What Do Wild Turkeys Eat? Find the Food, Find the Birds

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Video do turkeys eat grass

Every subspecies of wild turkey has different behaviors. They all populate a variety of landscapes, live in different weather, and are hunted by different predators — all of which shape their overall behavior. One thing every wild turkey has in common — and something every hunter needs to take advantage of — ​ is the need to fill their bellies. Turkeys have to eat and, much like a whitetail deer, are very patternable on food sources. Once a pattern is found, you must strike.

Several seasons back, my trail cameras were picking up a flock of hens and a trio of gobblers every single day between noon and 2:30 p.m. It was like clockwork. It was the early season, and the birds were scratching through a smattering of fallen cottonwood leaves. They were after invertebrates, which I later discovered to be a massive beetle hatch, along with some ants. The problem was, I waited too long. I took notice of the pattern on a Sunday, confirmed it on a Tuesday, and by Friday the birds had moved to new scratching grounds. If you find a hot food pattern, call in sick and kill your gobbler.

What wild turkeys eat, like all animals, is dictated by what’s available to them. Here’s a breakdown of wild turkey food favorites by subspecies.

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Merriam’s Turkeys

There are two species of turkey today, the wild turkey and the ocellated turkey. The Merriam’s turkey is a subspecies of wild turkey. A mountain/canyon dweller, Merriams have food sources that vary significantly from year to year based on snow accumulations, snow line melt, spring moisture, and temperature.

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During early spring, birds follow the snow line up mountain slopes and take advantage of freshly-sprouted mountain greens. Grasses make up a large part of the birds’ diet. Bugs are also an essential food source; these turkeys will feast on:

  • Grasses, clover, vetch, flower heads, cactus blooms, and tubers
  • Grasshoppers, spiders, mosquitos, caterpillars, and other insects
  • Ponderosa pine seeds, snowberry, bearberry, hawthorn, and chokecherry

Rio Grande Turkeys

The Rio Grande turkey subspecies has adapted well to multiple landscapes; and food, of course, varies based on geographic location. Roughly 35% of the Rio Grande diet is grasses, 20% is mast, and 29% is bugs. In Nebraska and Kansas, harvested corn, bean, and winter wheat fields see constant bird action.

Grains are high in carbohydrates, which attracts the birds, and winter wheat is an excellent protein source. Popular Rio states like Oklahoma and Texas, where ag fields are fewer, force birds to dine on acorns, cedar elm, prickly pear cactus, spiders, and ticks. In cattle country, pastures full of cow crap are red-hot Rio spots. The birds love to dig through semi-dried and dried dung in search of undigested grains, beetles, and other bugs. Look for:

  • Grasses, winter wheat, alfalfa, clover, paspalum
  • Acorns, skunkberry, hackberry, pecan, prickly pear cactus, cedar elm, hackberry, grains
  • Beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, ticks, roly polys, ants

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Eastern Turkeys

The most widespread wild turkey subspecies, and one of the largest, the Eastern will eat just about anything it can get its beak around. Hardwood dwellers love acorns and other nuts like chestnuts and black oaks, but Eastern birds that dwell in ag-heavy Midwest locales spend time in cut corn and bean fields.

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Eastern birds devour leeches, snails, and spiders. I’ve also seen giant Eastern birds pound salamanders and small snakes. Look for:

  • Grasses and seeds of native grasses and hedges make up about 36% of their diet
  • Seeds of white ash, ironwood, water beech, witch hazel, flowering dogwood, corn, soybeans
  • Snails, ticks, snakes, spiders, salamanders, caterpillars, grasshoppers

Osceola Turkey

Found only in Florida, Osceolas have feeding grounds that are relatively simple to find: Look for cow pastures. Any seasoned Osceola hunter will tell you that finding these turkey grocery stations is one of the best ways to kill a bird. Cattle farming is a big deal in the Sunshine State, and birds will often fly, sometimes distances more than 300 yards, from a cypress swamp to an open cattle pasture.

In these pastures, birds can scratch through cow pies searching for seeds, grains, and bugs, but they can also find other food sources like carpet and chufa grass.

Like Eastern birds, Osceolas devour small snakes, aquatic bugs, and insects. Other delicacies include live-oak acorns, berries of cabbage palm, pine seeds, and black gum fruits. You’ll find Osceolas when you find:

  • Panic grasses, carpet grass, chufa
  • Black gum fruits, berries of cabbage palm, pine seeds, acorns
  • Aquatic insects, dragonflies, snails, snakes

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Gould’s Turkeys

Like the Osceola, the Gould’s is not widespread; it’s found in New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico. Like the Merriam’s turkey, the Gould is a mountain dweller. The Animas and San Luis Mountains of New Mexico and the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico and Arizona hold the most prominent US population.

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Food sources in these areas are limited, and birds take advantage of what they find. Various species of grasses fill their craws, as do nuts and insects. Find the following to find Gould’s turkeys:

  • Mustard forbs and grasses
  • Piñon nuts, juniper berries, cactus, wild grapes and berries, fruits of manzanita
  • beetles, ticks

Please keep in mind, this doesn’t cover absolutely everything a wild turkey eats. All subspecies of wild turkey are opportunistic feeders. One of the best ways to find what birds in your area are eating is to harvest one, plug your nose because it stinks, and open the birds’ craw. Separate what you can, and record your findings in a journal.

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