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Michael Moses, Publisher

On the Ridge: Wild, wild turkeys

Published: 4/24/2019 8:42:59 PM

At a recent National Wild Turkey Federation Board meeting, I was listening to stories that made me scratch my head while chuckling at the same time. These stories were about people and their encounters with wild turkeys. When I say, “chuckle,” by no means am I trying to belittle someone or diminish any situation(s) that might have caused a person to be fearful, sustain an injury, or perhaps worse. Because I sometimes find myself in situations that are just as unusual. So, when I hear stories like this I can relate to them. Yet I still wonder sometimes what people are thinking.

A woman living in Cambridge (no names here) is feeling a little ridiculous these days walking around her neighborhood while clutching a large umbrella – especially on days when there’s no rain in sight. Why would she do this? Apparently, she was recently attacked by a group of wild turkeys in Cambridge. YES, Cambridge. She was very thankful, she says, that she had the umbrella to fight them off with. Now she goes everywhere with the umbrella knowing it’s her best defense if they return. 

She was quoted in the Boston Globe saying, “This umbrella makes me feel safe. I’ve heard that opening up an umbrella in front of wild turkeys might be enough to scare them away.” She goes on. “Over these past several weeks, I’ve developed ‘turkey phobia’ as I’ve been face-to-face with these boisterous birds twice – each encounter more traumatizing than the other.” 

Her run-ins have added to the growing list of reports wildlife officials have been fielding regarding turkeys acting hostile towards people. According to Dave Scarpitti, wildlife biologist and Turkey Project leader at Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, “April is usually when we start getting reports about problems with wild turkeys. Especially when you consider the population boom we’ve had over the past year. And we are feeling the effects, while hearing from the public daily.”

The story continues with the same woman, as she again was walking down her street alone. This time, at least five turkeys came at her from across the street. Instantly, they were on her. Then two more appeared. Now, she was surrounded by pecking turkeys. She screamed and screamed until thankfully, a neighbor appeared with a broom in her hand. She was quoted as saying, “I’ve lived here for a long time, but never had an experience like this.” 

Another incident found officers responding to a report of a wild turkey smashing through a fifth floor window if a building. By the time they arrived, the turkey had exited by smashing through another window. Unfortunately, the bird did not survive. Officials say they received at least 60 complaints since 2018, which is a threefold increase over the year before. Somerville, Belmont and Brookline have seen similar upswings, combining for a total of 137 turkey gripes since the start of last year.

“Several years ago, it was more of an isolated event,” said Scarpitti. “Now, it’s starting to spread into communities all around Boston.”

Often, the grievance is little more than a wayward turkey blocking traffic. But in at least five cases, turkeys became so aggressive that police had to shoot them as a matter of public safety. Area residents have suffered minor injuries from the birds, including a 72-year-old woman who was bruised in August of 2018 after a gang of turkeys scratched and pecked her during a walk.

This is not hard to believe as wild turkeys are far stronger and much faster than the ones we have on Thanksgiving. Males are driven to show physical aggression in the social pecking order. They sometimes view humans as potential competitors.

“Turkeys don’t really mean to harm people – it’s just tied to their social dynamics within the flock,” Scarpitti said. “At times, they lose perspective that humans are humans and turkeys are turkeys. They just want to assert dominance over anything, especially during breeding season.”

Speaking for myself, that’s a characteristic I picked up on very early in my turkey hunting career. Even Ben Franklin recognized this trait, famously writing that the turkey is a “Bird of Courage,” never hesitating to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who dares invade his barnyard wearing a “red coat!” 

So, what the heck do we do? I would tell my friends and family in Boston (who I spoke with at length about this) not to push the panic button just yet. This is not a Wild Turkey Revolution. It is a major problem, caused by the very people who are now ready to take up arms against, and take to horse shouting, “the turkeys are coming, the turkeys are coming.”

Wildlife experts will tell you that a great deal of the problem can be blamed on residents themselves, who regularly feed local turkeys, which entices flocks to settle into an area, making them comfortable and giving a false impression that this is a place to survive in winter. Problem is that the harm caused by doing this has yet to be understood in the Boston area, where residents enjoy the return of native wildlife and love to feed them so they will stay around.

