Fanning their tail feathers and gobbling softly, the gang struts through the grove of oak trees, across the garden, hops over the fence and heads down the slope. While these wild turkeys roaming urban/suburban neighborhoods often bring a smile to my face during my visits to California, many of the state’s residents are not as charmed by these creatures as I am.

Novelty or Nuisance?

Attitudes toward these feathered creatures run the gamut from love to hate, novelty to nuisance. Wild, free-ranging, urban/suburban-dwelling turkeys have their passionate defenders who argue that these handsome creatures with their comical antics enhance the landscape and bring a bit of wildness into the creeping concrete backdrop. Others abhor the mess and aggressive dramas created by these ugly hooligan nuisance birds. 

YouTube features scores of videos showing people oohing and aahing over wild turkeys—or being chased by them. Local magazines and newspaper articles, either praising or denigrating the turkeys, elicit a range of readers' comments. Some detail the type of food turkeys should be given, some demand the turkeys be left alone and appreciated, and some offer suggestions that verge on violent, bloody, "final" solutions. These highly adaptable creatures are creating heated debate as they expand out of their wooded range and strut into human-inhabited areas.  

Creating Chaos

A wild, four-foot-high, 20 – 30 pound, adult tom turkey, North America’s largest ground nesting bird, is not at all like his domestic, slow-moving, artificially-fattened, meek and mild culinary counterpart. They’re fast, reaching a running speed of 25 miles per hour - just a bit less than Usain Bolt’s top speed. And though they only fly for short distances, their flight speed can reach 60 miles per hour. With upward curving, sharp-pointed, bony spurs on its legs up to two inches long (so sharp they were once used by Native Americans as arrow tips) a tom turkey can be a fearsome assailant, particularly during the breeding season. In fact, so formidable are they that Benjamin Franklin felt that they would “not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."In short, these gobblers are not to be messed with.

Wild turkeys are no strangers to mayhem: scratching and denting chrome car bumpers, digging up fields and gardens, leaving behind piles of faeces, chasing and attacking people and pets, and causing traffic jams. While several of these incidents may seem trivial, some are not. A Benicia bicyclist crashed and died after a flock flew into his path, and wild turkeys can even be hazardous to aviation.

Success or Failure?

Before the arrival of European settlers and their hunting, forest clearing and timber extraction, wild turkeys could be found throughout much of North America.  By the start of the twentieth century, however, they were on the brink of extinction. Through conservation and reintroduction efforts they recovered and today, although their number falls short of the ten million estimated during the 1600s, there are now approximately six million turkeys, resident in every state except Alaska. While this proliferation has been touted as the greatest wildlife conservation success story of the last century, there is considerable debate surrounding the impact of the introduction of wild turkeys into California.

Today’s wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is not considered native to California. There have been no wild turkeys in California since the Pleistocene, and they were a different species. “From 1959 through 1999 the Department of Fish and Game, now called the Department of Fish and Wildlife, imported and released thousands of live-trapped wild turkeys (mostly of the Rio Grande subspecies from Texas) at over 200 locations for hunting purposes.

Today their descendents occupy about 29,000 square miles—about one quarter of the area of the state of California and know how to make a living almost anywhere: wildlands, parklands, agricultural fields and orchards, golf courses, university campuses, residential plots, airports, urban concrete jungles, and freeway entrances and exits, to name just a few. Because wild turkeys have become established in so many different habitats throughout the state, they are now here to stay.

According to sampling estimates compiled over a decade ago, California was home to about a quarter-million turkeys. Since then they have been expanding their range and creating problems, particularly in residential and urban areas. Although no up-to-date demographic study has been conducted, there are certainly more turkeys now according to Scott Gardner, a Senior Environmental Scientist (and supervisor of the state’s upland game program) for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. In light of both their geographic and population spread into well-established human habitats, Gardner feels that in hindsight the department might have made a different choice about introducing them.

Why have wild turkeys moved into residential and urban habitats? 

According to Dan Ryan, the Invasive Wildlife biologist at Pinnacles National Park, wild turkeys, like many successful nomadic species, push into suburban and urban areas when population pressures force them to move. Once established in fairly predator-free areas, their population may grow in a more artificial way —especially if food is abundant and easily available. Since we have eliminated many wild habitats, various forms of wildlife—not just turkeys—are moving into our surroundings where the living is easy, and made even easier since we are feeding them. When they move into our neighbourhoods and create chaos, it is important to remember that it is in large part our own fault.As Reginald H. Barrett, a retired professor of wildlife management at UC Berkeley says, “we can’t really complain about the havoc turkeys cause since it was the Department of Fish and Game that brought them in to the state in the first place and the public that keeps feeding them." In reality, they are simply trying to survive. That is what they do and, they are doing a very good job of it.

