Turkeys are common guests on the dinner table, particularly for holiday meals such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, but what would turkeys eat if they could plan the menu? Learning about turkeys' preferred foods can help birders better understand these birds' foraging habits and where to find turkeys throughout the year when different food sources are available.
Foods They 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, beechnuts or walnuts, either cracked open or swallowed whole
- Seeds and grain, including spilled birdseed or corn and wheat in agricultural fields
- Berries, wild grapes, crabapples, and other small fruits
- Small reptiles including lizards and snakes
- Fleshy plant parts such as buds, roots, bulbs, succulents, and cacti
- Plant foliage, grass, and tender young leaves or shoots
- Large insects including grasshoppers, spiders, and caterpillars
- Snails, slugs, and worms
- Sand and small gravel for grit to aid proper digestion
In captivity or in agricultural settings, domestic turkeys—which are the same genetic species as wild turkeys—are often fed a special commercial feed formulated for game birds, turkeys or poultry. These commercial feeds typically contain a mix of material to simulate these birds' highly varied diets. Many turkey farmers also supplement their flock's feeding with additional corn, grain or other foods. The diet of domestic turkeys is often formulated to encourage heavier birds and faster growth to increase commercial profits. Some farmers, however, focus on heritage turkey breeds and offer a more natural diet for the birds to eat, including allowing them to forage freely through pastures and fields.
How They Eat
Wild turkeys forage constantly, always seeking out a new meal or snack. They are most frequently found feeding for several hours in the early morning just after sunrise, and will also feed more actively several hours before darkness. If food is scarce they will forage at any time of day, and when the flock includes young, hungry chicks, they are more often foraging throughout the day as well.
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 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. After feeding, turkeys will often roost quietly for several hours while they digest.
How Their 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, select food sources that are most abundant and easiest to reach. When different foods are abundant in different seasons, turkeys adjust their diets accordingly. In spring, they eat more fresh buds, grasses, and similar plant material, while insects and berries are more popular fare in summer. In autumn and winter, nuts, fruits, 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. Turkeys that are in more open, desert regions may rely on more reptiles, seeds, and cacti for their nutrition. In agricultural regions, wild turkeys can often find much more grain to eat, and may even be considered a nuisance or pest in farmers' fields.
- Age: Young wild turkeys 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, mollusks, reptiles or other meat to get the protein essential for healthy growth. As they age they try a wider variety of foods and transition to a more varied diet depending on what is available. Adult wild turkeys eat mostly plant matter but still take advantage of any easily available food.
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. Turkey scratching can damage turf or delicate landscaped beds, however, so plan a feeding area in a spot you don't mind getting torn up or trampled.
- Provide cracked corn, millet, milo, wheat or other seeds and grains. Wild turkeys are not picky and will readily eat less expensive birdseed mixes or will eat the waste seed scattered beneath bird feeders. Leave leaf litter available for the birds to forage, and leave windfall fruit and nuts on the ground for turkeys to find.
- Plant oak or beech trees along with grapes, cherry trees, crabapples, hackberries and similar trees and shrubs to provide an inexpensive, natural, renewable food source for wild turkeys. Native plants are best because the turkeys will recognize them more easily, and the plants will require less care to produce abundant crops to feed a hungry flock.
- Minimize or eliminate herbicides and insecticides that could contaminate foods wild turkeys eat, particularly during the summer when young birds are more susceptible to toxic chemicals. Instead, allow turkeys to forage freely and they will eat many bothersome insects.
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. It is even possible to provide a spot for wild turkeys at a backyard bird-friendly buffet instead of focusing on these birds at the center of a holiday dinner table.