March 18, 2016
By Doug Howlett
The daily routines of all wildlife, no matter what species, whether feathered or furred, are driven by one central necessary activity — and that is the need to eat.
Safety and security, mating (at certain times of the year) and of course, the need for water, are also important drivers a hunter must consider, but without rival, finding — or creating — a targeted species' primary food source is the number one way for hunters to be successful. Certainly, plenty of ink is spilled on hunting agricultural fields or oak stands, as well as planting food plots, for deer.
But what about wild turkeys?
While calling, whether hunting in the spring or the fall, is the central way turkeys are hunted, with them, as with deer or any other animal, find the food and your odds of success improves dramatically. Turkeys, even sex-crazed spring gobblers, will still roost and roam close to food sources in search of hens, busy feeding to strengthen them for producing eggs and sitting nests for long hours.
Want to hunt fall flocks? At this time of year, every turkey in the woods will be obsessed with searching for high-protein foods to provide fat stores needed to survive freezing winter temperatures. Find the food and you will find turkeys to hunt.
What Do Turkeys Eat?
Turkeys are divided into five subspecies: Eastern, Florida (also called the Osceola subspecies), Rio Grande, Merriam's and Gould's (primarily found in Mexico). No matter where they are found or what subspecies they are, wild turkeys eat basically the same types of foods allowing, of course, for regional availability of certain food types. Regardless, however, wild turkeys are opportunist feeders, meaning they will eat darn near anything they can fit down their throats.
Primarily, they dine on acorns, berries, dogwood, juniper, wild grapes, and a variety of available plant matter such as grasses that produce large heads of seeds. Waste grains in agricultural fields play a vital role. In fact, an examination of the crops of 100 turkeys that had been harvested in Wisconsin revealed 54 percent waste grains and 27 percent wild plants. Insects are also an important food, particularly for poults, that need the high protein source to grow.
A look at poult diets consists of as much as 77 percent insects according to the Iowa DNR pamphlet Wild Turkeys and Crops: Identifying Crop Depredation. Though all turkeys will eat insects, particularly grasshoppers and cicadas when available. Even small frogs and salamanders can be targeted by turkeys.
Other key foods include legumes such as beans, peas, clover, alfalfa and chufa (more on that in a moment). According to the Minnesota DNR, wild turkeys are known to "eat more than 100 different food items." There was even one account of a turkey being found with a spent shotgun shell in its crop!
By region and subspecies, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), breaks down key preferred turkey food sources:
Eastern Wild Turkey
- acorns of red, white, chestnut and black oaks; beech nuts
- black cherry, wild grape, spicebush
- seeds of white ash, ironwood, water beech, hawthorn, witch hazel, flowering dogwood
- seeds of native grasses and sedges; leaves of Carex spp., Lycopodium spp., evergreen ferns; winter buds of hemlock and hardwoods; fronds of sensitive fern, burdock; chufa
- beetles, other insects, salamanders, snails
Florida Wild Turkey:
- live oak acorns, black gum fruits, berries of cabbage palm, pine seeds
- panic grasses, carpet grass, chufa
- dragonflies, grasshoppers, caterpillars, snails
Rio Grande Wild Turkey:
- acorns; skunkberry, doveweed, hackberry, cedar elm, pecan, prickly pear cactus
- paspalum and other grasses
- insects and other invertebrates
Merriam's Wild Turkey:
- grasses, forbs, alfalfa, sweetclover, sunflowers, vetch
- fruits and seeds of Ponderosa pine, oaks, manzanita, skunkbush, sedges; oats
- insects and other invertebrates
Gould's Wild Turkey:
- acorns, pinon nuts, juniper berries, fruits of manzanita, onion, skunkbush, wild grape
- mustard forbs; grasses
- insects and other invertebrates
Wherever you hunt, it pays to know what these plants and grasses look like and center your initial hunting efforts near them. Then, when hunting in the spring, once you hear a gobble or see turkeys on the move, you can adjust your calling tactics accordingly.
Remember when hunting the spring, as plants are blooming and growing taller, turkeys will focus on buds and seed heads where available. Insects are becoming more active during the warming days and will be more visible to birds in the open sun of grassy or sprouting agricultural fields and clearings.
Also, during early season hunts, don't overlook creek bottoms where the abundance of water mixed with warming weather will produce the first, sweet green shoots of growth that turkeys like to feed on after a long winter.
Grow Your Own Opportunity
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was editor of Turkey Call magazine at the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), the organization began selling chufa, a nutty, tuber that is literally like crack cocaine to wild turkeys. Above ground, chufa simply looks like a large grass field; the tubers grow just beneath the soil, and once mature (they require a 100-day growing period) and turkeys learn they are there.
Look out, flocks and individual birds will scratch the nutritious plot into raw soil digging for the chufa. To get things started, it's always a good idea to kick some up yourself and leave them scattered about.
So where can chufa be planted?
"Generally, it can be planted wherever corn is grown," says Donnie Buckland, NWTF private lands material on the NWTF's website. But he adds, it tends to do best in the Midwest and Southeast.
Other good plantings for turkeys include Egyptian wheat and millet. The NWTF's Conservation Seed program is a great source for obtaining inexpensive seed suitable for turkey-oriented food plots.
On my farm in Virginia, where we primarily plant food plots with whitetails in mind — meaning most plantings involve mixes of clover, rye grass, buckwheat, winter peas and brassicas — we observe turkeys and kill gobblers off those same food plots every spring.
Besides offering much of the same nutrition turkeys seek, these plots also create good bugging areas as they become invaded with grasses and secondary growth in the spring. The open space also creates ideal strutting areas for toms looking to be seen by wandering hens. Some of our favorite seed mixes include Evolved Harvest 7 Card Stud, Biologic New Zealand Full Draw and the classic Whitetail Institute Imperial Whitetail Clover, which if managed properly, can grow without replanting for 3 to 5 years.
Whether you opt to plant your own turkey-attracting food plots or go the natural food source route, one thing is sure, learn what turkeys are eating in your area, and in those spots, you will definitely find turkey hunting success.