5 Food Sources Every Turkey Hunter Should Know About

Proactive deer hunters plan their hunting strategy and location with destination food sources in mind. Oddly enough, for many turkey hunters, myself included, a turkey’s diet plays little or no role in deciding where to focus their hunting efforts. When the turkeys go quiet, the flocks break up, and things get tough, grabbing likely food sources is a good strategy to keep in mind.

To learn more about a turkey’s diet, I consulted Dr. Mike Chamberlain, wildlife researcher and professor at the University of Georgia.

“Turkeys are true omnivores and tend to feed heavily on items they can easily obtain,” Dr Chamberlain said. “So you tend to see birds using a wide variety of food sources most of the year, with the exception of winter when those sources become most dominated by hard mast and grain waste. Later, plant and insect communities can change drastically during the spring turkey season, causing birds to move what they eat often to take advantage of an easy and profitable prey source.

It’s important to keep in mind that the availability of these food sources will vary greatly depending on your state’s turkey season dates, farm availability, and spring greening cycle. Among these food sources, here are five basic food sources that turkeys can rely on each spring.

hard mast
“Acorns and hard mast are important for turkeys of all species,” Dr Chamberlain said. A less recognized wildlife favorite is the American beechnut. Like acorns, beechnuts can be an essential food source for birds throughout the winter and early spring when other food sources are not yet available in the landscape. Other hardwoods that eastern birds eat regularly include chestnuts, white ash seed, ironwood, hawthorn, witch hazel, and flowering dogwood.

In many Western landscapes, a Merriam’s diet and environment are both dominated by ponderosa and other pine species. According to Chamberlain, like most masts, pine seeds are a staple on a western bird’s plate. Mature pines provide excellent resting cover, produce an edible hard mast, and often facilitate a good environment for turkeys. Rios also rely on a hard mast to supplement their diet. A few favorites include acorn, skunk, sea buckthorn, hackberry, and cedar elm.

Flexible mast
Soft mast refers to fruits produced by woody plants like shrubs, trees, and vines. Depending on your location, the soft pole may become available late in turkey season when plants begin to flower and produce fruit.

For states that open early, a soft mast can be critical to a bird’s survival through winter and early spring. Fruit from last year’s growing season has dried up and is a valuable food source for overwinterers and early spring gobblers. Eastern turkeys may consume fruits of black cherries, wild grapes, and spice plants, while their western counterparts graze on fruits of Manzanita, skunkbrush, and junipers.

native grasses
“Grasses, in general, are important for turkeys because they provide luscious green vegetation for much of the year,” Dr. Chamberlain said. This is especially true in early spring when greening has not yet occurred and other food sources are not yet present. Turkeys feed on grass seeds as well as the first tender green shoots.

Native grasses not only provide a readily available food source for spring turkeys, but they also provide excellent security cover. Young poults thrive in grassland environments, which also provide great viewing opportunities. Some of the most important native grasses include bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, bison grass, eastern gamagrass, blue gamma grass, and needle grass. For those looking for Osceolas, popular grasses include panic grasses, carpetgrass, and chufa.

Forbs are broad-leaved plants that lack woody stems. Many hunters casually refer to certain herbaceous plants as weeds, but they are an important part of a turkey’s diet. Wild clover, sunflower, milkweed, and ferns fall into the category of herbaceous plants and are a popular food source for many game animals, including turkeys. Merriam’s and Rios of the West often look for alfalfa, sweet clover, sunflower and vetch.

“Insects are essential for turkeys, both adults and poults. Newly hatched poults only eat insects for the first few weeks of life, so abundant insects are essential for broods. Similarly, adults obtain protein and water from insects which they consume throughout the spring and summer,” Dr Chamberlain said.

Obviously, the availability of insects and invertebrates will vary from region to region, but one thing is certain, wild turkeys are opportunistic and can eat just about anything that crawls in front of their beaks. Dragonflies, grasshoppers, caterpillars, snails, beetles, worms and salamanders are all game.

“Strangely, I once saw a hen stand over a mud hole laden with tadpoles and eat so much of them that her crop was distended. I’m not sure you could have shoved another tadpole in the throat of this bird,” Dr. Chamberlain concluded. “Similarly, I also observed several toms wading through shallow water, catching crayfish. They would dip their heads in the water like an egret.

Featured image via John Hafner.

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