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Turkeys Hangout in Neighborhood Backyards

Dear Bird Folks,

A few weeks ago you mentioned seeing turkeys displaying around town and that got me thinking. Back in 1995, when I first saw a turkey near in my yard, it was a big thrill. I felt like I had taken a trip back to the pioneer days. Now, in 2013, the thrill is gone. Turkeys are everywhere. They have gone from being a symbol of the wild to a neighborhood nuisance. Why aren’t Wild Turkeys wild anymore?

– Rick, Rutland, MA


I know what you mean, Rick,

Long before 1995, I think it was in the ‘70s, my friend, Roger, moved from Cape Cod to Vermont. This was great news. Oh sure, I hated to see Roger leave the Cape but I knew his move to VT was my best chance to finally see Wild Turkeys. In the 70s Vermont had a decent turkey population, while Cape Cod had zero. My next step was to kiss up to Roger so he would invite me to stay with him. I was poor in those days and could not afford the price of a hotel room, not even a Vermont hotel room. In the 70s I could not have imagined that in 2013, Cape Cod, and every place else, would have loads of turkeys. If I had only waited another half-century I could have avoided that long drive to VT and save myself all that kissing up. That’s what I get for being so impulsive.

By 1930 our Wild Turkeys were nearly shot out of existence, but hunting restrictions and careful restoration projects turned this iconic bird into a major avian success story. Too successful, some might say. The once wary, cautious, and very much wild Wild Turkey has, in some locations, become urbanized. Today turkeys seem out of place as they stumble around our neighborhoods looking like feathered wineos. Why such a big change in behavior? I’m not sure if anyone really knows for sure, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own thoughts and theories. I always have plenty of thoughts and theories.

One thing is clear: turkeys aren’t as stupid as their advanced billing would have us believe. It appears that turkeys have carefully studied the ways of Canada Geese and have learned much from our avian neighbors from the North. Turkeys have wisely discerned that geese living in the marshes are constantly being hunted, while the geese hanging out in playgrounds and golf courses are thriving. So the turkeys have moved into civilization as well. (I’m sure this theory is a little oversimplified, but consider the source…me.) The suburbs, even with all the people, cars and dogs, are in some respects safer for turkeys than the woods because no one is likely to shoot them. In the ‘burbs the birds are safe from guns. (It’s too bad the same thing isn’t true for us.) The other thing civilization has provided for turkeys is food. They take advantage of our gardens and plantings because turkeys love to clean up waste grains and eat the berries on ornamental plants. They also eat the birdseed that falls from the feeders we put out for other birds. I’m not saying birdfeeders are responsible for the huge increase in the turkey population, because birdfeeders are perfect. They are the best invention in human history. But yeah, turkeys eat birdseed. They are birds, after all.

Another reason for the turkey boom is that predators, especially raccoons, have been in short supply. Raccoons aren’t a big problem for adult turkeys, but they love to prey on eggs and chicks. In some areas raccoons have disappeared, probably due to an illness like distemper. As the raccoon population rebounds, we could see fewer turkeys around. Turkeys or raccoons, it doesn’t make much difference to me; they both eat birdseed.

Sometimes turkeys get themselves into trouble when they attack people. This is especially common during the breeding season (the turkey breeding season that is, not our breeding season). Scientists suggest that the reason for this behavior is that turkeys have a pecking order. For whatever reason, a tom will treat a human like another turkey. He may defer to one person, but will try to dominate another. There are plenty of funny videos online where we see folks running for their lives from a puffed out turkey. I love those videos. Experts suggest that human adults (not children) stand their ground and try to dominate the turkey instead of running away. Good luck with that.

One of the turkeys’ more unusual behaviors is when they hang out around a busy intersection and strut their stuff at passing cars. Researchers are at a loss to explain this one. Perhaps they are looking for a ride or hoping someone will toss them some spare change. (Not all of my theories are flawless.)

The reason Wild Turkeys in suburbs aren’t wild anymore, Rick, is because they simply have become habituated to humans. Whether it is the abundance of food, or the lack of both human and natural predators, turkeys simply feel more comfortable living near people than they did a hundred years ago. I’m sure people with fancy yards don’t like turkeys, but I get a kick out seeing them. Just remember not to let the tom turkeys push you around. If one of them comes at you, stand your ground. But if you do that, please make sure someone has a camera ready in case things turn out bad (aka, funny).