Wild Turkey Diet: What do wild turkeys eat?

Wild turkey is an upland game bird species endemic to the regions of North and South America, and is notably different (although genetically identical) from domesticated turkey in that it is primarily wild-dwelling while the latter lives in a domestic setting.

In this article, we discuss everything there is to know about the food choice of wild turkeys. We explore how the diet composition of wild turkeys vary at different life cycle stages of theirs, as well as the factors that influence the type of food that ends up on their plate.

What do wild turkeys eat?

Wild turkeys are opportunistic omnivores, consuming both plant and animal matter — particularly tiny insects, reptiles and amphibians.

Opportunistic there simply means that wild turkeys have a very flexible diet; i.e they are able to adapt to whatever food is in season or becomes readily available. So food is never really an issue for the big birds.

Even though wild turkeys are recognized omnivores of the avian world, consuming both plant and animal matter, the percentage of both class of food on the turkey’s menu is still very much unevenly distributed.

The birds seem to favor plant materials than animal matter, although the nestling stage of the turkey has a relatively higher percentage of animal diet compared to the adult counterpart. 

Generally, turkeys in the wild plan their diets with food items such as hard masts of small trees and shrubs such as acorns, chestnuts and oaks, with waste grains from nearby woodlands and crop fields, with tender greens, shoots and tubers, and also with insects such as ticks, reptiles such as snakes and amphibians such as salamanders.

Adult wild turkeys often go for bigger menus such as small snakes, toads, and salamanders. The juveniles are usually too scared to attempt such as a task, so they sit back and happily enjoy their snacks of slimy insects and crunchy masts.

For a complete break down of what wild turkeys eat in the wild, let us consider each subspecies in their own range and habitat.

What the different subspecies of wild turkeys eat

There are currently five subspecies of wild turkeys identified, each of which differ from another in size, behavior, plumage and distribution.

The literatures, currently, claim of a sixth in the name of the ‘South Mexican wild turkey’, and they actually aren’t wrong in doing so since the population too, has always been recognized as a subspecies of wild turkey, but recent studies suggest that the subspecies is likely extinct. So we’ll be dropping them out of this list. To learn more about each species of  wild turkey, read the article below.

1) Eastern wild turkey

The eastern wild turkey favors fruits of black cherry, acorns, grape fruits, spicebush fruits, beech nut, acorns, chestnut, ironwood seeds, hawthorn seeds, seeds of sedges and native grasses, beetles, salamanders, snails and ticks. Yes, wild turkeys eat ticks, in case you ever wondered.  

2) Florida wild turkey

The Florida wild turkey favors live oak acorn, pine seeds, black gum fruits, carpet grass, grasshoppers, caterpillars, snails, dragonflies and chufa.

3) Gould’s wild turkey

The Gould’s wild turkey favors acorns, juniper berries, onion, wild grape, grasses, skunkbush, salamander, beetles and ticks.

4) Merriam’s wild turkey

The Merriam’s turkey feeds on ponderosa pine seeds, oats, rye, wheat, chokecherries, fruits and seeds of sedges and manzanita, bearberries, grasses, barley, sweetclover, vine, sunflower and small insects such as grasshoppers, spiders and beetles. 

5) Rio Grande wild turkey

The Rio Grande turkey consumes green foliage; doveweed, cedar elm, crowngrass, insects; beetles, snails and dragon flies, seed from grasses and forbs; blackberry, pecan seeds, paspalum, and mast; i.e acrons and nuts. The annual breakdown of their diet composition is as follows; 19% mast, 16% forbs, 29% insects, 36% grasses.

Where do wild turkeys feed?

Wild turkeys can travel far away distances, upto several miles per day, in search for food and water, but they usually return to their roosting sites to spend the night.

Even though turkeys travel this far, they only do so when their current habitats are no longer sustainable and productive for their forage needs. When turkeys discover reliable and sustainable foraging areas, they can establish them as a regular feeding sites, returning back consistently to continue from where they stooped when left undisturbed. 

Sites that turkeys travel to or establish as a feeding sites include: crop fields, woodland edges near livestock farms (picking up fallen mast and consuming left over grains), spring seeps and productive forests, or, basically anywhere that food is sensed in abundance.  

As turkeys travel around to these destinations, they also opportunistically feed, picking up and consuming insects from leafs and on the ground surface and also consuming fallen nuts and berries as well as fresh grasses and other vegetation.

Females with broods usually like to stop around feeding areas having abundance of insect lifeforms, i.e locating a fallen trunk of a tree where they know lots of creepy and pumped up insects are hiding, or the peeled barks of tree trunks. Mother turkeys primarily do this for the benefits of their hatchlings. The babies need the healthy protein packed within these insects for their quick and healthy growth and maturity. 

