Hey, buddy, can you spare some turkey chow?

Flock of Wild Turkeys in the Snow
Wild turkeys can starve to death in just a few weeks in the winter. Stock photo

Winter is coming, so we’re busy cleaning birdhouses, putting up more feeders and plugging in a few heated water bowls for birds and other wildlife. We know it’s ill-advised to bring every shivering creature into our house when it gets cold. So we do what we can to make the freezing months a little less harrowing by providing some food, shelter and water. 

Bitter cold makes me worry about all living things that must survive outside. But I probably worry most about wild turkeys. Those strange-looking animals, which are ubiquitous in the city these days, will eat all sorts of things. But they can’t forage for food in deep snow because their little pokey turkey legs just can’t propel them through it, especially when the snow is powdery. So the turkeys hunker down under evergreen trees and shrubs, trying to wait it out. But if the snow doesn’t melt, they will starve to death in just a few weeks. 

Last winter was the first time I’d ever heard about this sad turkey situation, so we only spent a couple of months trying to feed hungry wild turkeys before the snow melted. This year, we’re prepared to do more. Of course, I know that for a lot of reasons, people aren’t supposed to go around feeding animals in winter. But while some of those reasons are well founded, there’s plenty of dumb, cruel rationalizing going on out there, too. So I looked up why we shouldn’t feed turkeys, and one of the most frequently made arguments falls into the latter category, I’d say.  

I’m paraphrasing here, but the basic rationale is that since a 15-pound turkey usually eats about five pounds of food per week, you would have to put out thousands of pounds of food routinely if you wanted to save more than a few turkeys from starvation. What? How do you ever get anything done with that sort of attitude? I may not be able to feed a whole bunch of turkeys, but I’m sure the ones I can find and feed will be glad to have lived through the winter. 

How did we get so hung up on turkeys? My husband, Mike, and I see them all the time when we visit his mom’s grave at Lakewood Cemetery. That place is crawling with turkeys and they almost always seem to be little families, everyone walking around together, necks bobbing as they search the ground for acorns, seeds, berries, worms, spiders, snails, beetles, slugs — even frogs and snakes. I know turkeys can be a nuisance and even aggressive in some situations. But in my experience, they mostly just run off when they see people coming toward them. I mean, who’s really more likely to turn the other into a sandwich? 

While researching this whole turkey-feeding thing, I did find one good reason not to feed them, and that was because it might make them too tame. No one really wants turkeys coming to the door for a snack. And being too comfortable with people might also get the turkeys into trouble if they approach the wrong person and wind up hurt. When circumstances are dire, though, New Hampshire’s Fish and Game website says that exceptions can be made if “there are 15 or more inches of soft powder snow on the ground for a period of 10 or more days.” In that case, the website says, feel free to feed wild turkeys “cracked or whole kernel corn, sunflower seeds, oats, wheat, or non-medicated commercial poultry or turkey rations.” 

Once the snow starts falling, Mike and I plan to keep plastic buckets of “turkey chow,” as we call it, in the car. Like last year, when we spot wild turkeys, or go to specific places we know they are likely to be, we’ll stop and put out some food. If you’re also interested in feeding wild turkeys when times get tough, another approach is to feed them where you see them roosting this winter, often under evergreen trees. That same Fish and Game site advises spreading the food around, about a half cup per turkey daily, so everyone gets something to eat. Try to do this away from busy roads and buildings. Stop when the snow has melted away enough for them to forage again. 

Know that your kindness just might help a bunch of weird-looking turkeys live to enjoy another spring. 

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor who blogs at Livin’ Thing.