The Case of the Terrorist Turkeys

Once driven nearly to extinction in much of the United States, wild turkeys are reasserting their claims to old haunts whether human residents like it or not

  • Les Line
  • Oct 01, 2008
“When I was growing up,” biologist James Earl Kennamer remembers, “my grandma had yard chickens, and the roosters would chase all the little kids. But they wouldn’t fuss with my grandpa, because he carried a stick. It’s the same thing with wild turkeys. You can’t let them intimidate you.”

Wild turkeys are intimidating? The original Thanksgiving dinner bird? Yes indeed! Kennamer heads up conservation programs at the National Wild Turkey Federation, and he gets a lot of calls these days about aggressive toms, or gobblers, that have moved from forestlands into suburbia. While the smaller hens aren’t much of a nuisance, the big males are harassing homeowners, shoppers, baby-walkers, joggers, bicyclists, schoolkids and mail carriers in towns from coast to coast, often within sight of big-city skyscrapers. “A woman in California told me that a turkey pursued her every time she went to the mailbox,” Kennamer says. “I told her to call the state fish and game people. She rang back a few minutes later and said she was going to kill the blankety-blank bird. This time it had attacked its own reflection in a car door and scratched up her shiny new BMW.”

The wild turkey is North America’s second largest bird after the trumpeter swan, and the toms are truly handsome creatures with feathers that shimmer in hues of red, green, copper, bronze and gold. They’re also daunting. A mature gobbler may stand 4 feet tall and weigh around 24 pounds, with wings spanning 5 feet. Those statistics describe one very formidable bird without mentioning the tom’s spurs—sharp, bony appurtenances about 2 inches long, one on the back of each reddish orange leg. Toms use those spikes for defense or to establish dominance (more on that later), and they can leave a nasty gouge on an arm or leg.

Ask Peter Fagan, who skippers a charter fishing boat off the eastern tip of New York’s Long Island and hunts turkeys in the Catskill Mountains. Fagan recently headed into a forested state park near his Montauk home to hone his turkey-calling skills, setting up a video camera on a tripod to record the action. A big tom soon answered Fagan’s summons and immediately took exception to the wingless intruder on his turf. The bird flailed at him repeatedly with those big rounded wings and buried a spur in his knee through thick canvas pants. Still, Kennamer has never heard of anyone being seriously injured by a wild turkey.

Communities surrounding Boston, Massachusetts, as reported in the Boston Globe and other news media, have become hot spots for human-turkey encounters of the worst kind and serve as an example of what is being experienced in other parts of the nation. In Brookline—a densely populated town cheek-to-jowl with its metropolitan neighbor—mobs of wild turkeys roam backyards, halt traffic and occupy porches and decks where seed has spilled from bird feeders. When Kettly Jean-Felix came to town recently to see her optician, she dropped coins in a parking meter and turned around to find herself facing an aggressive gobbler that followed her over commuter train tracks, through oncoming cars and down the sidewalk, pecking at her behind until she reached her destination. A tom that later confronted Ruth Smith, a visiting New Yorker, on the same street may have been the same belligerent turkey. She took refuge in a Dunkin’ Donuts shop. Local parent Lisa Grobstein said she worries that kids being chased by a flock might panic, run into the road and get hit by a car.

Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation, south of present-day Boston, most likely dined on wild turkeys that legendary first Thanksgiving in 1621. The birds were certainly abundant in New England forests in colonial times, but they were hunted into extinction in Massachusetts by 1851. Indeed, by the early 1900s the species had been extirpated over much of its range. That some 6.5 million wild turkeys now claim woodlands in 49 states and six Canadian provinces is due to management programs by wildlife agencies and, in the East, to the recovery of mature forest habitat.

Restoring wild turkey populations wasn’t easy. For decades, biologists released game-farm stock with little success. The tame, pen-reared birds couldn’t hack life in the woods. Biologists at the time said they lacked “the inherited wildness” of genuine wild turkeys, needed supplemental feeding to survive harsh winters and were particularly vulnerable to predators. It wasn’t until wild turkeys were captured with nets and transferred to other states that the flocks became fruitful and multiplied. Massachusetts’ Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) established a few flocks with the release of 37 New York birds in the Berkshires, on the state’s western edge, in 1972–73. The Bay State’s wild turkey population today is estimated at 20,000.

Wildlife problems in suburbs, where homes have spread into once relatively undisturbed habitat (and where hunting is rarely allowed these days) aren’t new, of course. Swelling numbers of white-tailed deer spread ticks that carry Lyme disease. Coyotes and even fishers dine on the occasional house pet. Black bears rip apart bird feeders. That’s a price residents pay for living close to—and disrupting—nature. But how did wild turkeys wind up in downtown Brookline, where green space is but a memory? And why are the gobblers so aggressive?

