Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Wild turkeys have made a remarkable comeback in the U.S. since the early 20th century, leading to more reports of them causing trouble in the neighborhood.
Earlier this month, residents in in Toms River, New Jersey, were calling for help. The state is home to some 20,000 wild turkeys, and about 40 to 50 of them, residents say, are terrorizing their Holiday City neighborhood. The birds have become so bold that they’re knocking on doors looking for food, according to a recent New York Times report, and so menacing that they’re trapping residents in their homes, local news outlets reported. The birds also block streets and peck at cars, one of which belongs to baseball player Todd Frazier, whose tweet sent reporters flocking for the scoop.
Ruthless rule breakers that the birds are, “they cause traffic problems,” Holiday City resident Don Kliem told CBS. “People blow their horns at them, and they don’t pay attention to them. It means nothing to them.”
The “invasion,” as some residents have described it, came weeks before Thanksgiving, but similar stories of humans clashing with wild turkeys pop up year-round and across the country. There are between 6 million and 7 million of the gobblers across the U.S. today, and while they generally live in parks and forests, they are increasingly finding their way into the built environment.
“The suburbs have been marching out into the countryside and into the turkey’s natural habitat,” says David Curson, the director of bird conservation at National Audubon Society’s Maryland-D.C. office, where he also serves as the interim executive director. “Especially where there are green corridors alongside rivers and streams projecting into the cities and suburbs, turkeys will follow those, and come into built areas.”
The encounters have played out more dramatically in some areas than in others, and residents are finding it hard to coexist with their 20-pound feathered neighbors. Sometimes the birds get aggressive, as in the case of the Holiday City birds. In Waukesha, Wisconsin, one bird has been stalking a local postal worker “for months.” Other times, they’re just in the way. Wild turkeys have come crashing through the windshield of a big-wheeler in Sarasota, Florida, and through the windows of a two-story home in Elk Grove, California. In Moro, Oregon, and Oxford Township, Michigan, earlier this year, the birds were responsible for two fatal collisions on the highway.
It wasn’t so long ago that these kinds of human-turkey interaction were uncommon—even rare. Unregulated hunting and habitat loss from logging and urban development rendered wild turkeys almost extinct in the U.S. Before Christopher Columbus set foot in the Americas in 1492, there were an estimated 10 million wild turkeys, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, a citizen-led group that advocates for sound hunting policies. By the early 1900s, numbers dwindled significantly—varying estimates put the population lows at 30,000 or up to 200,000.
The conservation movement at the turn of the 20th century proved beneficial to the birds. “The big successes were the public conservation laws that brought in hunting regulations and a system in which you buy a permit to hunt,” Curson says. In the 1940s and 1950s, state governments and the turkey federation worked to enact hunting restrictions and require licenses. The fees were put toward hiring staff to manage wildlife population, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Local conservations, meanwhile, worked to reestablish the turkey population by trapping birds from forests where they were in abundance and reintroducing to other suitable habitats, like abandoned farmlands reclaimed by nature. (They learned the hard way that farming turkeys and placing them in the wild didn’t work, as the barnyard birds proved to be far less efficient at foraging and escaping predators.) The strategy took decades, but eventually the population started bounce back.
In Maryland, “they expanded enormously in the last 30 to 40 years,” says Curson. Once restricted to the western, more rural areas, they’re now found all over the state. “Wild turkeys have been translocated to new areas if they’ve adapted very well,” he adds.
Indeed, turkeys are a generalist species that adapts well to new environments because they don’t need specialized food or a particular vegetation to survive. A 2017 study by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources found that wild turkeys don’t require vast forested landscape, which means they are more flexible with where they’re able to live. The researchers studied female turkey habitat selection between forested areas and open agriculture fields, and found that they preferred the edges in between the two landscapes.
So as suburban and urban development threaten the turkey’s more vulnerable predators—bobcats, coyotes, and such—the birds have been better at living among humans. They’ve thrived on food put out by humans, like those found in bird feeders or unsecured trash. That’s allowed them to flourish in the New England region, where the wild turkey population is at a record high, the National Geographic reports. Sometimes environmental disasters push them into residential areas. In Northern California, for example, last year’s wildfires pushed the birds into the nearby cities. Even as the some returned to the burn areas, many are staying put in their new habitat where there is food readily available and fewer predators, according to the Record Searchlight.
That combination can help embolden their lack of fear toward humans. Curson says wild turkeys aren’t naturally aggressive creatures. “Naturally, wild turkeys are a very wary bird; they tend to hide, they don’t like to be near people,” he tells CityLab. “But if they are in an environment they are free of predators, it’s possible that they could become quite more confident.”
Curson expects that turkeys will become an increasingly familiar sight in backyards, and, to a lesser degree, in cities. Many states continue to impose hunting regulations to keep the local population in check, though in recent years the national number has slowly fallen, likely due climate change and continued development that disrupt habitats. (Turkeys may have been good at adapting to developments, but they are not immune.)
When the birds become aggressive, officials tend to remove them as a quick, though temporary, response. After multiple complaints from Holiday City residents, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife finally set up bait stations and installed net traps around the neighborhood last week to relocate the gang of disruptive turkeys. Meanwhile, officials are warning residents to assert dominance over the turkeys if they do seem aggressive and scare them away with tools like brooms or garden hoses.
To some people, though, wild turkeys remain a curious sight. Earlier this year, an “extremely regal-looking wild turkey” was spotted in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, likely having wandered away from the nearby Rock Creek Park. And in this case, the turkey was the one who was followed by residents delighted with its rare and almost majestic presence in the city.
If you see one near your house, and it isn’t bothering you, “enjoy watching it," Curson says. ”Usually, there’s nothing to worry about.”