Turkeys are a common guest on the dinner table, particularly for holiday meals such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, but what would these large game birds eat if they could plan the menu? Learning what turkeys eat can help birders better understand these birds' foraging habits and where to find them at different times of year when different food sources are available.
Foods Turkeys Eat
Wild turkeys are opportunistically omnivorous, which means they will readily sample a wide range of foods, both animal and vegetable. They forage frequently, and will eat many different things, including:
- Acorns, hickory nuts or beech nuts
- Seeds and grain, including corn and wheat
- Berries, wild grapes, crabapples and other fruit
- Small reptiles and snakes
- Fleshy plant parts such as buds, roots, bulbs and cacti
- Plant foliage, grass and tender young leaves
- Amphibians such as frogs and salamanders
- Large insects including grasshoppers and caterpillars
- Snails, slugs and worms
- Sand and small gravel for grit
In captivity or in agricultural settings, domestic turkeys – which are the same species as wild turkeys – are often fed a special commercial feed that may be specially formulated for game birds, turkeys or poultry and contains a mix of material to simulate these birds' highly varied diets.
How Wild Turkeys Eat
Wild turkeys forage constantly, always seeking out a new meal. They are most frequently found feeding for several hours in early morning just after sunrise, and will also feed more actively several hours before darkness, but if food is scarce they will forage at any time of day. While foraging, a wild turkey will scratch with both feet, alternating to use each foot one at a time, then pecking at the ground to find whatever has been unearthed. They will occasionally pluck fruit or other foods directly off plants, but only rarely actually forage while perched in trees. A turkey swallows its food whole and the material is stored in the bird's crop to be digested little by little with the help of the gizzard.
How a Turkey's Diet Varies
Though turkeys will eat many different things, their diets can be influenced by a number of factors, such as:
- Season: Turkeys, like all animals, will select food sources that are most abundant and easiest to reach. When different foods are abundant in different seasons, turkeys will adjust their diets accordingly. In spring, they eat more fresh buds, grasses and similar plant material, while insects and fruits are more popular fare in summer. In autumn and winter, nuts and grains make up the bulk of a wild turkey's diet.
- Geography: A bird's location greatly influences the foods it can find. Wild turkeys that are found in more forested ranges will have a higher percentage of nuts and buds in their diet, while turkeys that are in more open, desert regions may rely on more reptiles, seeds and cacti for their nutrition.
- Age: Young wild turkeys are precocial and can forage for themselves very quickly, and the hen will lead her brood to the best available food sources. For the first month of the birds' lives, they eat a much higher percentage of insects to get the protein that is essential for healthy growth, but as they age they will try a wider variety of foods and will transition to a more varied diet. Adult wild turkeys eat mostly plant matter but still take advantage of any easily available food.
Feeding Wild Turkeys
Wild turkeys are not common as backyard birds, but birders who live near wooded areas may find these large game birds foraging near their feeders. To provide an adequate feeding area for wild turkeys…
- Opt for ground feeding areas or large, low platform feeders that can accommodate these large birds and the flocks they forage in.
- Provide cracked corn, millet, milo, wheat or other seeds and grains. Wild turkeys are not picky about their foods and will readily eat less expensive birdseed mixes or will eat the waste seed scattered beneath bird feeders.
- Plant oak or beech trees along with grapes, cherry trees, crabapples, hackberries and similar trees and shrubs to provide a natural, renewable food source for wild turkeys. Native plants are best because the turkeys will recognize them more easily.
- Minimize the use of herbicides and insecticides that could contaminate foods wild turkeys eat, particularly during the summer when young birds are more susceptible to toxic chemicals.
Wild turkeys are large game birds with healthy appetites, and they sate those appetites with a wide variety of different foods. Birders who know what wild turkeys eat can more easily plan how to find these game birds in the field by visiting areas where food is abundant, and they can even provide a spot for wild turkeys at their backyard buffet instead of focusing on these birds at the center of their own holiday buffet table.
Photo – Wild Turkey Hen Eating © John Benson