Throwback: Big Birds Bug ‘Burbs

My article about wild turkeys, which appeared in the short-lived MyHomeMyTown magazine in late 2003, is reproduced here. My friend Bill Crosby, editor of MHMT, let this fabulous headline stand:

Big Birds Bug ‘Burbs

At first glance—maybe out a car window along an East Bay road—they look like rocks or tree stumps. Definitely too big to be birds. A closer look reveals wild turkeys, scratching for a meal.

They’re a thrilling—and increasingly common—sight. The wild turkey population in North America has quadrupled to more than 6 million in the last 30 years, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation. And though turkeys aren’t native to the state, some of that growth has been in California; indeed, turkeys can be found in every California county except San Francisco.

Once the birds are established, their population growth is a matter of biology and arithmetic.

Hens lay 10 to 12 eggs a year, and the chicks, who learn feeding behaviors from their mothers, can grow to adult size in three to four months. At that rate, the birds can quickly get in trouble with homeowners who find them flocking to yards and gardens, making a racket, and delivering unwanted, ahem, fertilizer to lawns, patios, cars, and even roofs. “Almost invariably, people will tell us that when they saw the first five of them, they loved them,” says Scott Gardner, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG). “But four or five years later, when they’ve got 30 or 50 in their yard, they hate them.”

California’s turkey population has prompted the DFG to publish a Strategic Plan for Wild Turkey Management this fall. Among its goals is to “minimize unwanted interactions between turkeys and the public.” Much of the responsibility for these interactions lies with homeowners who unintentionally domesticate the birds, Gardner says. “The relationship between a human and an animal changes pretty quickly when you start feeding it.”

Gardner will be relocating a limited number of “chronic problem” birds from suburban areas (including the East Bay) over the next year and studying the results. But relocating turkeys isn’t easy, and the program is subject to California’s budget woes, so Gardner also hopes to convince homeowners to admire the birds from a distance — and not feed them. “The long-term question,” he says, “is how we get the turkey population behaving more like wild animals and less like stray cats.”