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The Food Factor

Any search for spring turkeys should start with identifying where they’re feeding and what they’re eating. Food determines a turkey’s location in its home range and also dictates its daily travels. Whether you’re scouting familiar country or new ground, or actually hunting land for the first time, you can shorten your search for feeding areas by using this outline of preferred feeding spots.

Pastures: Horse or cattle pastures serve as turkey magnets in early spring for several reasons.
First, pastures have residual grass, which grows new green shoots from an established root structure early in the season. Turkeys crave greens during early spring, and they will eat soft new grass shoots and tender leaves from weeds. Dandelions and other weeds thrive in pastures, and they poke up early and grow quickly while the weather is still cool. Later in the season, turkeys love to eat dandelion flowers, too.

Second, pastures are where the first insects of the season appear, offering nutritious, high-protein bonus morsels for foraging birds. Spring is too early for grasshoppers, but crickets, beetles, ants and spiders will be out, and turkeys won’t hesitate to snatch them or other bugs.

Finally, cow pies and horse droppings enrich the soil, fueling early green-up. They also provide extra forage in the form of grain, bugs, worms and grubs turkeys uncover with a few kicks or scratches. In dairy farming areas, winter manure spreading can help turkeys survive, and birds are just as happy for that kind of food come spring.

Grain crop residue: Through much of turkey range, a grain field that was harvested the previous fall but not chopped and plowed under makes a prime turkey feeding area.

Sometimes, enough snow covers waste grain during winter that a cornucopia of kernels remain in spring. Even if turkeys had access to the field in winter, there should still be enough grain to attract and hold birds in spring.

Cut cornfields are tops for turkeys. Depending on the previous fall’s weather, there can be several or many such gems in spring. Hens and gobblers love corn, because they instinctively know it’s a high-protein, high-calorie, high-nutrition food source.

Soybean fields run a close second to corn. Wheat and oat stubble can be good, too, but because those small grains are harvested earlier in fall, they often get plowed under before winter. That’s always true with winter wheat, which is planted in fall. It’s sometimes true with spring wheat, which matures relatively early in fall.

Green fields: As spring progresses, hayfields and meadows start to green up. These fields are usually fertilized heavily and are planted with crops that thrive in cool, damp weather. After green fields are thriving, turkeys might abandon pastures in favor of these more lush environments.

Alfalfa fields are tops, because the buds, flowers and leaves of this legume are highly nutritious. Also, alfalfa supports a rich array of insect and invertebrate life on the soil below the canopy of luxurious leaves. Other good green fields include clover patches and orchard grass. These plants green up early, providing succulent leaves, and support insect life.

Plowed or planted grain fields: Never underestimate the power of a plowed field for attracting hungry turkeys. A freshly turned field is about as good as it gets, because turkeys seem to know that worms and grubs are available for the picking. Even fields that are planted with corn, soybeans, oats or spring wheat attract birds scratching for bugs or planted seeds.

Small-grain greens: Winter wheat fields, planted the previous fall, can really attract the turkeys in spring, especially when it’s very early and nothing else is green. Turkeys like to eat tender wheat shoots and also scratch for insects and grubs among the tufts of juicy, grass-like plants. Later in spring, fields of oats and spring wheat sprout enough greens to attract turkeys, after the seeds have germinated and grown.

Hard and soft mast: Don’t overlook hard mast in spring, even though you might not think of nuts as turkey food at that time. Hard mast might have been under snow all winter, but in spring, it’s available again, having rested in the leaf litter for several months. Even if acorns are sprouting, turkeys love to eat hard mast. Late mornings and early afternoons often find turkeys working the woods for hard mast, after their morning feeding sessions in open areas are done but before the late-afternoon feed begins.

Soft mast can also attract turkeys, though it will be the previous year’s fruit, often freeze-dried from winter and usually on the ground because new buds have pushed it off branches or vines.

Tote trails: In big woods, logging trails or tote roads are often the only openings. With more sunlight and moisture reaching the ground, many plants grow, including clover, dandelions, weeds, forbs, wild strawberries and tender shoots of young grass. These ribbons through the timber can serve as a restaurant and road for hungry traveling birds.

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