“The flocks simply wandered down river corridors and power-line rights-of-way,” says DFW biologist Jim Cardoza, “and people are changing wild turkey behavior by feeding them. They soon lose their fear of humans and incorporate us into their view of society. The lordly toms think they’re the boss, and humans are lower in the pecking order.” The problem becomes worse during the spring mating season, Kennamer points out. “The gobblers think you’re a competitor for the hens. So you have to reestablish dominance. Be bold. Chase them right back.” Brooms and umbrellas are good turkey deterrents. So are BB guns and water hoses. And turkeys don’t like dogs.

Cardoza’s agency gave up trying to net and relocate bothersome turkeys (“a waste of time”) but green lights the use of deadly force by local animal control officers. Lethal measures, however, don’t always yield the results the public wants, as when a bowman sent to dispatch two particularly nasty toms in downtown Canton, another Boston satellite, accidentally killed a young gobbler and a hen. Cardoza’s best advice for keeping turkeys wild? Don’t scatter birdseed on the ground, and clean up spilled seed under feeders.

Meanwhile, Chris Heil, a Pennsylvania wildlife conservation officer in the Philadelphia area, has a similar dilemma with not-quite-wild turkeys that multiplied briskly after a misguided hunter turned them loose in local parks several years ago. As Heil explains, these birds are domestic bronze turkeys used for hunts on private shooting preserves.

Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists are concerned that these feral turkeys carry domestic fowl diseases, including avian flu, that could wipe out the state’s thriving wild turkey populations. The commission has given Heil orders to shoot feral birds on sight. This approach has made substantial inroads on bronze turkey numbers, but complaints about gobbler disturbances are unlikely to go away soon—the real McCoys aren’t all that far from Philly’s outskirts.

Every autumn a flock of wild turkeys roosts in an ancient sugar maple in Field Editor Les Line’s backyard, in New York’s rural Hudson Valley, but he reports no untoward encounters with the birds.

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New Weasel on the Block

Wild turkeys aren’t the only animals moving into New England towns. Say hello to the fisher—a muscular weasel that can tip the scales at up to 15 pounds and that is at home in the trees of northerly woods, but that now is making an appearance in some unexpected places in the Northeast.

Just a few years ago, biologists and conservationists thought the survival of the fisher was in severe jeopardy, thanks to the inroads of habitat loss and uncontrolled hunting for fur. As with turkeys, states went to work reintroducing the species to areas where it had been wiped out.

Now the fisher, which typically feeds on rabbits and squirrels among other small animals, has begun to show up in New England suburbs and croplands, where it may bag the occasionally house pet or barnyard fowl. Conventional wisdom has long taught that the fisher is a denizen of deep woods, so biologists have been surprised to discover that the animal is turning up in tamer habitat. Although no population surveys have been done in the wake of reintroduction work, the animal’s appearance in new habitat, as well as its increased frequency as road kill, indicates it is expanding its range.

Of course, scientists knew it was an adaptable species, one of the few predators that regularly preys on porcupines, flipping over the needle-backed rodents and attacking the soft underbellies. In fact, fishers were reintroduced to New England woods in part to help control porcupines, which were burgeoning without predation and damaging forests. Vermont was the first state to release fishers, turning 125 of them loose in the 1950s. Now they are showing up in such unexpected places as Brookline, Massachusetts, and towns on Cape Cod. One turned up dead on a road in Rhode Island in 1999, indicating the animals had moved way south of Vermont. By 2008 they had reached the Rhode Island coast. The year before, the state wildlife agency had received 43 complaints about fishers, mostly concerning the resourceful weasels’ attacks on pets.

With the fisher turning up in northeastern towns from Lexington, Massachusetts, to Scotia, New York, officials are starting to put up warning signs telling residents to secure their garbage against prowling animals and to keep smaller pets inside (and even larger pets; one Rhode Island woman had to rescue her German shepherd from a losing battle with a fisher). But the animals are no threat to people, even small children, a wildlife biologist with the Massachusetts Fish and Game Department, Trina Moruzzi, told a New York Times reporter. “There’s an old wives tale that fishers are voracious predators, and you should take care of your children and keep your children away from them,” Moruzzi declared. “I say they are voracious predators, but only if you’re a squirrel or a rabbit.”

Or perhaps a German shepherd.—Roger Di Silvestro

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