Quilting Habitat for Pennsylvania’s Wild Turkeys

Turkey habitat

If ever there were a day to express gratitude (and perhaps a little empathy) toward the wild turkey, the last Thursday in November should be it! But in the Game Commission, our habitat managers pay homage to this noble game bird every day.

Almost Wiped Out

In the early 1900s, the wild turkey was nearly gone from Pennsylvania. Unregulated market killing and statewide forest clearing pushed the birds to isolated refuges. Over time, habitats recovered and game laws allowed population growth. The birds spread naturally as habitat expanded and some were trapped and transferred to speed the process. Today, Pennsylvania’s wild turkey is thriving.

 It’s All About Habitat

The most basic turkey habitat requirement is forest. They do very well where forests mix with fields and stream bottoms and habitat managers often refer to ideal turkey habitat as a “mosaic.” Older forest patches provide acorns, beech nuts, and black cherry. Younger forest offers nesting cover as well as blackberry, grapes, and greenbrier. Forest openings, fields and meadows are occupied by young poults as they gorge on bugs early summer through fall. As winter snows deepen, turkeys congregate on stream corridors and spring seeps kept open by their constant trickle of ground water. While forest is the general requirement, prime turkey habitat is defined by the mix of forest, fields, and stream drainages. The mosaic!

The Quilters

Put simply, the manager’s job is to create and maintain a habitat patchwork, much like a quilt. But these patches wouldn’t make a very sightly bed spread with their odd shapes, unmatched material and sloppy stitching. Yet that’s how the turkeys like it. A fallow field here, a timber harvest there. An astute habitat manager looks over an area and figures out how to mix in all the components that turkeys – and other wildlife – need to survive.

The Ax the Match and the Plow

Instead of needles and thread, habitat managers have a different array of tools at their disposal. As the great wildlife conservationist Aldo Leopold put it those tools include the, the ax (forest management), the match (controlled burning), and the plow (farming practices). Together, these practices are being used to conserve wild turkeys so they can be enjoyed as a noble adversary and maybe even a Thanksgiving centerpiece.

Benjamin Jones

Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management

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