Wetland Gobblers: Turkey Photo Essay

Ducks aren’t the only game found in waterfowl habitats


Photo © JohnHafnerPhoto.com

By Chris Jennings

The spring transformation from waterfowl hunter to turkey hunter happens in a whirlwind of lightweight camouflage and bug spray. No strangers to bottomland hardwoods, sloughs and swamps, duck hunters switch out choke tubes, calls and decoys in pursuit of bigger game. The tactics are significantly different, but waterfowl hunters may find themselves in familiar habitats.

There are only two species of wild turkeys in the world: the North American wild turkey (which is separated into five subspecies: eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam's and Gould's) and the ocellated wild turkey (which is found in Mexico). Both turkey species regularly utilize wetland habitats at some point in their life cycle.
While turkey populations have soared to an estimated 7 million birds, habitat conservation and management will be essential to maintain these numbers. Ducks Unlimited partners with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) on projects throughout the United States to provide habitat that benefits waterfowl and turkeys alike. 

The Platte River in Nebraska is well known for its abundant waterfowling opportunities in the fall and spectacular spring migrations. DU's work in this region is providing vital habitat for wild turkeys as well.

"DU's conservation easements along the Platte River protect large tracts of contiguous habitat that will not be subdivided or developed," explains Jonas Davis, DU regional biologist in Nebraska and Kansas. "Land protection of the floodplain certainly benefits turkeys by reducing fragmentation and ensuring riparian habitats remain intact in perpetuity. Many of the DU projects along the river include wetland and grassland restoration, and these grasslands provide a habitat type needed by turkeys for brood rearing and foraging for insects."

Turkeys are extremely adaptable and utilize wetlands in several ways. While turkeys use wetlands differently depending on the region and time of year, Mark Hatfield, NWTF director of conservation planning, explains that turkey hunters in some areas should focus on wetlands.

"Turkeys need trees; there's no doubt about that," Hatfield says. "This makes bottomland hardwoods in riparian habitats extremely important. Turkeys have excellent vision during the day, but at night they are vulnerable to a number of predators. Many times turkeys will roost in wetlands, sloughs or green-tree reservoirs above water because this adds a layer of security."

Farm Bill conservation programs such as the Wetlands Reserve Program and Conservation Reserve Program have benefited waterfowl and turkey populations since their inception. These restoration and protection programs provide key habitat for a variety of wildlife. DU and its partners are currently working to maintain funding for these programs at adequate levels to support healthy populations of waterfowl, turkeys, and other wildlife species now and in the future.

Managing for ducks and turkeys

Managed moist-soil habitats, which are typically flooded in the fall, provide excellent foraging habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl.  In the spring, when these habitats are drawn down, a variety of vegetation flourishes in the damp, rich soil. Turkeys regularly feed in most-soil habitats in the spring, so hunters shouldn't overlook them when the season opens.  

"Turkeys will key in on moist-soil units when they dry out," Hatfield explains. "They become a hot spot for turkeys searching out the high-protein insects needed for egg creation. I've seen turkeys strutting across moist-soil units this time of year."

Hatfield regularly hunts a moist-soil unit in South Carolina where chufa is planted and then flooded. This habitat provides excellent wood duck hunts in the fall and serves as a food plot for spring turkeys.

Finding turkeys in wetlands is no surprise due to the abundance of food, but Hatfield explains that once hen turkeys begin actively nesting, the birds may shift to upland sites away from frequently flooded areas. 

"Turkeys will feed on mast crops, like acorns, on the edges of sloughs and swamps, and they can be found there year round," Hatfield says. "It's very similar to seeing wood ducks venture into the bottomland hardwoods to feed. But due to turkey breeding behavior, they are more commonly found in open areas like agricultural fields in the spring."

DU's efforts to protect and manage grasslands for nesting ducks also benefits turkeys. "DU's waterfowl habitat conservation efforts overlap with the biological needs of wild turkeys," says Sarah Fleming, a DU regional biologist. "In New York, NWTF has partnered with DU on several North American Wetlands Conservation Act standard grants, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Habitat Partnership grants and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program grants through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. These projects meet the needs of wood ducks and black ducks, but also wild turkeys."

Turkey hunting in wetlands?

Familiar waterfowling territory may be a starting point this spring, and understanding turkey behavior in these habitats is important.
Hatfield explains that when hunting in wetland habitats such as sloughs or swamps, it is important to use a topographical map. Turkeys will be on, or near, the highest ground in the area.  

"I've actually seen turkeys wading through a shallow wetland or flooded bottomland, but generally they are going to use the high ground for roosting or feeding," he says. "The hens will be seeking out insects this time of year and there's a good chance a gobbler will be looking for those hens."