"Mast"ers of the Turkey Woods

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Editor's Note: If you are attending this weekends' NWTF Convention in Nashville, be sure to stop by the Biologic and Nativ Nurseries booth for more information on enhancing your property for turkeys! 

When most of us think of trees and the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), we think of something they “roost” in.  A superior tree on a creek bank or beaver pond is an ideal spot for an old gobbler to get some rest.  However, these trees and many others can provide a huge benefit for turkeys other than the form of a roosting place.  Each tree species on your property adds diversity to the habitat and food source offered.  It’s important to have a food source that can sustain your resident turkey flock throughout the entire year.  Turkeys are opportunistic feeders, meaning that they consume a large variety of foods, with hard and soft mast being within their diet.  Understanding the mast producing trees on your property can make you a better land manager and turkey hunter. 

There are several tactics to fully understand each part of the equation in order for it to work.  The main variables to look for on the property you’re hunting or managing are:

·        Current tree species that drops fruit palatable for turkeys
·        Fruiting drop times of those species
·        When turkeys need that food source
·        How you can enhance that food source

All of the factors above are components within the habitat that turkeys depend on.  Late fall and early spring is a time when turkeys depend on hard mast producing trees.  Some hard mast producers for turkeys are: post oak (Quercus stellata), live oak (Quercus virginiana), southern red oak (Quercus falcata), water oak (Quercus nigra), chinkapin oak (Quercus Muehlenbergii), and willow oak (Quercus phellos).   After the acorn crop has been consumed, soft mast producing species can add to the buffet.  Some soft mast producers that turkeys love are blackcherry (Prunus serotina), American beautyberry (Calliparpa Americana), blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) and red mulberry (Morus rubra).  Both hard and soft mast provides carbohydrates for turkeys.  An abundance of soft mast producing trees can offset the cost of a poor acorn crop year. 

Identifying these trees on your property is a great starting point.  Once you have a good understanding of what the trees are, begin to focus on when that species drops its fruit.  Species such as red mulberry and persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) are dioecious.  Dioecious species have to have a male and female present for pollination in which only female trees produce fruit.  Therefore, do not be discouraged to find a tree that doesn’t produce fruit, as this trees’ role could be to pollinate its surrounding trees.  Planting trees on your property that aren’t in abundance can add to the diversity of habitat.   Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries offers two specialty oaks that turkeys love as well-the “gobbler white oak,” and “gobbler sawtooth”.  These specialty oaks drop mast that are half the size of regular acorns, but the parent tree drops bucket loads of acorns.  Using abnormal tactics such as these can add to the uniqueness of your property for both you and your turkeys.  Methods such as fertilizing and TSI (timber stand improvements) can enhance the potential of the trees on the property.

As mentioned, these trees are only a part of the equation.  All components within the habitat are important for long-term success and sustainability.  Learning the trees in your area can be achieved during a scouting trip or pursued on a morning with no success.  The guys that have truly mastered the art of turkey hunting are defined as woodsmen that fully understand the wildlife and their habitat.  Understanding which habitat types turkeys prefer during that time of year can keep you a step ahead of the “game.”  Knowing the “mast” on your property can get you a step closer to mastering the hunt!
Blake Hamilton
Blake Hamilton is a Registered Forester, Wildlife Biologist, and Nurseries Operations Manager for Mossy Oak. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Forestry and Wildlife Management from Mississippi State University. He has given numerous presentations and written publications on wildlife habitat enhancements. His experiences in native plant propagation and wildlife science have evolved into habitat restoration plans to landowners which implements the use of native grasses, plants, and trees.
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