What Do Turkeys Eat?

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Updated: December 13, 2021
Image Credit Ray Hennessy/Shutterstock.com


There are two species of turkeys, one being in the family Phasianidae and the other in the family Meleagrididae. Both of these species are in the order Galliformes that also includes other ground-feeding birds like chickens, peacocks, pheasants, and quail. Turkeys are originally from Central America and North America but were domesticated to feed humans as early as 200BC. They were later taken to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 1500s.

The North American common turkeys are typically called the wild turkey and the domesticated turkey. Domestic turkeys are those raised by humans for food. They are bigger than their wild cousins because they are fed to reach a bigger size and provide more meat. The species native to Mexico‘s Yucatan Peninsula is called the ocellated turkey.

Besides providing tasty meat and eggs for human dinner tables, turkeys and their other Galliformes counterparts serve another important purpose wherever they live. That is, they disperse seeds to help new plants grow. They are also important links in the food chain within their ecosystems, being predators to insects and helping to keep insect species under control.

Turkeys are related to the earliest creatures to walk the Earth, dinosaurs like the velociraptor. Their skeletal structure and overall shape closely match these gigantic prehistoric animals in a smaller form. They also move around like the velociraptor, mostly walking and running on their two legs. Adult turkeys only fly very short distances near the ground level when trying to escape a predator. Most of this flight is rapid wing flapping and running on their two feet.

Today, common turkeys roam all over the United States, Canada, and parts of northern Mexico. But they are more easily found in great numbers on poultry farms. Each spring and fall, North American hunters in some regions stalk the birds in the wild and use turkey calls to attract them as a shooting sport. Free-roaming wild turkeys otherwise live their lives in wild and urban settings, searching for the foods turkeys eat.

Although Americans, in particular, enjoy eating turkey meat for holidays in the winter and fall, namely Thanksgiving and Christmas, meat is a common part of year-round diets.

What Do Turkeys Eat?

What do turkeys eat
Turkeys eat seeds, grains, vegetables, and insects.

Image CreditA-Z-Animals.com

As omnivores, turkeys mostly eat seeds, grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and insects. But they also eat many surprising foods like fish, snails, and lizards. The birds spend all of their awake time hunting, scratching, pecking, and foraging for food. They look for food by turning over leaves and other ground debris with their feet. But they will even wade into ponds or streams, jump and flutter into trees and venture into city neighborhoods in search of the foods that make up their diet. Their favorite places to find food to eat in the wild include beneath fruit-bearing trees and bushes.

Even in the winter, turkeys eat well. They can keep their stomachs full and fat on their bodies in the winter months by adapting to the diet available to them. They have no problem feeding on pine needles, lichen, and whatever else they can find above or below the snow.

What Do Turkeys Eat in Captivity vs in the Wild?

Of course, what domestic turkeys eat on a farm or in a backyard is very different than what wild turkeys eat in the wilderness. While wild turkeys eat whatever they can find in the wild like the foods described above, farm-raised and backyard domestic turkeys usually eat commercial-grade feed bought in stores. This feed consists of the nutrients they need to maintain a good weight and size. It can also contain seeds, grains, and vegetables like corn. Captive turkeys eat insects and seeds if they can roam and forage on the farmland or other outdoor space.

Baby turkeys raised in captivity eat a different diet than adult domestic turkeys. A baby bird is given feed called a game starter or chick starter. This type of feed has a higher protein content than adult feed. Then, at eight weeks of age, the baby turkey is switched to a diet of grower feed. This food is as it sounds, designed to make the baby rapidly grow into a nicely plump and meaty adult for processing for human consumption.

Because humans provide the turkey’s diet in captivity, people also control how heavy these birds get. The farmer’s goal is to grow turkeys as big as possible. In the wild, turkeys eat whatever they can find from the time they wake until they sleep. But the diet turkeys eat in the wild does not make them rapidly gain weight like in captivity. This makes the wild turkeys look smaller and thinner to human eyes. But wild turkeys are usually able to maintain a healthy, natural size on their own. They find plenty of food and rarely starve.

What animals eat turkeys?

Just like turkeys are predators of insects, worms, caterpillars, lizards, snakes, and other small creatures, other animals are predators to these birds. Foxes, snakes, and raccoons are among their biggest threats in the wild. But any type of cat, from the domesticated cat to panthers, bobcats, and mountain lions, will make the birds a meal. The same is true of canines like domesticated dogs, coyotes, and wolves.

A Complete List of 21 Foods a Turkey Eats

There are two families of turkeys:Phasianidae andMeleagrididae.

Image CreditiStock.com/davidsdodd

Because they are truly omnivorous, turkeys eat just about any plant or animal they find appealing at a given moment. Of course, their small mouths, beaks, and absence of arms mean turkeys generally eat a diet of foods easy for them to forage, peck, pull apart with their beaks and swallow. Most of these foods are small.

As chicks, healthy baby domestic turkeys eat diets with high niacin and protein content. They usually need about 28% of their diet to consist of protein for their first 8 weeks of life. Then, they need 20% to 21% protein in their diet through adulthood. Baby turkeys can forage on the grass on their own as young as two weeks old. But unlike other types of ground foraging birds, they do not need high calcium foods like oyster shells.

Wild turkeys need less protein than domestic birds because they are not fattening up for the dinner table. Instead of 20% to 28% protein according to their stage of life, wild turkeys only need about 12% to 14% protein. This keeps their weight in a healthy range.

21 of the foods omnivorous turkeys eat include:

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What are turkey's favorite foods?

As omnivorous foragers, turkeys eat just about anything they can find and scratch to the ground surface with their feet and pull apart with their beaks. They like a mixed diet of grains, fruit, roots, seeds, nuts, and living creatures like lizards, worms, snails, spiders, and other insects. In the winter, they eat anything they can find above or beneath the snow such as pine needles and lichen.

Can turkeys eat chicken feed?

Chicken feed is about 16% protein, good enough for a wild turkey to eat and stay healthy. But for domestic turkeys raised for their meat, the ideal protein content for their diet is 20% to 28%. This means that a meat-producing turkey needs extra protein added to chicken feed to fatten up to market weight.

What can you not feed turkeys?

There are many things that turkeys should not eat. These include wet bread which will stick in their intestinal tract and cause health problems and possibly death. Other dangerous foods include onions, raw processed meat, chocolate, dairy foods, processed or packaged foods, fruit pits, tomato, and eggplant leaves, avocados, dried or raw beans, and feeds made for livestock or other types of birds.

What do baby turkeys eat in the wild?

For the first month of their lives, baby turkeys eat mostly protein foods like mollusks, insects, and small reptiles. After this critical month of life, babies are just as omnivorous as adults. They start eating more seeds, vegetables, roots, fruits, grains, and nuts.

What can I feed wild turkeys in my yard?

The best foods to feed wild turkeys in your yard are the foods they would forage for themselves in the wilderness. These include acorns, nuts, berry-producing plants, grasses, ground eggshells, or sandy grit to help with digestion and freshwater. Never feed wild turkeys wet bread, birdseed, or foods made or packaged for human diets.

How do I attract wild turkeys to my property?

Acorns are a preferred food for wild turkeys and what they love to eat in winter, spring, summer, and fall. If you want to attract these birds to your property, offering plenty of acorns on the ground for them to forage is a great way to entice them in. You can also plant legumes, winter wheat, and clover or provide grapes for the wild turkeys to eat in winter and spring.

Do turkeys eat apples?

Turkeys love to eat apples. These fruits are also a great source of nutrition for the birds, providing fiber, vitamins, and minerals.