Members of a Maryland church were preparing a turkey supper when they looked out the window and discovered several distant relatives of the main course approaching.
The wild turkeys were not feeling festive. One flew at and into a truck. When two members of Faith United Church of Christ in Frederick went outside to get a closer a look, they were gobbled at and chased back inside. A joke quickly made the rounds: The wild turkeys had somehow learned their kinsfolk were on platters. They wanted revenge.
“Honestly I’ve never seen something that nuts in my entire life,” said Katie Penic, Faith United’s pastor. “We’re all city people. It never occurred to me that I’d see turkeys outside the church, even in Frederick.”
Wild turkeys were nearly extinct a century ago, but a decades-long effort to restore their population has been so successful that the feathered fowl are showing up with varying degrees of friendliness in unlikely places — wandering into suburban backyards, pecking across Trader Joe’s parking lots, even strutting along Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia.
Jim Clay, a well-known Virginia turkey caller and hunter, saw a gobbler and two hens while riding in a cab on the George Washington Parkway near Reagan National Airport.
“I almost lost my mind,” Clay said. “The taxi driver thought I did lose my mind. That’s not where you’d expect to see turkeys, but there they were.”
In the 1950s, the country’s wild turkeys numbered less than 500,000, wildlife experts say. But now more than 7 million roam the American landscape. Their impressive comeback is the result of an inventive effort to trap and move the elusive birds with rocket-controlled nets.
In Maryland, which had just a thousand wild turkeys in the 1970s, there are now at least 35,000. Virginia has upwards of 200,000.
“I would say this ranks near the top of any conservation success story,” said Bob Long, Maryland’s state turkey biologist. “When you’re going from a turkey population in the thousands to a turkey population in the millions, that’s pretty amazing.”
The soaring population has been a godsend for hunters, who are killing record numbers of wild turkeys, even in mostly suburban counties like Montgomery. But their resurgence is not without drama. Sometimes small delegations of wild turkeys wander into residential neighborhoods on failed exploratory missions for good grub or companionship. For people unaccustomed to seeing turkeys, their appearances are entertaining and occasionally unnerving.
Videos and photos of turkeys pecking at sliding glass doors, chasing reporters, strolling through New York City and attacking mail trucks — they seem to really despise the U.S. Postal Service — have been posted to YouTube and Instagram with hashtags such as #avianthugs. Video from the Frederick church encounter last year made local television news, attracting producers of Destination America, a Discovery Communications channel, for a special called “When Turkeys Attack,” scheduled to premiere the day before Thanksgiving.
The Humane Society has even issued a document titled “What to Do About Wild Turkeys,” which includes tips to scare them away.
“It’s important,” the Humane Society says, “that all members of your family (including children and the elderly) exhibit their dominance over your neighborhood turkeys through hazing in order to have the desired effect. Although wild turkeys may look large and intimidating, they are usually timid and scare easily.”
Wild turkeys and America go way back. In pre-Colonial times, they were nearly as ubiquitous as today’s deer. Then the early European settlers came along. This was not a good time to be a turkey. Their forest habitats were destroyed, and the settlers killed them year-round.
By the 1900s, roughly 30,000 wild turkeys remained. The problem continued until a wildlife management movement emerged, fueled by taxes on ammunition and sporting goods. The idea of saving turkeys took hold.
The problem: How? States tried to breed turkeys and release them into the wild, a strategy that didn’t work. Because the turkeys hadn’t grown up with a wild mother, nobody taught them the ropes — what to eat, where to sleep, how to avoid predators.
“Imagine turning a chicken loose in the woods and expecting it to survive and reproduce on its own,” said Gary Norman, a Virginia state turkey biologist. “Their odds of survival were in the matter of weeks.”
Trapping them was another option, but cornering turkeys could qualify as an Olympic sport. They are innately distrustful and quick to flee. If they see anything that looks like a pen — whoosh, they are totally gone.
But in the 1950s, South Carolina wildlife experts had a eureka moment: Why not use rocket controlled nets originally designed to ensnare waterfowl? So they tried it. A large net was concealed on the ground. Turkeys were baited to the area. The net was then remotely propelled over the turkeys with small rockets. Nabbed.
The method was replicated around the country. Trapped turkeys were moved to areas where they had been wiped out, with the idea that they would, you know, do their thing. They did do their thing.
The National Wild Turkey Federation, an organization started in the 1970s, helped move turkeys around the country. It also encouraged hunters to kill turkeys in responsible numbers and maintain their habitat, even adding new food sources.
Clay, the Virginia turkey hunter, said the organization “really saved the bacon for the turkeys.”
Now wild turkeys roam every state except Alaska, where it’s too cold.
They sometimes roam into civilization, where their movements are captured by the Instagram and YouTube generation, for whom wild animals are a source of wonder.
“We get maybe a half-dozen cases a year where turkeys overdo their welcome,” said Long, Maryland’s turkey biologist. “Every now and then you will get a turkey that tries to attack someone or chase them.”
That happened a few years ago in California, when a TV news producer went out to investigate “Terrible Tom,” a turkey that had been tormenting a neighborhood near Sacramento. The turkey chased her, an encounter captured in a video viewed nearly 500,000 times on YouTube.
“Oh, he’s coming across the street at me,” she mutters, seeing Terrible Tom approach. “Maybe this is true.” A footrace ensues. A mail truck tries to divert the turkey, but Terrible Tom wasn’t done yet. “Throw something at him,” the producer says to the mail truck driver. “I can’t throw my camera at him.”
A commenter on the video wrote, “That turkey is getting revenge from all the Thanksgiving we have here in America!”
Turkeys are often misunderstood. They are perceived as dumb, staring up at the sky and then drowning when it rains, which is a myth. But it’s true that there are different kinds of turkeys. There are the farm-raised turkeys that millions of Americans will eat this week. They probably couldn’t survive in the wilderness even with Siri’s help. And then there are the wild ones, which are feisty and smart and evasive, making them a popular and expensive bird to hunt.
Having them back in strong numbers is good for the economy. Turkey hunters spend more than $4 billion a year on calls and other gear, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation. For hunters like Clay, who grew up tracking wild turkeys and whose license plate says “GOBBLE,” turkey hunting is a rite of American passage. And now there are more turkeys to pick off.
But it’s not easy. Turkeys have eyes on the sides of their head, giving them the kind of vision most teachers dream of. They hear better than humans. The slightest move or sound by a hunter will prompt them to scram.
Earlier this month, Clay sat in a blind on private property near the Virginia-West Virginia border. A few days before, a couple dozen turkeys roamed around. But up in the blind, Clay looked through narrow windows and saw nothing. He tried calling, making turkey sounds seemingly incapable of coming from a human.
“You’ll either find them or you won’t,” he said.
He didn’t. But that’s okay. The rewards of finding one make up for the days when they don’t appear.
“They put on a show,” said Long, the Maryland turkey biologist. “They strut and gobble, and they can really get your heart pounding.”
Organizations such as the wild turkey federation are raising millions of dollars to keep the turkey population growing. In a handful states, including Mississippi and Arkansas, there is concern that their numbers are declining because of habitat loss.
But for now, the consensus is that the wild turkey is back — in the fields, on social networks, in the American consciousness.
This past week on Instagram, someone posted a photo of four turkeys crossing a street. Hashtag: #runturkeyrun. In another post, a woman shared a photo of two turkeys pecking at a window.
“These bastards are crazy!!” she wrote.
“Omg,” a commenter said, “they are so close!!”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the channel airing the special.