The eastern wild turkey can be found from northern Florida and Mississippi to Maine and northern North Dakota. Before the first settlers arrived in Michigan, wild turkeys were established mainly in the southern part of the state. They were absent in the northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula due to the colder weather and deep snows.
Turkeys prosper in a mix of forest and agricultural lands. Because of habitat loss and unregulated market hunting, Michigan wild turkey populations plummeted in the late 1800's and by the turn of the 20th century few observations were reported. By the 1950s Michigan's wildlife biologists began a reintroduction program releasing birds in southwestern Michigan and later in the northern Lower and Upper Peninsulas. Since the 1960's, turkey populations have grown in northern Michigan even though they have been subject to severe winters. In many areas of northern Michigan, supplemental feeding seems to play a major role in winter survival. Wild turkeys are also located throughout southern Michigan and flocks are growing and expanding.
The home range of wild turkeys is one to four square miles or about 640 to 2,000 acres. Michigan landowners who are able to provide the necessary habitat components are likely to have turkeys on their property, especially if they live in a region of the state that does not receive more than 60 inches of snow each year.
Turkeys have exceptional hearing and eyesight. The bird's ability to run at 15 to 18 miles per hour and to fly on five-foot-wide wings at speeds approaching 55 miles per hour also make it a challenging quarry for predators. Many landowners simply enjoy seeing turkeys. Because the birds may travel several miles each day, opportunities for seeing them are good if habitat needs are met.
Turkeys are social birds and in winter often separate into three distinct groups: adult males (toms), young males (jakes), and females (hens) of all ages. These flocks begin to disperse in late winter or early spring when courtship and mating rituals begin. Toms set up territories and begin gobbling, strutting, and displaying in hopes of attracting a harem of hens. Most hens, regardless of age, will breed with a gobbler each spring.
Egg laying begins in April, and each hen will lay a clutch of 11 to 12 eggs over a two-week period. She usually chooses the base of a large, mature tree or stump, such as an oak or beech, in fairly open, isolated woods. However, some hens may nest in idle fields of weeds or grass. Nests are also found next to downed tree tops and brush piles. When the clutch is complete, the hen will incubate her eggs for 28 days. Peak hatching occurs in June in southern Michigan; two to three weeks later in northern Michigan. Until the young poults are able to fly (at about two weeks old) and roost in the lower branches of trees, they are very susceptible to predation.
Nest predators such as crows, raccoons, skunks, opossums, domestic pets, and human disturbances are the biggest threat to successful hatching. Adult wild turkeys have few, if any, natural enemies. Although coyotes will sometimes kill an adult bird, turkey densities are seldom significantly affected, even in areas where coyotes are plentiful.
Food and Water
The diet of an adult wild turkey includes about 90 percent plant matter and 10 percent animal matter. Hens consume about 1/3 pound of food daily; adult gobblers may eat 1/2 to 1 pound of food each day. Turkey foods fall into four main categories: mast (nuts and fruits), seeds, greens, and insects. In winter they prefer hard and soft mast including acorns, beechnuts, crabapples, and hawthorns. They will also eat waste grains in harvested fields of corn, buckwheat, soybeans, oats, and grain sorghum.
Turkeys foraging in agricultural areas in the fall and spring eat mostly waste grains, wild plants, insects, and young grasses. Corn, buckwheat, and wheat are outstanding sources of fall, winter, and spring foods. More information on planting these crops are available in the Cropland Management section.
As spring changes into summer, hens typically lead their young to open areas with succulent ground vegetation including grasses, sedges, and a variety of forbs and legumes, especially clover. These fields of grass and legumes contain protein-rich insects, which make up 75 percent or more of the poults' diet until four or five months old. Insects include grasshoppers, ground beetles, flies, caterpillars, ants, and crickets. As the poults grow, the seeds of ragweeds, sunflowers, and grasses are favored along with the fruits of dogwood, wild grape, cherry, sumac, and blackberries. Wildlife managers generally agree that artificial feeding of wild turkeys can overly concentrate the birds in a small area, making them more susceptible to poaching and the spread of disease.
Water is another important necessity. Turkeys need water almost daily, and hens rarely nest farther than a quarter-mile from a reliable water source such as a creek, spring, seep, or farm pond.
