The three wild turkey gobblers strutted in the middle of the narrow country road, and seemed intent on staying there. I stopped the car, and the turkeys ran over to the driver’s side.
I rolled down the window and the large birds immediately began loudly calling and gobbling. They attempted to stick their heads inside the car.
I was in the middle of a holiday mash-up, with several plump turkeys engaged in the act of trick-or-treating.
I finally drove away, the turkeys angrily gobbling as I shook my head in disbelief. A lifetime in the woods has given me an appreciation for the wariness of wild turkeys. They can seem like ghosts when you’re trying to find them.
But there’s a new wild turkey in town: one at home among people. This turkey tears up farm fields and backyards. It is bold and aggressive, strutting down suburban streets without fear.
And sometimes, lately, it even attacks us.
The Turkey Returns
Conservation success story. Charismatic wildlife. Game bird. Nuisance. Invasive species. Thanksgiving dinner.
The turkey is many things to many people. And now, it frequently makes the news as a local danger. Why is this shy forest bird is suddenly running down motorcyclists? Our recent tangled relationship with wild turkeys may hold some answers.
I’ve previously called the restoration of wild turkeys one of our greatest wildlife conservation success stories. By any objective standard, it is.
I often see people call situations like the decline of elephants or polar bears as “hopeless.” But there are more elephants and polar bears today than there were wild turkeys at the turn of the 20th century. The birds had been decimated by unmanaged hunting and loss of forest habitat.
New regulations (and enforcement of them) and reforestation helped save the species. The real success occurred with active reintroduction – but not at first.
That’s because those initial efforts involved captive-bred birds. Turkeys bred and raised in pens quickly lost their wild instincts (this undoubtedly is why turkeys were so readily domesticated). When released, turkeys stood around yards and farms. These birds acted tame, but they weren’t aggressive. Most were quickly killed by predators or hunters. Almost none of these reintroductions worked. Some attributed the failure to the turkey’s lack of adaptability to human-altered habitats, but these notions would quickly be proven wrong.
State wildlife agencies began trapping turkeys in the wild, and then releasing them in new areas. Unlike the captive-bred birds, these wild turkeys were of lineages that survived pretty much everything humanity could throw at them. They survived in new habitats and prospered. These turkeys were wily, secretive and adaptable. Very adaptable.
I’ve found turkeys living happily in the middle of extensive wildernesses and in suburban parks, in Midwest farm country and tallgrass prairie, in eastern woodlots and Rocky Mountain industrial timberlands. They eat, well, just about anything.
Today, an estimated 7 million turkeys strut and cluck across North America, up from an estimated 30,000 a century ago. Some conservationists celebrate this as a roaring success. For others, though, the return of the turkey is too much of a good thing. The turkey has gone from a wildlife icon to neighborhood menace.
Attack of the Turkey
Hunters know that turkeys can be an exercise in frustration. I’ve spent more days than I’d like to admit where turkeys have given me the slip. A flock of turkeys scratching in the autumn woods can be as loud as a frat party. But if they know they’re being pursued, they move quickly and silently.
Turkeys also quickly learn where they can avoid hunters. And few places are better for safety than suburbs. Many suburban areas are a nice mix of habitats, with trees, vacant lots, parks and yards providing plenty of foraging space for an adaptable bird like the turkey. They commandeer bird feeders and backyard gardens. And they lose their fear of people.
This is problematic because turkeys can be highly aggressive creatures. In the spring, a large male turkey establishes its dominance through displays and gobbling. A turkey will gobble at other males, but it will also gobble at any loud noise. I’ve heard turkeys gobble in response to owl hoots, coyote howls and even car doors slamming.
Such an aggressive bird, used to humans, could easily start to chase people. But a lot of the problems happen in the fall. Turkeys are hierarchical creatures, and a lot of their autumn existence involves establishing and enforcing a pecking order. They need to show subordinates who is boss.
