Each spring, concerned hunters contact the Wildlife Resources Division about growing-season prescribed burns and their effect on turkey nesting. Good news, turkey hunters! Several research studies showed growing-season burns benefit habitat management and have little impact on turkey nests.
Why is fire good for turkeys?
Turkeys’ habitat needs change throughout the year. During nesting season, turkeys use denser ground cover to conceal nests from predators. After poults hatch, hens use weedy cover open at ground level to hide poults but still spot predators. Prescribed fire is a cheap, efficient way to create and maintain these habitats. Recent research from the University of Georgia showed hens used stands burned 0-2 years earlier for brood rearing habitat.
So why burn in the spring? Why not some other time?
As hardwoods—like sweetgum—grow, they shade out native grasses and broad-leaf plants important for cover and food. Conducting prescribed fires in the spring helps control this growth. Growing season fires also encourages reseeding. The other thing to remember is mother nature doesn’t always cooperate with our plans. A burn planned for mid-February may be pushed back to early March because of poor burning conditions, like wet weather.
But how do we know it doesn’t affect turkey nesting?
UGA researchers conducted a study in southwest Georgia over two seasons and found prescribed fire destroyed 11.5% of nests. Of these nests, 75% of females that had nests destroyed by fire re-nested. One nest in the study was even exposed to prescribed fire and hatched! Predators, particularly raccoons, are the main cause of nest failure for wild turkeys. Without fire, hardwood cover increases and groundcover density decreases. With less groundcover predators have an easier time finding and destroying nests.
So, what is causing population decline?
It’s likely a combination of several factors, and ongoing studies will help find an answer. Right now, researchers are studying how habitat changes, predators, and hunter activity affect turkey populations. Check out this current study by the University of Georgia on male turkey gobbling behavior.
The Take-home Message
Growing-season prescribed burns may destroy a small percentage of turkey nests. However, the benefits to wild turkey nesting and brood-rearing habitat outweigh the risks.