Fifteen deep, the turkeys roamed the intersection with no regard for where the sidewalk began or ended. An SUV pulled up to the stop sign and its driver paused, eyeing the unusual posse. The two older males shepherding the group through the hilly Montclair neighborhood puffed their chests, and the SUV continued on. Another car came roaring around the bend, swerving just enough to miss them. The gang paid no mind, just as they paid no mind to the dog barking at them from the nearby deck or to my presence a few yards away where I watched them from the side of the road. They owned these streets. The turkeys fanned their tail feathers and sauntered off, pecking at bits of leaves and sampling the faint remains of some roadkill.
When I heard tale of turkeys strutting around suburban Walnut Creek in the early 2000s, I hardly believed it. And when a gang — which, yes, is a technical name for a group of turkeys — appeared near my childhood home in the Forestland neighborhood of the Oakland hills a few years ago, we tossed stale cereal on the ground outside the kitchen window in hopes of seeing fuzzy, speckled poults follow their mother to peck the crumbs from the dirt.
Now when I see the turkeys, I yell. I run at them. I throw rocks in their general direction (I don’t have the heart to take better aim and don’t really want to hurt them). In return, they stare at me, glassy-eyed, gobbling softly, more annoyed than frightened, before ambling away. Now, their feathers dot my family’s property as freely as the pine needles from the trees they roost in.
It’s clear that, like me, many East Bay residents no longer view wild turkeys as kindly creatures. They tear up gardens, scratch the paint on shiny cars, raid outdoor pet food bowls, and leave trails of cement-like mounds of poop wherever they go.
A few years ago, they were spotted chasing Segway riders near Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. During mating season, a notoriously dramatic time for turkeys, they have leapt on visitors in Tilden Park. “People have been confronted or chased by the turkeys,” said Anthony Fisher, an East Bay Regional Park District naturalist. “It’s mostly for show: making noise, flapping wings, and so forth to protect offspring. But there’s been physical contact.”
Turkeys are roosting in Albany trees, at East Bay golf courses, and at Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. Oakland resident James Stevens said a tom charged people near his home and had stand-offs with his dog. “Most of the time,” he said, “it would just stare at you like a real creep.”
They also pose a serious threat on roadways, which, as you may have surmised, they don’t pay much attention to. A Benicia bicyclist crashed and died after a flock darted into his path two years ago, and a 2011 US Department of Agriculture study found turkeys to be the eleventh most hazardous species to aircraft.
According to data compiled about a decade ago, California was home to about a quarter-million turkeys. Although the state’s population numbers haven’t been officially updated, there are certainly more turkeys than that now, said Scott Gardner, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Indeed, as turkeys grow in numbers, they have expanded their terrain, wandering from the wooded hills they typically prefer to more urban neighborhoods in Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, and Richmond, chasing and attacking residents and leaving behind huge mounds of feces.
And not only is there not much we can do about it, but we have no one to blame for the turkey invasion but ourselves.
If wild turkeys evoke images in your mind of the sweet hand-traced decorations that litter kindergarten classrooms every autumn or the puffy, docile birds that end up on your plate for Thanksgiving, so stupid they are falsely rumored to drown in the rain, then think again. Mature wild turkeys top out at around twenty pounds in weight and four feet in height. They run at the same speed as Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and, unlike their too-plump domesticated brethren, can fly at speeds more than twice that. They have excellent vision, and males have bony protrusions on their heels called spurs, which look like spikes, can grow up to two inches in length, and make for gnarly weapons. Hunters refer to the birds as “cunning.”
Benjamin Franklin had it right when he argued that, while the eagle was a poor choice for the Great Seal as “a bird of bad moral character,” the turkey, though “a little vain and silly,” was “a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guard who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” In short: Turkeys are not to be messed with.
Long an American underdog, turkeys are having a comeback. Millions roamed the United States, Canada, and Mexico when European colonists arrived, but turkey habitat disappeared as land was cleared for development. Furthermore, though there’s no formal record of whether turkeys were eaten at the first Thanksgiving, they certainly became a dietary staple. Hundreds of years ago, according to Bruce Wurth, a hunter and member of the National Wild Turkey Federation, people would pull wagons underneath trees at night to shoot into roosts. Whatever fell in the wagon came home, and whatever fell outside it was left to rot. By the early 1900s, the turkey population nationwide had dwindled to about 30,000.
The birds got their second chance thanks to the first wave of conservationists: sport hunters who wanted to restore natural spaces to preserve their hobby. “Humans pulled turkeys back from the brink and began reintroducing them,” said Dan Gluesenkamp, executive director of the California Native Plant Society. “But we got a little overeager and introduced them to a place that never had turkeys.”
