There are just two wild turkeys in the genus Meleagris, the Wild turkey of North America and the Ocellated turkey of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. There are established populations in 49 US states, and they’re one of the most well-studied birds on the planet.
Wild turkeys have rich and complex social lives and are intelligent birds. However, most people are familiar with turkeys because they eat them! But here, we’re going to answer, what do turkeys eat?
Turkeys are extremely adaptable in their diets, but they almost solely consume vegetable and plant matter. Invertebrates and snails consist of around 10% of their diets and are an important source of dietary protein in the first six months of a turkey’s life. Some of their staple foods are grains, acorns, bulbs, shoots, tubers, leaves and grasses.
When in season, turkeys consume berries and other low-lying fruits. Insects, invertebrates and vertebrates such as small reptiles and salamanders make up a small portion of their diet, especially in the case of the northeastern silvestris subspecies.
Turkeys feed by foraging from the ground and low-lying shrubs. Feeding is a communal activity, taking place in flocks of several birds.
Wild Turkey foraging for food on the ground
Wild turkeys consume around >90% plant and vegetable matter and <10% vertebrates and invertebrates. This varies from region to region and season to season.
Turkeys are flexible with their diets and take whatever they can from their environments at a time. While their diet consists mostly of plant and vegetable matter, they also eat insects such as grasshoppers. Snails are also popular with turkeys, especially in the first 6-months or so of a turkey’s life when it needs as much fat and protein as possible.
A turkey’s diet consists of at least some of the following:
Turkey diets vary between region and subspecies. For example, in Florida, turkeys were found to eat over 32 different types of crops. In contrast, northern populations ate acorns, American beech nuts, black cherry, water beech, and fruits from hawthorn and witch hazel.
Green plant material is essential, especially when the environment is lacking fruits, seeds and grains.
In Texas and Arizona, agricultural crops were particularly important, whereas turkeys in New Mexico eat more fruits like wild grapes.
Turkeys introduced to Hawaii learned how to forage crabs and other crustaceans from the beach. So, overall, turkeys are adaptable feeders that are good at learning how to flex their diets to their habitats.
In addition to eating food, turkeys also eat large quantities of grit and small stones. This enables them to grind down tough vegetation in their gizzards, which are muscular extensions of the stomach.
Wild turkeys eating in a meadow in early spring
Wild turkeys feed on seasonal fruits ranging from juniper and hawthorn to wild grapes, cherries and apples. Berries are some of their favored foods when available from low-lying shrubs and bushes.
Turkeys eat some of the following fruits:
Turkeys eat for 2 to 3 hours twice a day. Then, at daybreak, sleeping turkeys emerge from their nighttime roosts and form small flocks to forage. Those flocks venture into the country and forage for around 2 to 3 hours, depending on how much food is available.
Turkeys repeat this at the end of the day, congregating around 2 to 3 hours before it’s time to sleep around sunset.
Many birds choose to feed at sunset and sundown, as this is when predators are often least active.
A wild turkey gobbling
Turkeys are excellent at spatial mapping and have strong memories, which allows them to remember where food is abundant across their range. When it’s time to feed, turkeys form flocks that wander towards these food ‘hotspots’.
A foraging group of turkeys often walks in a line with the dominant hen in the centre, feeding as they rummage the undergrowth.
While feeding, turkeys rip or tear their food from the ground, tree or bush and usually swallow it in one swift movement. Food is either swallowed into the stomach or stored in the crop.
If you wish to attract Wild turkeys, provide them with a supply of seeds and grains in a ground bird feeder.
Alternatively, you can leave out a bowl or any sort of walled container filled with seeds. Turkeys love bird seeds and aren’t too fussy with what type of seeds they’re offered.
Feeding Wild turkeys is not usually encouraged by wildlife authorities.
Wild Turkeys feeding underneath bird feeders
Turkeys feed primarily at dawn and dusk. When they awake from their slumber, turkeys gather in flocks near their nighttime roosts and set off the forage.
Their morning foraging session lasts around 2 to 3 hours, longer if there’s limited food and they need to travel further to find it.
At dusk, turkeys again go out to forage in small flocks before bedding down into their nighttime roosts.
A Wild turkey’s winter diet consists largely of seasonal seeds, grains and vegetation. There are some winter berries, too, such as hawthorn, wild grape and blackthorn, which turkeys will seek out where available.
Turkeys eat fewer insects and invertebrates in the winter, too, as insects tend to either die or hibernate when the temperature drops too low.
Wild Turkey foraging in the winter
In the summer, turkeys are busy pairing, mating and raising chicks, which means they need to consume more food to keep their energy levels high.
Fruits, vegetation and insects are all abundant in the summer - turkeys take advantage of whatever food is abundant seasonally. This includes grasshoppers, snails and even small vertebrates such as lizards and salamanders.
Baby turkeys feed themselves within just a day or two of hatching. The mother hen will guide her chicks to food sources and instruct them on what they can and can’t eat.
A baby turkey’s diet consists of more molluscs, insects and other invertebrates than an adult’s. This provides them more protein and fat, which helps them grow quickly.
As a result, young turkeys are more dependent on insects and invertebrates for around 6-months, at which point they begin to transition to a herbivorous adult diet.
Turkey chicks feeding alongside mother
Feeding Wild turkeys to the point they become less dependent on natural foraging isn’t healthy. However, providing small amounts of grain and seeds in the winter is a great way to support bird life in general, including that of Wild turkeys.
However, be aware that turkeys have excellent memories and will likely return to your garden daily to feed - and they’ll probably eat your plants and any seeds you provide them!
Overall, feeding Wild turkeys small amounts in winter is fine, so long as they don’t become too dependent. Different states release their own guidelines for this; for example, New Hampshire advises not to feed turkeys unless there are at least 15 inches of powder snow covering the ground for at least ten days.
A flock of wild turkeys foraging together
Wild turkeys aren’t fussy and will consume cheap bird feeds. Just be aware that feeding Wild turkeys isn’t always wise for the birds or for your property.
Feeding turkeys can make them dependent on artificial food sources, and a flock of turkeys is capable of tearing a healthy garden to pieces!
Wild turkeys shouldn’t be fed bread or large, hard foods that can choke a bird. The following foods should never be fed to any wild birds:
Close up of a wild turkey drinking water
Turkeys drink water and are highly dependent on freshwater sources such as lakes and streams. In fact, turkeys rarely breed too far from a water source, and a turkey hen and her chicks tend to stay within ¼ mile of fresh water. Turkeys need to drink every day, especially during hot weather.
To support Wild turkeys and other birds, provide a supply of fresh water accessible from the ground. This is especially important in arid climates or dry summer months.
Most US states don’t recommend attracting wild turkeys. This is because wild turkeys are very capable of feeding themselves and aren’t well-supported by artificial feeding. Conservation efforts aim to look after Wild turkeys instead focus on preventing habitat loss rather than providing food.
In fact, artificially feeding Wild turkeys may worsen their conservation outcomes. Turkeys are invading urban areas to take advantage of generous bird feeders, but instead of supporting the birds, this builds habituation and dependence, ultimately leading to culling.
A Senior Environmental Scientist, Scott Gardner told Scientific American, “If you really care about the wild turkeys, you won't feed them because you are making them into pests and putting them into a situation where they may have to be killed.”
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