Growing Season Prescribed Burns Benefit Turkey Habitat

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Forest managers have long known that prescribed fire used to aid with land management is an important tool to improve wildlife habitat. While many prescribed burns are conducted during the dormant season, or winter, there are benefits to extending the activity into the growing season.
The concern expressed by some is the effect of prescribed burns on ground nesting birds, specifically wild turkeys. March and April are generally known as wild turkey nesting months. Forest managers say that burning during this time is much more beneficial than harmful to wild turkey populations.Low ground cover provides forage opportunities and concealment for young poults.
“A common misconception is that prescribed burns during March and April are detrimental to wild turkey populations because they burn wild turkey nests,” said Ouachita National Forest Biologist Clay Vanhorn. “While we do the bulk of our prescribed burning prior to turkey nesting season, we have learned that prescribed fire during growing season is an important tool in creating the improved nesting and brood habitat that turkeys require to thrive.”
Burning during late March and April — when shrubs and saplings start to bud — is much more effective at reducing brush and saplings and stimulating grass and flowering plant growth than winter burning. Hunters know, and research shows, that the lush, new plant growth resulting after a prescribed burn attracts a multitude of insects and provides food and shelter for growing turkey poults. Conversely, if prescribed burns are not implemented, the result is less favorable habitat, a decrease in young poult survival, and eventually a decline in the turkey population.
Two to three years after the prescribed burn, the habitat is prime nesting for hen turkeys. “Hens prefer nesting in prescribed burn areas in the 2-3 years after the initial burn. The vegetation during this period is not too thick, but it has grown enough to provide adequate cover for the nests and young poults,” said Matt Anderson, Ozark-St. Francis National Forests Wildlife Biologist. “Since hens prefer this type of habitat, many of them are not nesting in the thicker, denser areas that are generally the target for prescribed burning during March and April.”
Historically, spring is the time for cleansing fires in nature. Before humans began focusing on fire suppression in wildlands, spring lightning storms ignited fires that eliminated brush and opened forests up to new growth. This resulted in a more fire resistant forest and enhanced habitat for wildlife at the same time. Today, forest managers work to mimic nature’s original forest health cycle with planned prescribed burns.
According to Vanhorn, turkeys, like many animals in Arkansas and Oklahoma forests, adapted to natural, periodic fires. “This has been happening for as long as we’ve had forests. We’re restoring an important component to an ecosystem that evolved with fire. It’s very common to see turkeys feeding on acorns and insects within hours of a prescribed burn, even with brush and grass still smoking around them.”
A position paper by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) supports the practice. “While the loss of wild turkey nests to prescribed fire is a legitimate concern, a majority of wild turkey research shows very few turkey nests are lost directly because of springtime burns. Research suggests that hens prefer nesting in areas that have been burned within the past two years, but not in high numbers in unburned areas because the habitat is too thick. For the few nests that are lost due to habitat management activity, predation, or even weather-related events, it’s important to note that hens may re-nest up to three times.”
To read more of the NWTF position on springtime prescribed burning and its effect on turkey populations. To learn more about prescribed burning in general, our website has information here.


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