Californians are not the only ones complaining. In the past year, residents from neighborhoods in Detroit, Michigan; Staten Island, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; Teaneck, New Jersey; Spokane, Washington; and in many other towns and cities across the country have been bad-mouthing wild turkeys. With suburban sprawl increasing and turkeys habituating themselves to humans and the frequent intentional or unintentional food sources we provide, both the chaos and the complaints will predictably increase unless some changes occur.

What can be done?

While there are numerous suggestions in the media and on the internet for reducing the turkey tumult, the number-one way to make human-inhabited areas less attractive to turkeys is to stop feeding them. If the food supply—both intentional and unintentional—dies out, some of the turkeys might wander elsewhere and the urban turkey population with its ensuing chaos might reduce, in turn reducing the vehemence and frequency of anti-turkey diatribes. 

In California the city of Albany has publicly recommended that people not handle or feed the turkeys and use caution when in their presence and the Alameda County Health Agency Care Services has produced a paper on the negative effects of feeding wildlife. WildCare, an organization that teaches people how to live peacefully with wildlife and advocates for better protection of wildlife and open spaces, suggests that both intentional and inadvertent feeding is a major problem for all wildlife including wild turkeys. In fact, WildCare urges the public that if they really care about seeing and enjoying the wild turkeys, and want them to survive, they should stop feeding them and discourage others from feeding them. The Humane Society, the US Department of Agriculture, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Department of Parks and Recreation (to name just a few) have all asked the public not to feed wild animals. That includes turkeys.

Unfortunately, these anti-feeding messages are not getting through to many members of the general public. Why?

On some level the urge to feed wildlife is understandable. People are looking for that special connection, that elusive contact across species. They want to get close to nature, to the natural world. For many, a flock of wild turkeys openly feeding on a lawn or strutting down a sidewalk offers a glimpse into the unknowable wild. The temptation to lure that wildlife even closer and habituate it  by offering food is one that many animal lovers find irresistible. Unfortunately, they do not seem to realize that countless wild animals in urban areas are euthanized for public safety once they become habituated to human-supplied food sources. 

Most feeders no doubt think of turkey provisioning as either helpful to the turkeys or a benign activity. Unfortunately, this practice is harmful and a major contributory cause of human-turkey conflicts, creating many turkey-haters and generations of so-called turkey hooligans. Provisioning, as Jim Sterba argues in his book Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, is a form of wildlife management in which feeders manipulate the natural world to create outcomes they want—in this case, using food to lure birds into viewing range and keep them there for selfish reasons. Or, as Scott Gardner warns, 'If you really care about the wild turkeys, you won't feed them because you are making them into pests and putting them into a situation where they may have to be killed."

If food sources disappear will the turkeys and the chaos disappear? Will they leave the urban/suburban areas and return to the wild? No, the turkeys are here to stay. There is no perfect solution. By eliminating some of the food, however, we can possibly make life easier for residents and eradicate some of the chaos.

According to Mike Parr, Vice President and Chief Conservation Officer at the American Bird Conservancy,” it would be impossible to rid the environment of these species completely and both the environment itself and the human experience of it would be greatly diminished even if we could. We have to find a way to coexist and if provisioning creates conflicts, then we must eliminate the provisioning”.

John McNerney, the city of Davis’s, wildlife resource specialist, maintains that “feeding is the root of several problems that contribute to turkey conflict (i.e. unnatural population growth, focused activity/impacts, habituation) and it should stop. It’s important to note, however, that feeding is not the only source of food for the local turkeys. They also access resources from the urban landscape (nuts, acorns, fruits, flowers, invertebrates, etc.). Even with total support from the community in removing supplemental food—and it has to be total support since, if even just one resident continues to feed—the turkeys will continue to focus their daily activity around that feeder and they would still be attracted to, and be able to make a living in, that area. However, it would be a more nomadic and difficult existence with lower fitness/reproductive success for the turkeys and less chaos for the residents."

Along with the cessation of provisioning, McNerney also believes, that while hunting is out of the question in built-up areas, hazing (negative conditioning using stomping, clapping or shouting) of turkeys is important, but not always effective, in reinforcing/re-establishing a natural wariness of humans. And, as Dan Ryan says, " hazing might not work on aggressive males standing their ground and defending their flock and territory during the breeding season.

Obviously, the less comfortable turkeys are around humans the more likely they are to move out of the urban areas. But, with turkey problems and turkey talk at a record high Scott Gardner says “We’re going to continue to have these turkeys in our towns and cities. Accept it. Probably the best we can do is to try to make them not feel welcome in our homes.”