Joe Hutto’s Illumination in the Flatwoods details a turkey flock’s acceptance of a biologist as part of the flock (it’s one of the best nature books you’ll ever read). This appears to be how turkeys view their suburban human neighbors. They see folks shuttling kids to soccer practice and mowing the lawn, and think they need to be shown just how unimportant they really are. And so they attack.
Well, sometimes. There are a lot of sensationalistic news stories and videos about turkey attacks. Particularly in the Northeast, turkeys seem to terrorize neighborhoods every fall. The birds seem to show particular antagonism for mail carriers and bicyclists. In most instances, the results are more humorous than harmful, but there are instances where people have been injured.
Boston officials receive dozens of complaints about turkeys each year, including a 72-year-old woman who was reportedly scratched and bruised after a flock of turkeys pecked and scratched her.
The situation can be intractable. Neighbors hate aggressive turkeys, but there are no practical means to remove them. Hunting is usually not an option, and even removals by wildlife agencies can draw ire from animal rights activists.
Often, humans are more to blame than turkeys. Yes, turkeys are hierarchical. But they lose their fear of humans most often because we feed them. A turkey that eats out of your hand is fun until the turkey decides your part of the flock. A wild animal that associates people with food is, sooner or later, going to be a major problem.
Wildlife agencies put out releases to educate people. They advise walking with a stick, or spraying water at aggressive gobblers. They aim to teach people how to coexist with their wild neighbors.
Ultimately, though, all the hysteria about suburban turkeys says more about us than it does them. Turkeys may be weird, but humans are far weirder. We lament lost species, but we revile those that adapt to us.
Jim Sterba, in his thought-provoking book Nature Wars, writes that turkeys have gone from “novelty to nuisance.” Oddly, when a species becomes a conservation success, we start to resent its abundance.
Turkeys are even blamed for crimes they didn’t commit. Sterba writes that turkeys are often considered a major contributor to crop losses in Midwest farm fields. A study in Indiana found that almost no actual crop damage was caused by turkeys, even where farmers attributed most damage to them. Sterba writes,
“Deer and raccoons, however, were photographed after dark with their mouths full of corn and soybeans. Those two animals caused 95 percent of the damage, and squirrels, groundhogs and other species – but not turkeys – caused the rest.”
The turkeys were highly visible in large flocks during the day, so they were assumed guilty. However, they were mainly foraging insects, not eating crops.
In suburban areas, familiarity with wildlife seems to breed contempt. When wildlife is only found in national parks and wildernesses, the animals are celebrated and even revered. Think of bison, or grizzly bears. Suburban conservationists may become quite emotional discussing them. They are quick to villainize those who would harm them.
But geese on the golf course? Sky carp. Turkeys blocking main street? A public menace.
I have many friends who feel genuine sadness that they’ll never see a passenger pigeon. They wonder at the spectacle of a billion birds, a “feathered tempest” across the sky. But if tomorrow those billion birds reappeared, I suspect they would be heralded for about three days. Then everyone would be complaining about pigeon crap. Kind of like we do with city pigeons.
After decades of population increases, wild turkeys are declining in many parts of their range. There have been a number of explanations, but no one knows for sure. Hopefully, it doesn’t take their loss to trigger another wave of wild turkey nostalgia.
No one enjoys being charged by a wild turkey (or a Canada goose, or a black bear). Ultimately, though, we must learn how to live with wildlife that thrives in our presence. In a world that will soon have 9 billion people, we can’t just relegate the wild things to pristine wildernesses. Nor can we expect people living in rural and wild areas to be the only ones to shoulder the burden that comes with sharing space with large beasts.
If we want abundant wildlife, we’re going to have to share our local haunts. That can mean inconvenience, as when a turkey tears up the front lawn. We’ll surely need how to learn to act around turkeys, including not treating them like our pets.
Ultimately, the turkey doesn’t have to be a nuisance neighbor. It can be a fascinating wild creature that we can appreciate, no expensive travel required. Its abundance should not be viewed with disdain, but as a sign of what conservation success could and should be. Wildness not out there, but right here.