Shedding Some Light On Growing-Season Burns

Hunters have wondered how burning during April could be a good thing for turkeys. The NWTF speaks out about smoky skies during turkey season.

Lynn Lewis-Weis | May 3, 2015

Editor’s Note: We’ve received numerous calls over the last few years about prescribed burns that take place during the turkey-nesting season. Certified Wildlife Biologist Lynn Lewis-Weis works with the National Wild Turkey Federation with the title of conservation field supervisor-Southeast. Lynn shares research that shows growing-season burns are working in favor of the future of the wild turkey.

As the old adage goes… you’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet, so goes the art and science of wildlife management. As a wildlife biologist, I learned very early on that we manage populations, not individual animals. As I pointed out recently to a group of up-and-coming professionals, if you want to work with individual animals, you need to be a veterinarian (they get paid a lot better anyway) or work only with endangered species.

It’s still not easy to let one nest full of eggs get destroyed when you’ve worked your whole career to bring a species back from the brink or you’re a turkey hunter who remembers the day when it was a big deal to hear a distant gobble, much less actually see a bird. In order to maintain a healthy and huntable wild turkey population, biologists must actively manage our fields and forests, which may involve losing a few individuals in the process.

One management technique that causes some concern for turkey hunters is the use of prescribed fire, particularly growing (spring) season fire. Prescribed fire is an incredibly useful land-management tool, and without it habitat degrades, leaving wild turkeys and other wildlife with less food and cover to survive and thrive. The key is to balance collateral damage with the greater good for both wild turkeys and those that love them.

Fire vs. No-Fire

The Southeast was once a fire-dominated system with the uplands made up primarily of mature stands of longleaf pine with an open park-like understory that naturally burned every 2 to 5 years. Fires created a ground-level understory made up of bunch grasses and “weedy” plants that provided plenty of food and cover for wildlife. The animals and plants associated with this ecosystem adapted through eons of evolution driven by fire and developed ways to cope. For wild turkeys that means being able to fly or run away, roosting in trees over water if necessary, laying a large clutch of eggs (10 to 14), and being able to renest multiple times in a season. Some even speculate fire has something to do with why turkeys are so dark. Turkeys also reap the benefits of fire in the form of more food, improved nesting structure and quality brood rearing habitat.

Historically, fire in the Southeast was caused by lightning strikes in the summer, but later on the Native Americans and early Europeans also influenced the fire regime as they burned to clear land for hunting, pest-control, agriculture and living space. But with the introduction of Smokey the Bear and other anti-fire messaging in the early 1900s, the use of prescribed fire on the landscape dropped dramatically. As a result, the woods got thick and wooly, something no turkey in his right mind would go into, thus leaving fewer places to live and reproduce. Wild turkeys are not the only species affected… bobwhite quail, Bachman’s sparrows, gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers and many others are in decline because of this reduction in good habitat.

Land managers now use prescribed fire to mimic the natural fire regime. Benefits associated with its use include: releases nutrients making them available for plants, stimulates seed germination, enhances succulent new plant growth, increases plant diversity, reduces wildfire risk by removing fuel, controls undesirable plants and produces high-quality nesting/brood rearing habitat. Fortunately, prescribed fire use is on the upswing as more groups recognize that fire in the Southeast is like water to the rainforest, and without fire our precious flora and fauna are lost.

Dormant Season (winter) Burns vs. Growing Season (spring) Burns

Dormant season (winter) burns are the most common type of prescribed fire and usually takes place from November-February. The weather patterns at this time of year are predictable, cooler temperatures make burning more enjoyable, and risk of timber mortality is reduced. Dormant season burns are also great for beginning burners who need to practice the craft and are especially useful to reduce fuel loads. But when only winter burns are conducted, we see less plant diversity, and hardwoods (oaks, hickories and sweetgums) tend to take over, shading out more beneficial grasses and “weeds.” This is the time to consider using some growing-season fire.

Growing-season (spring) burns aren’t used as often, although that is changing. These burns are usually done March-May (sometimes later into the summer or early fall) when plants are actively growing. Growing-season burns more closely mimic the natural fires of old. Most growing-season burns are used to improve plant diversity (a whole different group will flourish compared to winter burns) and control hardwood competition.

I always tell folks who want more wildlife, no matter what it is, the key is habitat diversity. You have to provide everything an animal needs (food, nesting habitat, escape cover, brood rearing habitat, etc.) all year-round, not just when you want to hunt them. A part of that model is using all the tools in the tool box. Prescribed fire during both dormant and growing seasons is a must when managing lands in the Southeast, and when used wisely, can create the year-round habitat that wildlife, including turkeys, needs to flourish.