A Brookline resident was recently quoted saying she’s had no problems with turkeys that roam her street block. “I don’t think they’re dangerous,” she said. “In the spring, they look pretty amazing when the males are displaying their colors. I think they’re quite beautiful if you actually look at their feathers.”

Egads. Do you think she knows it’s breeding season? Or do you think she just believes that her turkeys are the best ones on the block. Doesn’t surprise me at all that within half a mile of where she lives two “amazingly beautiful” male turkeys had to be shot by police as their aggressive behavior was deemed too dangerous. Wonder if our Brookline friend knows about this?

Here’s the problem. Turkeys live in a social hierarchy where respect for the pecking order means everything. Around here people see this every day. But even in this rural setting many people don’t understand what’s really happening when they see this during the month of April and May. They do have the advantage of knowing a little more about wild turkeys. Thus, dangerous encounters seldom happen. However, if a male turkey should attack you, it likely considers you a subordinate being that’s entered too close into its air space.

Male wild turkeys are territorial and can occasionally become aggressive, especially during the spring breeding season. Scarpitti, who’s as good as it gets when it comes to wild turkey behavior, will tell you that this often happens when wild turkeys are being artificially fed with feeders and have lost their natural fear of people. Why would anyone want to disrupt a wild turkey’s natural instincts by taking them out of their natural order which can place them in harm’s way? 

If turkeys are cleaning up leftover birdseed from a long winter of feeding, take those feeders down. Avoid having them think that this is a place where pickings are easy because it’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be. Simply put, we shouldn’t be feeding wild turkeys. The natural habitat they live in, and the ability they have to sustain themselves during winter, is part of Mother Nature’s plan for them. They can take care of themselves year-round with nature sometimes taking its course in a natural way.

The real benefit of winter-feeding wild turkeys is that it fills a need for people. It does little, if anything, positive for a turkey population. There are other risks involved as well. One is that turkeys tend to become tame and dependent upon the food people are feeding them which is totally opposite of what they should be learning as wild animals. Second, the potential of disease transmission around feeding sites poses another threat. This in fact has happened in parts of Colorado where disease problems caused the removal of the remaining flock so restocking of uninfected birds could take place. Mold, which grows on wet or damp grain (including birdseed at the backyard feeder), can cause respiratory diseases in birds. Third, artificially concentrating turkeys at feeding sites attracts predators and makes them far more vulnerable to predation. Finally, consider the possibility that poaching may increase as a result of artificially concentrating any species of animals to one particular site day in and day out.

So, what’s the bottom line: People need to STOP force feeding wildlife, especially in urban areas. And the first step towards resolving conflicts with turkeys is to eliminate sources of food such as direct handouts from people, unsecured garbage, spilled bird seed, or just directly feeding them. You may consider removing bird feeders entirely until the turkeys move on. And talk to your neighbors to ensure they’re not feeding turkeys either.

All that said, I know people love to feed birds in the winter. This problem will always be with us. In Massachusetts, people spend thousands of dollars each year to keep their bird feeders filled. Everyone likes to see cardinals, nuthatches, finches, chickadees and woodpeckers at their backyard winter feeders. Even though we’re impacting only a tiny percentage of the overall population, we enjoy seeing the hungry crowds! So, is it any different with turkeys? I’m sure the person carrying a pail of corn out to a far fence line, watching turkeys using it, enjoys the same feeling of self-satisfaction as the person putting out suet balls and sunflower seeds. But consider this: Our turkey population is estimated to be 30,000 birds. A 15-pound turkey will eat 5 pounds of food per week. So, to impact a turkey flock of 10 birds during the winter would require 50 pounds of feed per week, times the number of weeks their dependent on the feed. Is this really what we want to do?

Winter feeding of wildlife does more for the person doing the feeding than it does for the intended species. They have their own natural ways of taking care of themselves … while Mother Nature takes care of the rest.

Joe Judd is a lifelong hunter and outdoorsman. He is an outdoor writer, seminar speaker, consultant and active member of the New England Outdoor Writers Assoc. Joe is also a member of the Quaker Boy Game Calls, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Pro-Staff.

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