Turkeys Across Texas
Article by Nate Skinner
Photos by Tosh Brown, Larry Ditto, Butch Ramirez, Nate Skinner
Springtime is a special season all across the Lone Star State. Temperatures are mild, wildflowers are blooming abundantly, a variety of vegetation is greening up, song birds are busy serenading, and many species of wildlife are giving birth to new young.
And then, there are Wild Turkeys. From their distinctive gobbles to their elegant feathers and impressive strutting, turkeys are the reason so many hunters and outdoor enthusiasts anticipate the spring’s arrival.
Their actions and behaviors dramatize tell wild love story in the woods that couldn’t be scripted by the world’s best scribes. When hunters use a call to lure in a mature gobbler for a close encounter, they insert themselves in the middle of the drama that makes these animals such a pleasure to pursue.
Turkey hunters should have plenty of opportunities to do just that this spring. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Wild Turkey Program Leader Jason Hardin, Texas, in 2019, experienced its best year of statewide production and recruitment for Rio Grande Turkeys since 2016.
“Hunters should expect to see large groups of Rios traversing a variety of terrains this spring,” said Hardin. “Old, mature toms will be available; however, many of the bird hunters will likely encounter regularly will be young jakes, due to the incredible crop of 2019. The future looks bright for wild turkeys in Texas.”
Sound management practices and conservation efforts from landowners and ranch managers across the state have helped contribute to the vast range and population of Wild Turkeys and can help sustain them in the years to come.
“Management needs will vary by ecoregion, and really by each management unit or ranch,” Hardin said. “In the western part of the state, roosting cover is often limited. Protecting old roost trees and planning for the next generation of roost trees is key.”
Hardin said this may mean that landowners and ranchers will have to defer grazing during the growing season in riparian areas to protect young trees from being browsed by livestock. He also said directly planting cottonwood poles is another good practice to ensure there is available roosting cover for the future.
“Brush management is another productive tool that should be used in western portions of the state,” said Hardin. “Land managers should maintain a well distributed brush coverage of at least 30 percent on a given management area.”
Hardin said the correct use of planned grazing, prescribed fire and strip disking and mowing will provide the necessary diversity of herbaceous structure for wild turkeys to thrive across a particular landscape.
“Gobblers prefer to display in areas with low vegetation,” he said. “Hens prefer to nest in areas with thicker herbaceous cover, but then they move poults to areas with lots of weeds associated with an understory of bare ground. As poults grow and develop, they use shorter, sparser vegetation for feeding and chasing insects. Plenty of structural diversity in regards to herbaceous cover is a good sign of active and productive management practices.”
As one moves east across the state to higher rainfall areas, there is a need for increased soil disturbance, Hardin said.
“In the Piney Woods and Post Oak Savannah, prescribed fire and periodic timber thinning is key,” he said. “Fire is an important tool statewide, but it is especially vital in areas with higher rainfall since the vegetation grows so rapidly.”
Hardin said Wild Turkeys prefer to nest in landscapes that have received prescribed fire in the previous two to three years.
“A two to three-year fire rotation is a critical part of actively managing a property to benefit wild turkeys,” he said.
East Texas Management
TPWD Technical Guidance Biologist Micah Poteet said Eastern Wild Turkeys prefer a mix of forest stands and herbaceous openings to meet their basic habitat requirements.
“Many forest stands and/or openings, do not meet the requirements to provide optimal turkey habitat,” he said. “Turkeys prefer a forest stand with an open understory comprised of diverse knee-high herbaceous vegetation (with stocking density which results in some presence of bare ground) and a mix of woody species.”
One group of folks who is very familiar with the proper land management practices for Wild Turkeys in East Texas includes land steward and TWA Member Simon Winston, his family and the staff on their property in Nacogdoches County—the Winston 8 Ranch. In 2014, Winston received the prestigious national Leopold Conservation Award for exemplary land conservation practices that, in turn, greatly benefitted Eastern Wild Turkey populations along the ranch.
Paul Wood helps the Winstons manage their ranch and said they employ a variety of strategies in order to enhance Wild Turkey populations.
“Half of the property is prescribe burned annually, so that everything is burned within a two-year cycle,” Wood said. “To avoid erosion, we use the same fire lanes each year.”
Wood said t they follow Streamside Management Zone practices (where narrow strips of relatively undisturbed forestland that border streams, rivers and other water bodies are managed to protect water quality) in all areas of management and when extracting timber. They also use some chemical control in areas that have invasive and exotic species that need extra attention.
“We use a brush clearing skid steer to help manage the undesired brush and invasive species to promote timber growth as well as produce areas where the grasses and wildflowers can survive and create better food and habitat for the wildlife,” said Wood. “Constant drainage and erosion improvements are made to avoid unwanted consequences from drought and/or flooding. Timber thinning is conducted in specific areas in order to offer the wildlife various vegetation schemes for breeding, survivability and cover.”
North Texas Management
MT7 Ranch Manager Ty Bartoskewitz said that the key to managing Wild Turkey habitat in the northern portion of the state is creating useable space and ensuring that there is adequate nesting cover.
