.

If you are interested in planting traditional fall food plots check out this excellent article by UF/IFAS Washingon Couny Extension Agent Mark Mauldin: Now’s the Time to Start Preparing for Cool-Season Food Plots .

For more information on getting started with food plots in your county contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Office

Wildlife Food Plots for North Florida

Big Buck on the Move – Photo Credit Shep Eubanks, UF/IFAS

About this time each year the minds of sportsman and wildlife aficionados turn towards the planting of wildlife food plots for use by wildlife  in fall, winter , and early spring.  There are many factors to consider when planting a fall food plot if you want to be successful in the endeavor.  Food plots can be  an effective method of providing food sources for game birds, deer, rabbits, raccoons, and other species.  The size of food plots vary according to landowner preferences and the requirements of the target wildlife species, but usually they are a minimum of 1/2 to 1 acre in size, with a maximum of 5 acres.

Location is a an important consideration when planning the plot as the most effective plots typically are located adjacent to sanctuary or escape cover that provides security for wildlife.  Food plots that meander along edges of of two or there converging types of cover, such as the edge created where pine plantations, hardwood bottoms, and agricultural fields intersect, are very attractive to wildlife and provide natural travel corridors, in addition to providing a high nutrition food source.

Successful planting of your crop begins with soil sampling.  Having the proper pH in your food plot is of paramount importance.  A pH of 6.5 is ideal for winter annual grasses and legumes in North Florida.  As an Ag Agent I have seen more food plot disasters because a landowner did not take time to soil test than any other reason.  The soil test will also guide you in applying proper fertilization to optimize productivity of your food plots.  Food plots are expensive  to establish and you want to avoid needless mistakes such as poor fertility that will yield poor results.

Preparation of a good seedbed is also very important as is selection of seeds that are adapted to our area.  UF/IFAS has developed some excellent resources that will assist you in selecting forages that do well in our area such as, A Walk on the Wild Side: 2013 Cool-Season Forage Recommendations for Wildlife Food Plots in North FloridaAnother Excellent reference is Establishing and Maintaining Wildlife Food Sources.

Now is the time to make your preparations for planting your successful cool season food plot here in North Florida! hopefully you will have the experience of seeing and enjoying wildlife as pictured in photo 2 and photo 3!

For more information on planting successful food plots this fall, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office.

Photo 2. Nice Buck grazing woods edge food plot in North Florida   Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks, UF/IFAS

Photo 3. Gobbler and Hen Standing in Crimson Clover
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks, UF/IFAS

 

 

Southern Copperhead in Florida

 

Photo 1. Large Southern Copperhead in Gadsden County - Photo by Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

Photo 1. Large Southern Copperhead in Gadsden County – Photo by Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS

There are approximately 44 species of snakes found in Florida.  The Southern Copperhead is one of the six venomous snakes that one might encounter while outdoors in the panhandle of Florida.    A uniquely beautiful and secretive snake, they historically have only been found in the panhandle counties of Gadsden, Liberty, and Jackson along the Apalachicola River corridor and tributary creeks.  Preferred habitat for this species is near streams and wet areas and upland hammocks adjacent to these wet areas.  The copperhead is encountered so infrequently in Florida that there have been very few bites and no fatalities reported in Florida from a copperhead bite.

Photo 2. Copper head lying next to a tree in leaf litter demonstrating effective camouflage. Photo by Shep Eubanks - UF/IFAS

Photo 2. Copper head lying next to a tree in leaf litter demonstrating effective camouflage. Photo by Shep Eubanks – UF/IFAS

Copperheads are pit vipers and are recognizable by the dark brown, hourglass-shaped crossbands along the center of the back.  This pattern provides the copperhead with excellent camouflage to blend in with leaves and other litter on the forest floor (see photo 2.).  The same snake is pictured in photo 3, crossing a woods road before moving into the swamp edge.  This snake is approximately 30 inches long which is the typical size that most adult Southern Copperheads reach.

Photo 3. Typical Southern Copperhead Crossing a Woods Road in Gadsden County. Photo by Shep Eubanks - UF/IFAS

Photo 3. Typical Southern Copperhead Crossing a Woods Road in Gadsden County. Photo by Shep Eubanks – UF/IFAS

All pit vipers in Florida have venom that is haemotoxic, that is, it destroys the red blood cells and the walls of the blood vessels of the victim.  The copperhead venom  is not considered to be as potent as the venom of a diamondback rattlesnake.

Copperheads bear live young, typically from 7 to as many as 20 offspring. Young copperheads have identical coloring as the adult except the young snakes have a yellow tip on the tail.  The diet of copperheads is the most varied of Florida’s venomous snakes and includes many vertebrates and large insects.  They are patient hunters, lying camouflaged in leaves waiting on a meal.  Copperheads have been reported to climb trees when cicadas are abundant.  The lifespan of a copperhead is estimated to be 20+ years in the wild.

For more information contact your local Extension office and check out these publications: Recognizing Florida’s Venomous Snakes and Florida’s Venomous Snakes.