Growing Season Burns and Turkey Nests

“They’ve just burned up my favorite turkey hunting spot,” or “They’re burning up all the turkey nests!” These are common complaints I hear this time of year as many land managers are working feverishly to complete their prescribed burning goals for the year and the turkey hunting legion hits the woods. These are legitimate concerns by those worried about next year’s turkey poults or those immediately concerned about a bird this year, but it’s not as bad as it sounds.

It may seem illogical, but if your favorite turkey hunting spot just got burned, consider yourself lucky! Hurry, go set up there now, even if it’s still smoking. Many seasoned turkey hunters seek out these recently burned areas, because they know the dinner bell has been rung and the turkeys are on the way. All sorts of insects, acorns, snails, grubs, lizards, etc. have just been cooked to order and laid out on the buffet table with no scratching needed. I’ve often seen turkeys visit sites immediately after a burn and wondered to myself how they don’t burn their feet. And of course while they’re there, there may be a little Barry White playing in the background as the toms put on a show for the ladies.

Within literally days or weeks, depending on the amount of rain, these areas green-up with new vegetation that provides excellent brood-rearing habitat for hens with poults that need protein-rich bugs for rapid growth. The more bugs poults can scarf down, the quicker they can grow and get out of reach of predators.

As for the concern about burning up all the turkey nests, have you ever wondered why some of our federal lands like Ft. Stewart and Oconee National Forest, or some WMAs like Di-Lane and Chickasawhatchee, or some private plantations have such strong turkey populations? It’s because they use prescribed fire to burn the woods, both dormant and growing season. In the case of federal lands, they’re actually mandated by law to manage for military training and maintaining endangered species habitat like that for red-cockaded woodpeckers. On some state WMAs they’re actually trying to enhance and restore quail habitat. Most private plantations are managing for quail and deer, as well as pine timber production and need to reduce hardwood competition. Whatever the main objective, turkey hunters enjoy the by-product with awesome turkey habitat and lots of turkeys to hunt.

But aren’t some turkey nests lost due to growing-season burns? Yes, but we’re managing for the population. The losses are not as much as you might think for several reasons. Research shows that hens don’t prefer to nest in areas that are scheduled to be burned, often times because it may be too thick or lacks good nesting structure because the site hasn’t been actively managed, so the chances of burning up a nest is relatively low from the start.

These are the sites that managers are targeting to burn, so the probability of nests being in jeopardy is slim. If a nest is lost, the hen will renest. Plus, the nests that are successful will have much better poult survival because of the better brood habitat, more than making up for the few nests that didn’t make it.

There’s evidence that some nests can hatch successfully after being scorched by fire. Recent research in Georgia documented a hen whose nest was burned and still successfully hatched. There have been several recent studies in Georgia and North Carolina documenting the overall benefits of growing-season fire for wild turkeys that outweigh any short-term nest losses.

The comeback of the wild turkey is one of those conservation success stories that we look back on with pride. Because of the hard work and passionate dedication of so many, including the Georgia DNR, U.S. Forest Service, NWTF volunteers and hunters, there is now essentially a turkey in every place where there is suitable habitat. These partners are the ones ensuring that there are plenty of turkeys and other wildlife for all to enjoy, and they use growing-season fire to make it a reality.

The NWTF will continue to help with these efforts with our “Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.” initiative. So when you’re chasing a longbeard on the Oconee National Forest and smell smoke on the wind, rest assured it’s helping to ensure that there are plenty of turkeys to chase for generations to come.

Read More On Turkeys & Fire

More information on the use of prescribed fire, its benefits to turkeys and its use during the growing season can be found in the works below.

• Georgia Prescribed Fire Council:
• Southern Fire Exchange
• Georgia Forestry Commission
• Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy

For more information on wild turkeys and growing-season fires, please see these publications:

• Lightning-Season Burning: Friend or Foe of Breeding Birds? Jim Cox and Brent Widener
• Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy
• Eastern wild turkey reproductive ecology in frequently-burned longleaf pine savannas. Andrew R. Little, Mary M. Streich, Michael J. Chamberlain, L. Mike Conner, Robert J. Warren. Forest Ecology and Management, Vol. 331, Nov. 2014, p. 180-187.

Wild Turkey Nest Survival and Nest-Site Selection in the Presence of Growing-Season

• Prescribed Fire. Eric L. Kilburg, Christopher E. Moorman, Christopher S. Deperno, David Cobb, Craig Harper. Journal of Wildlife Management 2014, 76(6), p. 1033-1039.

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