“We continually sculpt the landscape with an excavator,” he said. “This mainly includes grubbing mesquite and cedar into natural openings and mottes. We remove all the mesquite and cedar adjacent to riparian zones, leaving only the hardwoods and shrubs. This provides the birds with clear access to and from roosting areas and gives them areas to loaf in the evenings and mornings just before entering and exiting their roosts.”
Bartoskewitz said they also practice planned and rotational gazing.
“This ensures that there is good nesting cover, helps reduce some winter grass cover and competition so that warm-season grasses will grow and provides soil disturbance which promotes the growth of natural forbs,” he said. “Forbs attract insects and produce seeds that are important in the life cycle of Wild Turkeys.”
Bartoskewitz said conservative hunting efforts and readily available water sources also play key roles in the successful management of Wild Turkey populations.
South Texas Management
According to Director of Friedkin Ranch Properties Donnie Draeger, who works on the Comanche Ranch in South Texas, Brush Country landowners and land managers are working to provide some open spaces for Wild Turkeys.
“Providing a mixture of motted herbaceous growth that is preferably native, with an edge effect near water and roosting habitat is key,” he said. “Turkeys need a mixture of open grassland, traditional brush, standing water, roost trees that are at least 10 feet high and short grass or open dirt strutting areas. All of these requirements need to be within a one-mile radius.”
Draeger said that the combination of roost trees and water tend to be the most limiting factors in South Texas.
“Artificial roost trees can be placed near ponds to entice turkey immigration into an area,” Draeger said. “Water wells can be overflowed into small makeshift ponds to alleviate limited water distribution. These enhancements of habitat for Wild Turkeys can also result in a positive trickle effect for many other species.”
Notable Hunting and Population Trends
Texas has one of the largest Wild Turkey populations in the country, which results in regularly hosting more turkey hunters and supporting more harvests than the majority of the nation.
The Texas Hill Country, or Edwards Plateau region, is home to the highest density of wild turkeys in Texas, followed by the Cross Timbers. These two ecoregions also host the most hunters and harvests.
There are also phenomenal turkey hunting opportunities in the Rolling Plains and in the South Texas Brush Country. Closer to and east of the Interstate 35 corridor, turkey numbers begin to decline.
Most regions east of Interstate 35 have a one bird annual bag limit and a spring only season. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule near the Interstate 10 corridor.
East Texas has some of the lowest Wild Turkey densities in Texas, but there are strongholds of Eastern Wild Turkeys in certain locales, as TPWD continues to restock wild turkeys in East Texas.
Hardin said TPWD plans to release 160 Rio Grande Wild Turkeys along the Trinity River, south of Dallas at two sites this year.
TPWD also plans to bring 160 Eastern Wild Turkeys into Texas from Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia this year to restock along White Oak Creek in Franklin and Titus counties.
“By the end of the winter trapping season, TPWD will have stocked close to 1,200 Eastern Wild Turkeys at 11 East Texas sites since 2014,” said Hardin.
Conservation Efforts and Research
TPWD has contracted with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to provide close to $300,000 in habitat management funding for private ranches and timberlands in the Neches River Focal Landscape. TPWD has released several hundred Wild Turkeys into this focal landscape over the last decade and wants to continue to support population growth and expansion through incentivized management practices beneficial to wild turkeys. The two main management tools being funded include prescribed fire and mid-story herbicide treatments in pine plantations.
TPWD is also partnering with NWTF to deliver and promote more than $100,000 in management practices on TPWD Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in Texas. This includes restoration on the Gus Engeling WMA, brush removal and range seeding on the Muse WMA and Chinese tallow control on the Alazan Bayou WMA.
Additional funds from NWTF are being used for educational purposes, events and a variety of other efforts that promote the restoration and conservation of Wild Turkey populations and habitat across the Lone Star State.
Because prescribed burning is so critical for wild turkey habitat restoration in Texas, the NWTF is now working with many state and federal agencies, along with other non-governmental organizations to help start the Texas Prescribed Fire Council.
“This will serve as a clearinghouse to help facilitate an increase in prescribed burning in Texas,” NWTF Biologist Gene T. Miller said.
To emphasize the importance of using prescribed fire and growing season fire as a habitat restoration tool, Miller said the NWTF recently published their Position Statement on the subject. It can be found at http://www.nwtf.org/conservation/article/prescribed-fire-letter. For more information about the Texas Prescribed Fire Council, landowners can contact Dr. Mort Kothmann, a retired Texas A&M University rangeland ecology professor and prescribed fire expert, at email@example.com.
TPWD annually funds research on Wild Turkeys and their habitat. According to Hardin, one of its forthcoming projects for Wild Turkeys is to assess the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) equipped with Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras to survey roosted birds.
“TPWD conducted a pilot study during the winter of 2019 to test the potential for this technology to detect roosted turkeys and was pleasantly surprised,” Hardin said. “Now we plan to fund a full research project to determine if UAV-FLIR can discern between Wild Turkeys and vultures; if this survey technique has the potential to conduct large scape monitoring; and, if computer learning software can be used to detect roosted Wild Turkeys and create reliable data.”
Hardin said the Texas hunting population is responsible for this ongoing research.
“Their purchases of hunting licenses, upland endorsements and hunting equipment helps fund these research efforts,” he said. “None of this research would be possible without hunters.”