Wild turkeys are primarily birds of the forest. The eastern subspecies found in Iowa and most of the United States east of the Missouri River thrives in mature oak-hickory forests native to this region. Turkeys primarily eat nuts, seeds and berries (collectively called mast) produced in greatest abundance in middle-aged to mature stands of oak trees. Turkeys are large, strong-walking birds capable of covering a range of 1-2 square miles in a day, searching for suitable food items by scratching in leaf litter. These “scratchings” – piles of leaves adjacent to a small plot of bare earth – are characteristic in good turkey habitat and indicate that turkeys have been feeding in the immediate area.
In winter, turkeys rely primarily on mast for food, although in Iowa and other agricultural states they are capable of substituting waste grain in harvested corn and soybean fields, where it is available adjacent to timber. When snow covers their native foods, or mast crops fail, corn fields supply an important supplemental food capable of carrying turkeys through winter stress periods in excellent condition. Turkeys are often seen in crop fields during the winter taking advantage of the waste grain in the fields in Iowa. Large flocks of turkeys observed in crop fields have raised concerns of crop depredation by agricultural producers. Wild turkeys are actually beneficial to crop fields, since they primarily consume insects out of fields during the spring and summer. To address these concerns, a crop depredation pamphlet was developed by the DNR. For more information on crops and wild turkeys, download the crop depredation pamphlet or stop in your local DNR wildlife office.
In spring and summer, a turkey’s diet switches to a wide variety of seeds, insects and green leafy material. Protein derived from insects is especially important to rapidly growing poults during their first weeks after hatching and to adults replacing feathers after their annual summer molt. Hayfields, restored native grasses, and moderately grazed pastures are excellent producers of insects and are heavily utilized by turkey broods where they are interspersed with suitable forest stands. These grassy areas also provide suitable nesting sites.
Turkeys roost at night in trees year around, except for hens sitting on a nest. Any tree larger than 4 inches in diameter at breast height may serve as a roost tree, but larger, mature trees are most often used. Eastern turkeys shift their roost sites almost daily, seldom using the same tree two nights in succession. Certain areas of their home range (area a turkey occupies throughout a season) may be used more heavily than other locations (e.g. a ridge of large trees near a feeding area or a stand of large evergreen trees during very cold weather).
In Iowa, the abundance of food and nesting areas in non-forested habitats (corn fields, pastures, hayfields, restored native grasses) has allowed turkeys to survive in areas where forests are limited. In traditional turkey range, minimum timber requirements of 10,000 continuous acres of mature forests are commonly thought to be necessary for wild turkeys. Research indicates that areas with a 50:50 ratio of forest with properly managed non-forested habitats is ideal turkey range, and a minimum of 1,000 acres of timber is ideal to allow a turkey population to thrive. Since the restoration of wild turkeys to Iowa, turkeys have been found in small 2-3 acre woodlots, much to surprise of wildlife managers.
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