10 Ways To Improve Your Turkey Population

The author shares personal tips that have helped improve his turkey flock.

Shawn Lumsden | February 10, 2022

When thinning timber stands, we strive to increase the size of our openings as much as we can with the goal of having our property contain at least 25% open land.

The declining turkey population in the southeastern United States made front page news after almost 20 years of data collection and scientific research backing the claim. If you spend any time at all looking into possible causes, you’ll find a hundred different theories. The most common to blame being predation, habitat loss, increased use of corn feeders, new gadgetry and hunting seasons opening too early. Most likely, it is a combination of many factors, a “death by a thousand cuts” if you will.

I am a seventh-generation landowner. I help manage our family farm in Talbot County for wild quail, turkey, waterfowl and whitetails. My father instilled a passion for hunting and wildlife management in me at a young age. Our mission has always been to give more than we take. Through many of the tactics outlined in this article, we grew our wild quail and turkey populations from almost nothing to huntable populations throughout the past two decades. Like other Georgia outdoorsmen, I spend every weekend possible on the property hunting, fishing and working the land.

With more than 90% of Georgia privately owned, my ultimate goal is to share success stories like ours with other like-minded individuals who have the ability to properly manage our state’s wild resources. Please share your management successes—and failures. Collectively, we can make a difference. Below are 10 things we did on our property to boost the turkey population. 

1) Thin your pine stands

An adequate timber stand with a productive understory is one of the most critical components to the success of the wild turkey, especially when there is an interspersion of different forest types and ages. Turkeys thrive in large variations of habitat. Timber thinning is one of the quickest, easiest and most effective management tools for landowners. Now is a good time to increase the size of your smaller openings as well, since current research suggests turkeys thrive in habitat that contains at least 25% open land. Plus, it’s not a bad way to earn a few extra bucks from the timber to help with the habitat expenses outlined in this article!

2) Replant to longleaf pine

Stand replacement or “clearcutting” followed by reforestation may render the stand undesirable for turkeys after the first couple years until fire can be safely introduced. You can minimize these unproductive years by replanting in longleaf pines since they are much more fire tolerant than their loblolly counterparts. It may be a little more expensive especially since they grow slower than a loblolly, but the benefits far outweigh the costs from a wildlife habitat perspective. Longleaf pines are resistant to drought, fire, disease and insects. They are known for their environmental contribution in storing huge amounts of carbon in the ecosystem and are vital to dozens of endangered/threatened native species.

3) Trap egg-eating nest predators

Hens lay about an egg a day, averaging 10 to 12 eggs per clutch. The hen then incubates the eggs for about 28 days. So those eggs are highly vulnerable to predation for a full 40 days! After a rain is when they are most susceptible. The “wet hen theory” suggests that nest predators can follow a hen back to her nest easiest when she is wet since she gives off a much stronger scent. In order to eradicate these predators as effectively as possible, your trapping operation ideally needs to be intensive and large-scale.

We use Havahart style live trap that has a transmitter affixed to the trap door. There is a magnet attached to the top of the trap where the trap door lays flush against in an open position. Once the trap is tripped, the transmitter disengages from the magnet causing a beacon to go off at a centrally located motherboard.

Just to verify this trap checking system is 100% legal, I received the following statement from WRD: “Yes, it is legal as long as the system meets criteria showing that it is functional, i.e., has enough cell service to work. The system has to be able to send a self-check message or have some sort of feature to ensure that it is working.”

The “Wet Hen Theory” says a raccoon can easier smell a turkey after a rain, which can lead to a busted up nest of turkey eggs

4) Prescribed burning

Shoot for every two to three years in pine stands. Current findings show that burn blocks of 50 acres or less offer an optimum distribution of landscape diversity preferred by turkeys. If you need to burn larger blocks, make them long/narrow and adjacent to nesting habitat. For every tract you burn, leave an unburned tract next to it. The trick here is to limit the distance to cover. Late growing-season burns are typically acceptable and backed by biologists, especially if the habitat is not conducive to nesting in the first place, i.e. filled with 6-foot tall sweetgums that require a late-season burn to help control in order for forbs and grasses to grow. It is better to burn these areas while risking a nest or two rather than leaving them rank for countless future years, rendering them useless to wild turkeys. Remember that turkeys love foliage that helps conceal their body, but they avoid thick, woody brush that grows over their heads.

