On January 2, 2014, I received a phone call from a land owner in northern Osceola County. He had planted four acres of corn, which produced a great crop. The corn was gone having been eaten by all of the wildlife and he had 57 turkeys picking on the stalks for food. He was allocated a supply of corn, always without charge.
This is being written during the third week in January. Winter came early with deep snow, ice that prevents access to the ground and brutally cold weather. As I write this it is 22 degrees below zero in Grayling.
The northern chapters of MWTHA have more experience dealing with winter stressed turkey longer than anyone else within our state. When a typical severe winter arrives snow depth locks turkey flocks to one location, being unable to move. Mast and fruit that had been so plentiful just a few weeks prior has fallen or been eaten from the trees by many species of birds and animals. What remains on the ground is useless as the turkeys are unable to reach it. When all natural food is no longer available turkey flocks move to dairy farms, back yard bird feeders and places where they have traditionally found turkey feeders or scattered corn.
During years of unusually wet falls that prevented farmers harvest their corn we have observed 40 and 80 acres corn fields completely stripped of corn by early February by wildlife. For several years the Pere Marquette Chapter funded planting sorghum in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, the DNR and private landowners where turkeys wintered. Special sorghum designed for our region was purchased. Experts advised that deer would not eat sorghum. After several years of failure the program was abandoned. It was found that stalks were there but never reached maturity. One field came close but the deer moved in and ate it all. After several thousands of dollars not one turkey benefited. For two years sunflowers were planted at a state game area in partnership with the DNR. The seeds of those sunflowers that matured were eaten by the tweety birds before winter arrived.
An article appeared in the September 2001 issue of Turkey Tracks with the title Turkey Habitat II. We had the opportunity to accompany the DNR 6th District biologist and a local biologist on a day long review of 4 to 5 acre corn plots which the restricted turkey fund paid $480 for each plot. Some plots had a few stalks sticking above the snow, that never produced a corn cob. Other plots had the stalks remaining but the corn had been eaten long before. One plot had corn cobs remaining in an area of no nearby cover and didn’t even have a tweety bird track. One 5 acre field was found that perhaps 25 turkeys were using. About 50 plots were planted with an expenditure of $21,500 from the restricted turkey fund that produced nothing.
It is unacceptable and irresponsible to pay a farmer to leave a row of corn, to plant a few acres of corn or to entice a turkey to fruit without the mechanism in place to bring a flock through a winter when the food runs out. This is called PLAN B. We have witnessed the demise of turkey flocks that were trapped by deep snow, trying to survive on an inadequate food source.
After 3 decades of hands on experience nothing has been proven except that the best winter habitat in northern Michigan comes in 100 pound bags.
This past October the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the DNR planted 150 crab apple trees in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, located north of Gaylord for turkey habitat. This forest is a wilderness area of deep snow and brutal winter temperatures. Although fruit bearing trees and bushes are of a great value to many species of wildlife it is certainly questionable if these crab apple trees were planted with the intent of being a winter food source for Wild Turkeys. The Pigeon is home to fruit eating elk. There are raccoons, squirrels, crows and a multitude of other critters that love crab apples. Let us hope that these organizations have a Plan B in place when turkeys become trapped without a food source.
The Traverse Bay Chapter of MWTHA distributed 6,000 crab apple trees and other fruit bearing shrubs over a 10 year period. All were planted on private land, not as a winter food source but for their wildlife value. If there was any fruit left at the beginning of winter when it was gone there was always Plan B to rely on.