Defenders of turkeys will note that they are native to California, which is true — sort of. The second-most abundant fossils in the La Brea Tar Pits belong to Maleagris californica, the California turkey. Still, “scientists would not consider Pleistocene fauna to be native to modern California,” Gardner noted. To put it in perspective, it would be like resurrecting the saber-toothed tiger, another common La Brea fossil, and claiming it’s okay to reintroduce the species to California, because — hey! — it’s native.
Regardless, private ranchers first released turkeys for hunting on Santa Cruz Island off the Santa Barbara coast in 1877. Since then, domesticated stock has been let loose throughout the state periodically, but has had a difficult time adapting to the wild.
The ancestors of the birds we see in California today were released by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife starting in 1959. The birds, from wild Texas and Colorado stock, were smarter and hardier, and California’s conditions were perfect for them.
Turkeys prefer living in oak woodlands — think the Oakland and Berkeley hills — but do not mind interacting with humans. Thus, taking up residence in forests alongside heavily populated areas was no problem. Finding food wasn’t hard either. “Turkeys are generalist feeders, and will eat animal matter, vegetable matter, you name it,” said Reginald Barrett, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of wildlife ecology and management.
In the Bay Area, we have largely driven out the few natural predators turkeys might have — such as coyotes — and a pet dog interested in taking on a turkey will be in for a rude surprise when it discovers the bird is likely willing to spar back.
In 1995, the California Native Plant Society and a watchdog group called Save Our Forest and Ranchlands sued the Department of Fish and Wildlife (then known as the Department of Fish and Game), claiming that it had no plan for managing turkeys, nor an understanding of their potential effects on native and endangered plants. Wurth, who helped support the turkey releases as a board member of the National Wild Turkey Federation, said the suit was expected, because state officials had decided not to conduct environmental impact reports. The California Native Plant Society won the legal battle and blocked the release of more turkeys in the state, but it was too late. “At that point, we had released birds in California for years,” Wurth explained. “We were done in California anyhow.” Turkeys were here to stay.
Now, like squirrels, raccoons, coyotes, pigeons, and feral pigs, turkeys are increasingly thriving in our urban environment. “They can have a dozen eggs each year,” Barrett noted. “Just one hen can start a new population, sometimes up to ten miles away from where they bred. Turkey populations essentially explode.” It’s in a poult’s nature to take up nesting areas outside of its mother’s habitat, Wurth added, which inevitably means expansion into human-dense areas.
Look at a map of reported wild turkey sightings this year on eBird, a social network site for birders, and counties throughout California light up with markers. The Bay Area in particular is riddled with pins layered one on top of the other.
Turkeys’ impacts on the environment are still not entirely understood, though research Gluesenkamp conducted at the Audubon Canyon Ranch in Stinson Beach showed that turkeys cause a tenfold increase in soil disturbance as well as a decrease in terrestrial invertebrates, herbivores, and decomposers fundamental to an ecosystem. But while more research is needed to get a clearer picture of their ecological impact, turkeys’ effects on humans are much easier to discern.
There is, for example, practically a category of YouTube videos of people being chased and attacked by turkeys. Guthrum Purdin, director of veterinary services for Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, explained that turkeys naturally enforce a hierarchy. “If they’ve been around people and have been fed by them, they start seeing people as members of the flock,” Purdin said. “Depending on how that person acts, they may try to get them into that pecking order. If a person seems timid or the turkeys interpret them as another male that might threaten their status, they can be very aggressive indeed.” Purdin advises the attacked to safely guide turkeys away with an open umbrella.
My family waged war on the turkeys more than a year ago in response to a more basic issue: turkey poop. “A turkey turd is huge,” Wurth noted. “If you’ve got fifty or sixty birds standing around your front yard, all pooping, it makes a huge mess.”
Experts say there are only a few ways to get rid of the birds — and even those only work if done consistently. Though I live in relatively turkey-free Rockridge, I do my part to scare away turkeys when I visit my family’s home in the hills as penance for my cereal-throwing days. The things we have tried: Removing food sources, letting the dog bark at them, making loud noises, spraying water. The things we haven’t tried: Erecting fencing (which would be expensive and hard to do on this particular hillside property) and installing a motion-detecting water sprayer (there’s a lot of wildlife that comes around and we’re in a drought, so it seems pretty impractical). The things we tried halfheartedly despite no evidence that they would work: Procuring a fake owl with a swiveling head (which the turkeys couldn’t care less about, and which now resides in the living room), and looking into sprinkling bottled coyote urine (a real thing you can buy at hardware stores or on Amazon) around the property — although it turns out that turkeys have rotten olfactory senses.
The turkeys are immune to our hatred.
In fact, despite our attempts, the turkeys have actually become bolder. The typical scare tactics, and even the less conventional ones, are useless. But who can blame them? We humans have taken turkeys under our wing and I, too, am a former offender. I can’t stop the people who roll down their car windows to gawk at the turkeys as they pass by, but I once explained to a family tearing up bread to throw to a flock that feeding wild animals is a bad idea and that many people living nearby didn’t want to encourage the birds to stick around. The family gave me the same blank stares as the turkeys I’ve tried to scare away.
