Nov 10, 2021 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, October 2018

Feeding Wild Turkeys in My Yard

William Gorman, who lives in a wooded area near Albany, New York, rakes up acorns and saves them to feed wild turkeys. The birds are such regular visitors that he has experimented with their food preferences, also offering cracked corn, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and more.

I live in Upstate New York, near Albany. My house is on a parcel of wooded hillside about 5½ acres in area, made up mostly of maple and oak, with a small stream at the bottom of the hill. I have lived here for more than 20 years and, for the first two decades, had never seen a wild turkey within 20 miles.

In mid-December a few years ago, six wild turkeys, all appearing to be first-year birds, marched up our hill and stopped to eat some acorns on the ground. They stayed around for 30 minutes, then marched off into the woods. I had raked acorns from my yard earlier in the year; I was planning to put them out later in the winter for the squirrels, in hopes of keeping them out of my bird feeders. I put some of these acorns where the wild turkeys had been foraging, hoping that they might return. The following day, they did come in, spending an hour feeding in this area.

I put out more acorns, and the wild turkeys continued to return for the next few days, staying each day for 30 to 60 minutes before moving on. I soon ran out of acorns and began to put out cracked corn instead. The turkeys accepted the corn quite well and continued to make daily visits, usually arriving about daybreak, and spending about an hour before leaving.

A wild turkey tom displaying.

In mid-March, two of the six turkeys started displaying, confirming them to be toms. Adult toms weigh between 16 and 20 pounds; hens weigh about half this amount. Toms appear blackish and, in good light, show beautiful iridescent tones of red and green; the hens are duller and somewhat browner in color. Toms also have red wattles and blackish breast tufts, aka beards. Hens frequently do not have beards.

Even with all these differences, without careful inspection it is difficult to separate hens from toms—until they display. Then, the toms puff up like round balls, with their tails up and fanned, their wings drooping at their sides. The face and eyebrow area become bright white and the wattles a more prominent red. The displaying tom struts about, often approaching a hen. The display may continue for 30 minutes or more at a time, for periods of a few weeks. During this time, it was a pleasure to hear turkey gobbles echo over our hillside in the early morning.

The turkeys continued to make their daily visits as spring went on, but instead of our group of six, only one or two birds would show up. Through May and June their visits became less frequent, and they did not appear at all during July. In early August, however, four adult wild turkeys showed up with at least 14 young birds about half the size of the adults. They moved about rapidly within their group, making a count difficult.

A wild turkey hen with poults.

This distribution of birds suggests that our turkeys had two successful nestings, and the two families joined together. This family group returned the following day and the day after that. On the third day, I was trying to take some pictures of the young birds when two large marauding dogs came onto the scene. Mayhem ensued, with large and small turkeys running, fluttering, and flying in all directions. All of the turkeys appeared to escape safely, but they did not return again for about five weeks.

When the turkeys again came to our yard, there were 24 in all, and they all seemed about the same size. We tried to count them each day and soon noticed that from two to four turkeys would be perched about 20 to 30 feet up in nearby trees, where they appeared to be assuming the role of lookouts. If I approached the group, the lookouts would start to utter clucks, and the feeding birds would raise their heads in alarm. If I approached closer, the clucking became more frequent and aggravated, and if I did not back off, all the birds would depart.

There were other times when our efforts to account for all our turkeys resulted in our finding one or two sitting on the hill and not coming to feed with the others. These lookouts appeared to be one of the reasons why it is difficult to get close to wild turkeys in the field.

Wild turkeys foraging in a field.

To our concern, we found that there was a fall hunting season on wild turkeys in our county. We hoped we could get our turkeys through the hunting season without significant loss or without the entire flock being chased away. We were elated when the last day of turkey season was past and all of the turkeys were still making their daily visits. Our elation was premature, however, since the small game season that followed ended in the loss of three of our turkeys. We don’t know what happened to these birds, but after the first two weeks of small game season our flock had been reduced to 21 birds. Of course, maybe it was coyotes or foxes that took the turkeys. We’ll never know. We were surprised to hear the turkeys gobbling in the fall and occasionally displaying during November and December.

Being a scientist at heart, I thought it would be interesting to get an idea about the feeding preferences of these turkeys. I took two similar patches of ground, each about five feet by five feet in size. I put out equal amounts of two different foodstuffs, one on each patch of ground, then watched for the turkeys’ reactions. During the fall, when food was relatively abundant, the turkeys ate cracked corn and tended to pass over sunflower seed, pumpkin and pumpkin seed, popcorn, corn on the cob, cooked rice, and bread. During the winter, when snow cover made food difficult to find, our turkeys still had a strong preference for cracked corn, but they would eat the other seeds. Although they sometimes ate bread or popcorn, they appeared to have trouble recognizing these items as food.

During the winter, wild turkeys are frequently on short rations, as their food is occasionally buried under snow. During this time, our turkeys have eaten needles from our white pine trees to supplement their diets. In fact, I have several white pines where the turkeys have eaten almost all of the needles from the bottom halves of these trees.

As I write this, with 20 to 21 wild turkeys still coming in every morning, I am looking forward to another year with the turkeys.

About William Gorman

This article was reprinted from Bird Watcher's Digest.

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    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021
  • This breaks my heart. God strengthen your spirit and comfort your heart.I am fortunate to be taking a vacation next month, hopefully before sky high inflation hits and I can no longer afford it.
    by Ironweeds, Fri, 27 Aug 2021