(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 27, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
In the last century, hunting and habitat loss pushed wild turkey populations to the edge of extinction. No turkeys remained anywhere near Plymouth Rock by the turn of the century, more than a hundred years after that famous first Thanksgiving meal. By the 1950s, reintroduction efforts began succeeding, and turkey populations started increasing. For decades, wildlife management officials assumed these flocks of big birds needed large tracts of wooded land. I remember how thrilled we were to surprise a flock of them once during a family camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As their numbers increased, the turkeys came out of the woods and started moving in on land that suburbanites claimed as their own.
I was visiting my parents last week and was stunned to see a flock of a dozen turkeys in their front yard. They pecked their way around the rhododendrons and then wandered around the big maple tree, looking for edibles. They were investigating the neighbor's bushes when their dogs spotted them from the window and barked them across the street. Even knowing the great size domestic turkeys grow to, I was surprised to see their wild cousins looked bigger than Canadian geese. We were fascinated, grabbing our cameras and snapping photos of relaxed turkeys from the window and of hurrying turkey-tails from the front porch. However, if these turkeys take up residence, they could becomes more pests than curiosities. Since they're already dealing with too many deer and squirrels that are more pesky than cute, my parents had mixed feelings about these newest visitors.
Too many turkeys?
At my brother's last house, neighbors fed the local turkey flock, encouraging them to visit. In addition to scratching for acorns and crabapples, they helped themselves to a little of this and that in the garden. The turkeys became increasingly bold, defending their territory with aggressive displays and stopping traffic by congregating in the cul-de-sac. Although the damage they did was minimal compared to the browsing by local deer, they were numerous enough that turkey droppings made the back yard unpleasant. An occasional bit of turkey manure in the garden might be fine, but having it blanket the lawn isn't anybody's idea of lovely outdoor ambience. My nieces and nephew began playing inside rather than in the yard.
Turkeys have been taking up residence in various suburban and even urban areas, from Michigan to Pittsburgh to Boston, showing up in areas where they haven't been seen for a hundred years. The reintroduction of these birds was remarkably successful, and turkeys proved to be more adaptable than anyone had anticipated. As long as they can find food and a few trees to roost in at night, they'll make themselves at home in any neighborhood. While some people are delighted to see these birds thriving again, others think they have moved from the "endangered" list to the "nuisance" list.
So far, no turkeys have appeared at my brother's new house, but he is already planning his defenses should they show up. Number one is making sure the neighbors know not to put out turkey snacks, which experts agree is not a good idea. You shouldn't give handouts to the bears at Yellowstone, and you shouldn't feed the turkeys in your back yard, either.
How can you encourage turkeys to be occasional visitors rather than daily pests? Before you take any steps, you might want to consult with you local game commission or agricultural extension service. As wild birds, turkeys may be protected, and there are probably limits to what you can legally do to discourage them.
Removing food sources such as fallen nuts or fruit can help, although these foods also attract more welcome visitors to your garden. Turkeys love to forage under bird feeders, so try to limit the amount of loose seed on the ground. Sudden noises (loud claps, yells, even firecrackers) may drive turkeys away for a while, but they often learn to ignore harmless outbursts. A blast from a garden hose or a splat from a high powered squirt gun may annoy them into leaving.
Are turkeys dangerous?
Turkeys are the second largest North American bird (after the trumpeter swan), and their sheer size can be intimidating. Toms (males) can be well over 20 pounds and up to four feet tall. Especially during spring mating season, toms will put on an aggressive display to defend their territory from perceived competition, including their own reflections in windows and car doors. Despite appearances, turkeys seem to be all bluff and will back down or move out of your way. Police in some towns field a lot of calls from people frightened by or concerned about turkeys, but physical confrontations seem to be rare.
Turkeys don't seem to present a health hazard either.They don't seem to carry avian flu or any other human-contagious disease. Compared to other urban wildlife invaders such as coyotes or even raccoons, turkeys don't seem to pose much of a threat. If you don't mess with them, they'll return the favor by ignoring you. The turkeys in my parents' yard turned their tails and hurried next door when I came out onto the front porch with my camera.
What about my garden?
Unfortunately, their relative harmlessness may not extend to your yard and garden. In their quest for the insects that make up part of their diet, turkeys will scratch around in your grass and through your flowerbeds. Their big feet can do a lot of incidental damage. They eat greens, too, and they don't limit themselves to dandelions when your garden has so many goodies in it. If you have a big flock of turkeys visiting, they may leave behind enough scat (droppings) that the fresh fertilizer could burn your lawn--or your prize roses.
While I'm delighted that these fascinating birds have made such a solid comeback, I sympathize with those whose yards and gardens have been taken over by wild turkeys. Please, don't tell them where I live!
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Thanks to my parents, NicnCarol, for taking and sending the photos of the returning turkeys in the grassy back yard. Other photos in the article are by the author.