Food Habits 101
by Rod Pinkston
Wild hogs are omnivorous, feeding on both plants and animals. But what exactly are they eating and how does it change throughout the year? Better yet, how do we adapt our hunting style or strategy to these seasonal habits to increase our year-round hunting success? My goal is to share stomach content research from multiple studies to help identify the food sources and diet of wild hogs in the Southeast.
Acorns, of course, were a preferred food source in the fall and winter months. Sawtooth oaks matured first beginning in September with steady evidence of various acorns through the month of March. It did not matter whether the acorns were firm or rotten. Hogs would consume the rotten acorns when deer would not. Hickory nuts were also abundant in stomach samples during this time frame as well as persimmons, roots and underground plant stems. An Auburn University study conducted at Fort Benning, Georgia identified 11 green anoles in December and January stomach contents. Although this small lizard is active in trees and bushes during most of the year, it seeks warmth and shelter in decaying logs and leaf litter during cold temperatures. Also, uncollected peanuts from the fall harvest were an important source of fat and protein during the coldest winter months.
Stomach contents during the spring months identified an abundance of plants and grasses. Major roots included spikesedge, nut grass, bulrush and cattail. Bugs and insects such as grasshoppers, earthworms, beetle larvae, snails, slugs, grubs and fly larvae became more common during the spring. Ground nesting birds such as quail and turkey were also vulnerable to lose eggs during this time as embryos were discovered in the stomach contents along with egg shell fragments. Spring seed plantings of soybeans, corn and peanuts were also favorite sources. Hogs would root a six inch deep furrow along a crop row the entire length of the field. Chufa plots planted for turkeys were also consumed.
The summer diet of feral hogs was dominated by grasses, broad-leaved plants, roots, underground plant stems, bulbs, tubers, mice, bugs, insects and a July-August peak of reptile and amphibian consumption. The Auburn University research discovered an individual pig had consumed 49 spade-foot toads and was observed hunting the toads at night. Additional species consumed in the Southeast included a variety of lizards, snakes and frogs. Planted corn fields and peanut plantations were energy-rich food sources and evidence of fruits such as muscadine berries and blackberries were also found during the summer months.
Numerous studies have documented wild hogs preying on other wildlife species throughout the world. Hogs have been observed consuming young lambs in Australia; preying on endangered loggerhead sea turtle eggs and the endangered Texas tortoise; and dining on turkey poults and bobwhite quail nests. They are known to consume the eggs and adults of ground iguanas in Puerto Rico as well as lava lizards, green turtles and giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands. Hogs are also known to be an efficient predator of snakes.
Plant matter occurred more frequently in the feral hog diet than animal matter and also constituted the bulk of the food ingested. Overall, there were four major plant food categories: mast, roots, green leaf matter and agricultural crops. Depending on the study area, wild hogs always consumed at least one energy-rich plant food such as acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, chestnuts, pine seeds, cereal grains or other crops when they were available. The number and types of agricultural crops consumed varied between study areas, but crops represented an important component of the wild hog diet throughout the Southeast.
Wild hogs are opportunistic feeders and will eat almost anything that provides calories. They are incredibly intelligent and easily adapt their feeding habits to any given environment. Hogs are equipped with an amazing sense of smell and this nose doubles as a tremendous digging machine. They thrive from an underground menu other animals cannot or will not access. This portable plow combined with their opportunistic feeding tendency leads to their number one major conflict with people and other wildlife species.
With mast crops as their preferred food, hogs directly compete with many popular game animals, including deer and turkey. This competition is suspected to be a substantial limiting factor for populations of native species in some areas. In addition, hogs consume the nests and young of many endangered species. When natural foods are scarce or inaccessible, hogs will readily forage on almost any agricultural crop or feed put out for livestock, leading to significant losses for farmers. Wild hogs will also feed on tree seeds and seedlings, causing damage in forests, orchards, and plantations. In the Southeast, this is a serious problem in regenerating important long-leaf pine forests.
In addition to the effects of digging and consuming large amounts of vegetation and crops, the rooting behavior of hogs also causes considerable damage. Rooting destabilizes the soil surface, which can lead to erosion and exotic plant establishment; uproots or weakens native vegetation; and damages pastures, dams, dirt roads and recreation areas. These are problems state wildlife biologists manage every day. Over-population of any species is a problem. It is easy to understand how feral hog feeding habits along with their prolific breeding can quickly cause major agricultural conflicts. Hunters play a critical role in effectively managing these numbers to help balance the scale. Let's take the opportunity to seek farms, forests, orchards, ranches and plantations currently experiencing problems and offer our assistance. I also encourage hunters to perform their own stomach content research after field dressing. The results could be educational and beneficial to your year-round success.