When do wild turkeys eat?

Wild turkeys feed throughout the day, that’s one of the reasons why they are called opportunistic feeders by the way! But the heaviest feeding period usually occurs during the first few hours of early morning and several few hours before brooding.

Wild turkeys can migrate to forage and they often do so with intermittent breaks for rest and digestion of what has already been consumed along the way or in the previous day. 

The heaviest feeding period for gobblers happen during the spring mating season where they are constantly expending energy courting and defending harems of females.

For females, it occurs just after their chick hatch out, where they take onto the forest paths with the broods in search for plant matter and cold blooded insects to consume. Females incubating eggs feed less, fasting for as long as a week while taking very short breaks for food and water.

How do wild turkeys eat?

Turkeys can feed on ground when there’s plenty of fallen items to choose from, but they can also fly into small trees, or ontop of dense shrubs to consume their hard mast.

Turkeys scratch on leaf litters lying on the surface of the ground or directly on the ground surface itself with the aid of their two feet. They do so in alternate fashion, kicking plenty of duffs and leaves behind. This loosens up the soil, from which they employ their tough bills to uncover whatever insect, worm or food is lying underneath.

They can also stretch their necks for low hanging fruits or other masts or plant parts such as leaves and buds.

Mom always supplies the food for her nestlings. Whatever food she discovers, she takes a fair chunk from it and then quickly call in her chicks to devour the rest. For the chicks, its first come first serve.

Turkeys have no teeth, thus they swallow their food whole or break them with the aid of the extend bills and the surface of the ground; securing the food item in their bills and then striking it on the ground to shatter. Then, they swallow part by part. Turkeys straighten their necks to facilitate the swallow process, especially for seeds like acorn and chestnuts.

After swallowing, the nut is stored in a flexible bag called the crop which contains secretions acting together with heat to breakdown the food. Next, the food is directed into the gizzard which contains stone-like elements and strong muscles for further grinding.

Do wild turkeys drink?

Just like any ground bird species, wild turkeys too need to drink water in order to survive. Their destinations in the wild seems to not only be a function of food but that of water availability as well.

Wild turkeys drink from spring seeps, ponds, lakes and even from livestock water sources.

How the diet of wild turkeys vary

1) By season

Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter are the four seasons of the North American continent, the native land of wild turkeys. Just like with any other animal in this region, turkeys, too, are subjected to a shortage and abundance of food resources with alternation of seasons. This means that wild turkeys also organize their menu according to the changing climate, i.e whatever food becomes available.

In spring, turkeys eat tender greens, shoots, leftover nuts and the early insects. During summer, the percentage of insect in their diets shoot up nearly 20 percent. They still consume their tender greens and other plant materials, and these still make up the majority of the diet composition, but turkeys are now enjoying more of walking-sticks, beetles, weevils, dragonflies, ants and larvae.

In fall, wild turkeys turn to the now abundant masts, nuts and fruits such as beechnuts, acorns, dogwood, grapes, cherry, gum, thorn apple, oats, weeds, and seeds such as those of sedges.

During winter, wild turkeys forage on the now dwindled or leftover fruits, nuts and seeds of fall. In periods where snow cover is abundant to the extent that it inhibits foraging on ground, wild turkeys can survive by eating white pines, hemlock needles, beech and buds.

At desperate times, wild turkeys may consume green plants, crustaceans, and larvae found in and around spring seeps which remain above freezing conditions year round.

3) By range

Wild turkeys inhabit a variety of habitats across North America.

Forest dwelling turkeys normally consume a huge percentage of tender shoots, grass, plant leaves, nuts, fruits and buds than another food resource. 

Desert country birds feed more on seeds, on plants like cacti and on insects such as small snakes and salamanders.

Turkeys near woodlands and fields (i,e near human settlement) take advantage of the available grains and crops, including the leftovers.

4) By age

Mature turkeys prefer to eat plant materials than animal matter. Poults or baby chicks on the other hand, are also no exceptions too, generally. But on their first summer with mom, they feed on softer plant materials as well as subsist on a much higher percentage of insects than mom and other grown up family member would. By fall, their plant diets expands a but more, now incorporating tougher items such as fruits, nuts and seeds. The size of the insects they take on also increases too, by their overall interest in animals subsides by a decent degree.

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Cite this Article (APA Format)

Bunu. M. (2020, July 29). Wild Turkey Diet: What do wild turkeys eat?. Retrieved from http://emborawild.com/what-do-wild-turkeys-eat/

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