As a symbol of our defeat, I got my dad a gallon of industrial, zoo-strength bird-poop cleaner for Christmas last year. He was not amused.
I asked researchers and experts if there was really nothing else we could do about the birds. “We have turkeys in California and will have them forever more,” Gluesenkamp said. “I don’t think turkeys are a bad thing. I think too many turkeys are a bad thing. And we have too many right now.”
But what about turning to the reason that turkeys are here in the first place?
Kevin Vella, a regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation, remembers when he first hunted turkeys, at the age of eleven. “It was an incredible experience out there in the middle of the woods, sitting in the blinds with frost covered grass, seeing the sunrise and hearing the gobbling in the distance,” he said. “It sucked me in from the first time I went.”
Yes, turkeys are pesky, but they were brought here for hunting and it stands to reason that hunting may be one of the few ways to control them. Plus, the industry is enormous, with all hunting-related expenditures statewide totaling $964 million in 2011. “Money comes into the state from licenses, tags, ammunition, and firearms,” Wurth noted. “Those taxes go back into wildlife through the Pittman-Robertson [Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration] Act. But those hunters also buy clothing, and go to the grocery store to buy food and ice, especially around opening weekends.” There’s a symbiotic relationship between hunters, the economy, and nature, Wurth said.
But while hunting indirectly created the East Bay’s turkey problem, it doesn’t really offer a local solution. The closest to the East Bay that Wurth has hunted is in Solano County, and most hunting is restricted to far from cities, where, rightfully, there are strict laws about firing weapons.
In response to complaints about wild turkeys, the Department of Fish and Wildlife began issuing turkey depredation permits — which allow for the trapping and removal of birds — in 2005. Trapping and removal is done by the individual permit holder or, in most cases, with the help of a private contractor or the US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. Dennis Orthmeyer, Wildlife Services state director, said his agency only removed turkeys from Sacramento and Contra Costa counties this year, but that the latter is the agency’s most active area in the state, with calls increasing over the last five years. “There’s a lot of people who are becoming less tolerant of urban turkeys,” he said. “The novelty wears off.”
Though Gardner assured me it is not particularly difficult to obtain a permit, the process seems like a pain. It costs $100 to submit an application and you must detail the nonlethal methods you’ve tried, the estimated cost of damage done by the turkeys, and how you propose to trap them. Then once you hire a trapper, you’ll discover that releasing the birds elsewhere is not allowed in many areas of the state — meaning the turkeys must be killed, which seems drastic for someone whose largest concern is, say, turkey poop.
And even after you remove the offending turkeys, there’s no guarantee the rest of the flock will leave. “A depredation permit is not considered a long-term solution for most situations,” the application states. Because outstanding birds tend to return, “you have to get to bottom of the problem,” Purdin said. That means removing food sources and making nearby trees less comfortable as roosts, and convincing neighbors to do the same. Plus, it stands to reason that killing a few turkeys may just increase resources for the remaining birds — the ones smart enough to evade death.
If you think depredation seems inhumane, you’re not alone: The process has historically not gone over well in the Bay Area. When officials at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory debated getting rid of turkeys on lab property in 2008, there was a local uproar about hurting the birds, and the plan was derailed. The same thing happened three years ago when the Crow Canyon Country Club Homeowners Association in San Ramon wanted a solution to its destructive flock of one hundred turkeys.
In an interview, Daniel Wilson, a spokesperson for Alameda County Vector Control, recounted the story of a USDA-employed trapper who set out wire turkey traps. “They’re supposed to stay in there, but locals were releasing them,” Wilson said of the birds. “You might imagine this: People who have had parts of their yards or cars scratched up are concerned. But people that are not having problems perceive the turkeys as kind of neat. The adult turkeys are ugly — to me anyway — but the babies are pretty cute.”
Love is the greatest obstacle of all, it seems, to getting rid of a turkey problem. Even I, having grown annoyed by their wrinkled heads and dangling snoods, still understand their charm. It’s in the “eye of the beholder,” whether turkeys are pests or fascinating birds, Wilson noted.
This year, the Lindsay Wildlife Center has treated about 91 turkeys, including dozens of orphaned poults and sick or injured adults birds. “Every once in a while, they’re shot by a bullet or an arrow,” Purdin said. “Sometimes they become entangled in lawn netting.”
Although doing away with turkeys is briefly satisfying, the image of these birds struggling against our manmade world, one we inserted them into, is heartbreaking.
“In an era when we are worried about climate change, well-intentioned folks think they need to move species around to save them,” Gluesenkamp said. “But it’s a dangerous thing we need to think carefully about.”
Not every problem has a solution, and this may be one where the best we’re going to get is a lesson in what to avoid in the future.