Thursday, December 1, 2011

Turkey Scratchings in the Woods

Yesterday I showed the uncommon occurrence of turkeys tearing up the needle bed beneath the pine trees. Similar activity in the deciduous woodland is far from uncommon and increases in extent every year. I just happened to interrupt a turkey flock busily searching for food beneath the leaves in this small area of mixed cedars and oaks.

The Wild Turkey was extirpated from Ohio around 1900, so these woods have gone for over a century with no significant turkey activity. Some turkeys were restocked in Adams County in the 1950’s, but it’s just been within the last 20 years that they’ve become common at Blue Jay Barrens. Historical populations of turkeys would have had an almost unbroken landscape of forest in which to forage. Now the woodlands are confined to scattered blocks and the disturbance from turkey foraging is concentrated into smaller areas.

The scratching on this spot has exposed small feeder roots and begun the process of breaking down the surface soil structure. Once the leaf cover is removed, the exposed soil is subject to drying, erosion, compaction and fluctuating temperatures. These are all activities that change the microbiotic activity and disrupt the normal woodland soil ecosystem. The bare ground is also much more conducive to the germination of seeds from invasive plants and increases the risk of new infestations occurring in the woods.

I’m reminded of a turned compost pile. Moist compacted leaves from the bottom layer have been stirred up into the top layer. As with a compost pile, this action breaks material into smaller particles and promotes a more rapid decomposition. The fallen leaves are expected to remain as a food source well past next year’s leaf fall. The leaves themselves serve as a food source for large soil organisms. The waste created by the larger organisms feeds smaller organisms. Nutrients released from the breakdown and decomposition of the leaves feeds the trees and other woodland plants. A change in this cycle could restructure the entire woodland ecosystem.

As I came into the woods from one side of the hill, the turkeys were leaving on the other side. I’ve already seen changes in woodland wildflower populations because of the turkey foraging. I’m just wondering what the woods will be like once the turkey population reaches some stable level.

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