5) Do not mow your deer food plots in the summer

These fields provide cover and bugging opportunities for broods. Again, turkeys need concealment, preferably where they can lift their head up out of the cover like a periscope, watch for predators and then dip back down into safety. Walk through a winter wheat plot in May or June and you’d be hard pressed to even begin to count the number of grasshoppers taking flight.

6) If you bump a hen on her nest, avoid the area at all costs

Several weeks later, you can go back and see if the eggs hatched successfully or were predated upon; this can be tricky, but there are plenty of articles with photos online that you can directly compare to the eggshells you find. If you want to minimize disruption one step further, consider shutting down key brood-rearing areas to all traffic during nesting, post-hatch and poult-rearing seasons. In Georgia this is typically during the months of May, June and July.

Shawn found this turkey nest in May. The hen was initially bumped off this nest, but Shawn closed the area off to traffic. They came back several weeks later and all eggs had hatched has successfully hatched.

7) Trap coyotes, foxes and bobcats

On top of the 40 days turkeys are vulnerable to nest predation, add another 10 to 14 days during post-hatch since turkey poults don’t gain the ability to fly until 10 to 14 days old. Taking into account that everything with claws, talons or fangs wants to eat a wild turkey, it’s a wonder any of them survive at all! But once they can fly after these two weeks are up, the survival rate increases exponentially. Research shows that bobcats are the only carnivores that truly pose a threat to adult wild turkeys, the others aren’t as effective thanks to a turkey’s innate ability to sense danger. Furthermore, we all know fur prices have decreased substantially—let’s make up for the lack of predator trappers out there in today’s world. However, be sure to check your local state trapping regulations beforehand. Furbearer season is only in from Dec. 1 to Feb. 28. However, coyotes maybe trapped year-round.

8) Plant ragweed and partridge pea

These are early successional plants that grow on tall, thin stalks while providing a wide canopy coining it the term “umbrella cover.” Poults can easily walk through it finding soft insects while simultaneously being invisible from avian predators. These types of forbs are vitally important to brood survival.

9) Minimize use of corn feeders

With baiting for deer now legal statewide in Georgia, many deer hunters are utilizing the aid of corn. However, what many don’t know is that corn can quickly turn to poison when it gets wet and begins to mold, which can severely affect your turkey population if consumed. Aflatoxin is a naturally occurring toxin that can quickly contaminate corn, especially when combined with high heat and humidity. Turkeys are opportunistic feeders and will flock to the most convenient food sources. If they consume corn with aflatoxins present, disaster could ensue. An alternative to consider is feeding supplemental protein pellets rather than whole corn. With corn prices climbing, the cost difference is getting smaller. Plus, if done correctly, your deer herd will directly benefit from high-protein feed while minimizing risk of sickness or death to your wild turkeys.

10) Hunt smart

When hunting, don’t take risky shots, limit tom harvest to one to two per area during a single season and avoid shooting jakes so they can turn into breeding, huntable 2-year-old toms next year. Furthermore, if you are experiencing a population decline on your property, you don’t have to wait for regulations to change. You can always set self-imposed bag limits under what your state regulations allow. After all, going out with a video camera rather than a shotgun after you’ve gotten your first longbeard or two for the season is the ultimate catch-and-release method!

In closing, the turkey decline in the southeastern states has certainly sparked some serious conversations amongst hunters. It is encouraging to see the public recognize the situation. Although we can debate the causes all day long, one thing is for certain, if you spend some time working on one, two or even all 10 of the above-mentioned management tips, your turkey population will directly benefit. After all, if us hunters don’t protect this species we love and value so much, who will?

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  1. kimbrel31 on March 21, 2022 at 7:45 am

    Turkeys probably start breeding earlier than they think. When most people prescribe burn probably disturbs nest. If you late burn and destroy nest they will nest again when coyotes are on prowl for fawns. Probably why most turkeys on anybody’s property are on creek bottoms because man can’t get their easily. When turkeys were less prevalent everybody knew if you had a creek or river you had a few turkeys. You want a real challenge fall off in one them creek bottoms and start calling where the woods are so thick you can’t see 75 yds. Them fan decoys ain’t gonna do you no good lol he will eventually get there but it’s gonna take a while.

  2. hburke on March 18, 2022 at 5:56 pm

    Great practical, rational article by a longtime practitioner.

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