For many of us, the only time we see a turkey is when one is cooked and on the dinner table. Even then it is usually only on holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Have you ever eaten a turkey and wondered what a turkey eats? If you are a hunter or want to hunt your own turkey for the first time, knowing the feeding habits of wild turkeys can help you find them more easily.
Wild turkeys are essentially grazers: they are always looking for food. For the most part, they can be observed looking for a meal just after sunrise. After taking a break in the afternoon, they are at it again for many hours right up until the sun goes down. When a flock of turkeys includes younger chicks, they are more likely to look for food for the entire day. They also do this when food is scarce.
You can tell that a turkey is foraging for a meal by observing its behavior. They use both feet to scratch on the ground and then peck around to see if they’ve uncovered anything. Most of the food that turkeys eat is on the ground, but they may occasionally make meals out of food found in trees or plants. Instead of chewing, turkeys prefer to swallow their food whole. The food is stored in what is known as their “crop” until it can be digested by the gizzard in small amounts. Once sated, they will rest for several hours as their food digests.
Types of Food
Wild turkeys are considered omnivores: they will eat both plant and animal material, depending on what is available. As a result, their diet includes many different types of food, including:
- Large insects such as caterpillars and grasshoppers
- Worms, slugs, and snails
- Lizards, snakes, and other small reptiles
- Acorns, beechnuts, and hickory nuts
- Grains and seeds, particularly in farm fields
- Crabapples, berries, and other small fruits
- Plant components like roots, buds, bulbs, and even cacti
- Foliage, grass, shoots, and leaves
Perhaps the most peculiar thing that wild turkeys eat is sand or small gravel. This helps them to digest their other foods properly.
Turkeys raised domestically are typically fed a specific feed that is meant to emulate their natural diet. They are, after all, the same genetic composition as wild turkeys. Turkey farmers tend to feed their turkeys in such a way that makes them as large as possible so that the farmer gains the maximum amount of profit. More farmers, however, are moving towards a more heritage oriented diet, which allows the turkeys to forage on their own. This is also healthier for the consumer.
There are many factors that influence what a turkey might eat at any given time. Just like other animals, turkeys alter their diet based on the season. They will always choose food that is readily available and easiest to obtain. For example, in the spring, they tend to consume more plant material than in the summer, when their diet of choice consists of insects and berries. During the cooler months, turkeys go for fruit, grains, and nuts.
Geography also changes the eating habits of turkeys. The more forest area in their habitat, the more likely turkeys are to eat nuts and buds. Turkeys that live in desert regions consume more small reptiles, cacti, and seeds. In mid-western America, where agricultural fields are in abundance, wild turkeys tend to opt for grain. In fact, wild turkeys are often considered a pest by grain farmers.
Age is another factor that determines what a turkey might eat. Young turkeys learn to forage quickly, and the hen shows them the best places to do so. One-month-old turkeys tend to eat far more insects, reptiles, and other protein-heavy meats so that they can grow. As they grow older, a turkey’s diet becomes less dependent on protein than when they are young. Adult wild turkeys prefer plants over animal matter, but will still opt for anything that is readily available.
Knowing the feeding patterns of turkeys is a great way to step up your hunting game, but it is also a good way for birders to introduce wild turkeys into their backyard for observation. If you live near a wooded area, putting a turkey feeder in your backyard is a great way to bring the turkeys to you. These large birds are incredible to watch, but be careful. They can be vicious if you try to introduce yourself.