“It was like the turkey was waiting for me,” Councillor Dennis Carlone said from the dais. “They’re clearly strategizing.”
But at the same time, the National Wild Turkey Federation and researchers say the U.S. wild turkey population is gradually declining, probably due to development that is carving up their habitats while also making life easier for predators, such as foxes and raccoons. In 2004, the federation says, wild turkeys numbered nearly 7 million; in 2014, that had dipped to as low as 6 million.
So which is it? Are turkeys trailing off — or taking over?
It turns out that both trends are true, to a degree. And both are related to the fact that wild turkeys in America exist mostly so that people can hunt them.
First, some history. European settlers who arrived on these shores centuries ago probably found a land brimming with wild turkeys, though the migrants almost certainly did not dine on the birds at the first Thanksgiving. At that time, these ground-nesting birds were likely gobbling up nuts, berries and snails across what are now 39 of the Lower 48 states. Soon, however, the colonists were gobbling up turkeys and razing their landscapes. By the early 20th century, the birds had vanished from 18 of those 39 states, and their population had dropped to about 200,000 animals found mostly in remote areas, according to the turkey federation.
Things changed after World War II, and wild turkeys are now viewed as one of the nation’s big conservation successes. Wildlife managers, alarmed at the near disappearance of a popular game animal, worked over decades with the National Wild Turkey Federation to bring back the birds, mostly by trapping more than 200,000 of them and releasing them in spots with turkey deficits. The birds are now found and hunted in every state except Alaska, proof of their ability to thrive in various landscapes and climates.
But the wild turkey population — which state agencies usually track by counting young birds, called poults, or by counting turkeys bagged by hunters — has dipped over the past decade. Mark Hatfield, director of conservation administration for the turkey federation, said his organization and state agencies are now “working collectively to try and figure this out, because we never want to go back to a restoration effort.”
The decline has been most pronounced in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast, said Michael Chamberlain, a University of Georgia wildlife ecology and management professor who’s involved in studies that track wild turkeys in five states, most in the Southeast. The researchers, who strap little GPS backpacks on turkeys, are seeing what he called very poor “nest success”: Only about 30 percent of eggs hatch, and then only about 25 percent of chicks survive.
“The data very clearly show there’s been a long-term, well over a decade, decline in production across the Southeast,” Chamberlain said. The likely reason, he added, is that “in the last 20, 30, 40 years, we’ve taken broad expanses of forest and fragmented it and chopped it up into little pieces.”
How do those suburban turkey gangs fit into this? They don’t.
They’re not counted in wild turkey censuses, Chamberlain said, because wildlife agencies monitor rural turkeys — the kind that are hunted and help fund state budgets. Turkeys like the ones that recently stalked a police car in Bridgewater, Mass., aren’t hunted and are instead viewed as “nuisance birds,” he said.
“They’re really two different populations,” Chamberlain said. “I don’t know of any states that actually monitor the status of nuisance birds, except to deal with the problem . . . their interest is from hunters who are using rural, public lands, not subdivisions.”
If turkey-human conflicts seem to be increasing, Chamberlain and Hatfield argue, it’s because urban and suburban birds are not hunted and so do not view humans as threats. Also, turkeys are generalists that can get by quite nicely so long as they have trees to roost in at night and space to strut — particularly in the spring, when males woo females with a show that requires a sizable stage.
“They want open areas. Well, lawns and golf courses? All of these are great open spots for wild turkeys,” Hatfield said. “Suburban areas are pretty good habitat.”
Problems can bubble up in the fall, when hens return from a summer raising poults and reunite with their families, Hatfield said. But relations with people are most tense during spring breeding season, when toms are amped up on testosterone, ready to challenge any perceived competitor and often travel in sibling groups that include a few males. A bird gobbling in the back yard is “gobbling to establish dominance,” Hatfield said. A turkey that charges a car — or crashes through the window of a Rhode Island orthodontics office — might be charging its own reflection.
“I would say, to get into a turkey’s brain, you’ve got to think very simple,” Hatfield said. “More than likely, these birds are trying to biologically exist, and we are somehow in their way.”
So if you’re a turkey hunter concerned about the overall population, you might consider advocating for more large wild spaces. If you’re a suburbanite worried about rogue turkeys on your turf, make sure you’re not feeding them — remove or clean up bird feeders, and definitely do not offer handouts. (Montana recently passed a statewide ban on feeding turkeys.) The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, which receives many calls about problem turkeys, also suggests removing shiny objects in which birds might spot their reflections, and scaring turkeys with yelling, brooms, hoses and even leashed dogs.
Not that everyone would be willing to do so. Wild turkeys, for the record, do have some fans.
Nicolas Gonzalez, a National Audubon Society spokesman, insists that birdwatchers enjoy spotting them and “submit lots of photos of gorgeous displaying males and groups doing interesting things like roosting together” during the society’s annual Great Backyard Bird Count. The traffic-stopping turkey in western New York has his own Facebook page, as does Kevin, a Colorado turkey who hung out in the parking lot of a King Soopers grocery store until recently.
Kevin, it seems, was being fed, and he was in danger of becoming more nuisance bird than wild bird. Earlier this month, wildlife officials trapped him and released him in the woods, adding one more turkey to the rural population.