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Diet of Rio Grande Turkeys

Posted Apr. 1, 2010

The Rio Grande turkey subspecies (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) occupies most of the Noble Research Institute consultation service area within 100 miles of Ardmore, Okla. It is smaller and more copper colored than the Eastern turkey subspecies (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) that can be found in the far eastern portions of our service area. Food is a critical habitat component for any wildlife species. What do we know about the diet of the Rio Grande turkey?

Like the infamous feral hog, the dietary habits of wild turkeys qualify them as opportunistic omnivores. This means that turkeys will eat a variety of plant and animal foods. Table 1 provides a sample of the diversity of Rio Grande turkey diets. The food items listed represent only a portion of what wild turkeys may consume. Preferences depend on season and availability of foods influenced by habitat quality and land management practices. Landscapes with water and woody cover intermingled among openings of native grasses and forbs in various successional stages are ideal Rio Grande turkey habitat. Establishing a proper stocking rate and using prescribed fire on native plant communities is important for managing habitats and foods for turkey.

Between 85 and 95 percent of an adult turkey's annual diet is comprised of plants. The remainder is animal matter consisting mainly of insects and snails. Turkeys also occasionally consume small snakes, lizards and salamanders. Hard mast such as acorns and pecans; soft mast such as fruits and berries; and seeds and leaves of grasses, forbs and sedges constitute the bulk of an adult turkey's diet. Similar to the young of other gallinaceous birds, wild turkey poults consume insects almost exclusively during the first few weeks of life to obtain protein needed for their rapid growth.

Nutritional requirements for wild turkeys are not well known, but their ability to obtain nutrients from numerous food types is advantageous for reproduction and survival. Foods eaten by turkeys are swallowed whole and stored in the crop before being moved to the gizzard, a powerful muscle that crushes and finely grinds food items before being moved to the intestines for absorption. Their intestinal tract, which is long in proportion to their body size, is beneficial for extracting nutrients from a variety of food items.

The amount of daily food intake varies by season, availability, sex and age. The intake required for survival and reproduction of wild turkeys is not known. However, literature states that domestic turkeys require about 0.03 pounds per day per pound of body weight. If this were converted for a 20-pound wild turkey, it would need 0.6 pounds of food per day. Daily food intake by wild turkeys may vary from gorging themselves when food is plentiful to surviving up to two weeks with little or no food.