Wild turkey hen with brood. Photo by Morgan Meador
Wild Turkey Habitat Use in Forest Managed with Prescribed Fire
Research on the success of nesting wild turkeys and survival of broods is largely attributed to good quality habitat. Throughout their range in North America, the dominant habitat type may change, yet the vegetation cover which provides visual concealment remains equally important. Incubating hens and hens with active broods depend on habitat with sufficient vegetation cover to avoid detection by predators. Younger forest or successional habitat provides the necessary cover for nesting and brood-rearing hens. Vegetation cover may become limited as the forest canopy cover increases and reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the forest floor. Sunlight may also be intercepted by invasive shrubs, such as bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), which forms dense thickets and limits the growth of understory vegetation.
To increase the amount of successional habitat for breeding turkeys, prescribed fire has proven to be an effective and cost-efficient method. Across Illinois, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) are using prescribed fire to reduce the prevalence of invasive shrubs and increase the amount of successional habitat. These burns typically occur during late winter, prior to the beginning of the spring growing season, but may also occur during late fall.
Christine Parker, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois, began conducting research in the late winter of 2015 to understand how turkeys use habitat managed with prescribed fire. Stephen A. Forbes State Recreation Area, Marion County, one site where this research was conducted, is managed with prescribed fire and is now comprised of a mosaic of vegetation cover in the forest understory. Preliminary results from the research at this site describe variation in habitat use throughout the year and the role that prescribed fire plays in that variation.
A key finding was that hens did not nest in habitat burned within the past three years, but did use some burned areas that were in close proximity to the nest. Most often, managed habitat used by incubating hens were areas that had experienced two growing seasons since the burn occurred. During the brood rearing period, hens more often used areas that had experienced only one or no growing season since the burn occurred. By focusing on seasonal habitat use by hens in response to burn prescriptions, this research will provide better information for land managers in Illinois who are using, or are interested in using, prescribed fire to improve habitat for wild turkeys.
Christine Parker is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and works with Illinois Natural History Survey Avian Ecologist and advisor Jeff Hoover. Parker is broadly interested in forest-bird ecology, and is studying the relationship between forest management, wild turkey habitat use and incubation behavior.