Prime cover includes a mixture of open areas within a mature (or nearly mature) forest containing a variety of tree species including white and red oaks, hickories, ash, beech, and white and jack pine. Turkeys use these mature trees as roosting sites but seldom roost in the same place on successive nights. Therefore, several suitable roosting locations scattered throughout their range are needed. Understory trees, and trees/shrubs at woodland edges or in openings also provide cover. Such trees and shrubs include ironwood, musclewood, hazelnut, beech, wild plum, serviceberry, mountain ash, wild black cherry, dogwood, crabapple, black locust, hawthorn, and pin and chokecherries.
Although turkeys can survive in areas that are only 10 percent forested, their survival improves when mature woods comprise 30 to 50 percent of the available habitat. Turkeys like open, mature woods but will also use timber stands that have grown beyond the small-pole (2-inch to 9-inch diameter) stage, if the understory is not too dense. Turkeys prefer varied habitats and also make use of brushlands and openings as well as pastures and row-cropped and idle farm fields. Travel corridors for turkeys include forested streams and river floodplains, which connect adjacent woody cover.
On cold, winter nights turkeys often seek two to five acre stands of dense mature conifers, which will provide thermal protection as well as roosting sites. Mature woods that contain nut-producing trees (oaks, beeches, hickories) are especially important in winter because they yield carbohydrate-rich food.
Grass and clover meadows produce high quantities of insects and can provide outstanding brood rearing habitat. Mixes of grasses, clover or alfalfa can be used. Refer to the Grassland Management section for more information on grass varieties, seeding rates, and methods.
In Michigan, the ideal habitat mix is 20 to 30 percent bottomland hardwoods, 10 to 30 percent mature oaks, 5 to 10 percent conifers, 10 to 15 percent shrubs, 20 to 30 percent croplands and 15 to 25 percent grasslands, clover pastures or idled fields. In good-quality habitat, the area will safely support one bird per 30 acres or one flock for every 640 to 800 acres. But unless you own a lot of land--1,000 acres or more--it is unlikely that turkeys will remain on your property year-round because they need a large amount of living space. Even so, there are many things you can do to attract wild turkeys to your property at various times of the year. General management options include:
The following are specific management considerations for eastern wild turkeys:
Openings can vary in size from a half-acre or less to more than 10 acres. Actual size is less important than where the opening is located and what is planted there. Openings should be large enough to admit sunlight to create forage growth. For example, linear openings such as power line rights-of-way, should be at least 60 feet wide. The optimum shape of an opening is long and rectangular with an irregular boundary that follows the land contours, provided you do not create erosion problems. If possible, maintain or enhance existing openings before creating new ones. Too many openings within a small area will fragment your forest and detrimentally impact a variety of wildlife species. Within a 100 acre forest, maintain three to five acres of openings. Several small openings are usually better than a single large one. However, if your area is severely fragmented, do not create more openings.
What to plant in an opening depends on your goals and turkey needs. Do you want to provide an additional source of food or establish permanent brood habitat or both? Are you planning to offer supplementary food during the summer (clover) or winter (corn)? Do you want low-maintenance plants that will be available over several years, or do you want to replant the opening each year with a grain crop?
No matter how we manage our property for wildlife, our decisions will always have impacts. For example, if we manage mature woodlands for turkeys we will discourage brushland species such as grouse and catbirds. Creating openings may produce habitat for turkeys and deer, but may increase cowbird or raccoon predation.
Habitat that is managed for wild turkeys also tends to benefit deer, squirrels, black-capped chickadees, and woodpeckers. You should also be aware that creating or enhancing habitats may invite unwanted guests. For example, if you plant trees and shrubs, in the hopes of attracting wild turkeys and songbirds, you most likely will also entice deer, rabbits, and mice that can become a nuisance by eating the new plantings and even killing them. Free-roaming dogs and cats may also be attracted to any habitat that suddenly has an abundance of wildlife.
In summary, eastern wild turkey populations have returned to Michigan and prospered since their reintroduction. If your property contains a mix of forest and agricultural lands, you may be able to manage for turkeys. However, be aware of the negative impacts that this management may have on other wildlife.
Last Revised: December 12, 1999