Talking turkey: the uneasy coexistence of people and wild fowl
The population of wild turkeys in the United States has been growing steadily throughout the country, and the trend holds true here in California. Wild turkeys now inhabit at least eighteen percent of the state, including areas like the East Bay.
There are also a lot more people living in the Bay Area. Alameda was the second fastest growing county in the state in 2013.
As the numbers of turkeys and people rise, wildlife experts are reconfiguring effective models of cohabitation.
Dr. Gurthum Purdin is the director of veterinary services at the Lindsay Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital in Walnut Creek. According to Purdin, over the past two decades, turkeys have adapted a little too-well to living amongst people.
“Anywhere where it’s a little bit woody, a little bit of trees, we’re getting turkeys now,” Purdin says. “Turkeys will eat pretty much any kind of food – cat food, dog food – that people like to leave out.”
In the last season alone, the hospital took in 5,700 injured or orphaned animals from the surrounding area. This season, there have been unusually high numbers of turkeys. They’re chicks that have been separated from their mothers or fallen into a storm drains, and full grown adults that have sustained injuries from moving cars and bullets.
The wildlife hospital is not big enough to house all the animals they receive, so volunteers are specially trained to take care of particular species of recovering animals in their own homes. Designated volunteers care for all manners of creatures, including raccoons, foxes and hawks. Only skunks are excluded from this system, and that’s only because they are a major rabies vector.
Debra Maggiora is one of the many home care volunteers here at the hospital. Her specialty is turkeys, though she also is a member of the squirrel team and the possum team. She had a recent run-in with a turkey in Walnut Creek.
“He was at a local retail mall in front of a bank. He was out there for maybe two months,” Maggiora says. “The customers would come and offer him muffins and things, and he was getting quite portly.”
Maggiora says the birds’ condition illustrates the dangers of domesticating wild animals.
“That’s a problem, because if they’re obese then they can’t fly. Then the predators get them. We’ve unbalanced the relationship,” she says.
Maggiora used to keep track of how many turkeys she has rehabilitated through the home care system, but lately she’s lost track. There’s just too many to count. She estimates that at one point, she had close to 45 turkeys living in her backyard. Maggiora not only has to look after these animals, she also has to do it while keeping them wild. That’s easier said than done.
“I do not interact with the wildlife like I do with my pets. So I don’t carry them around, and I don’t imprint them on me,” she says. “I tend to turn my back on them, which is why I get sometimes I get kicked. But that’s okay.”
Maggiora can’t take care of these birds forever. So once a turkey has been fully rehabilitated, Maggiora takes steps to release it back into the wild. The process is complicated, both legally and logistically. Fish and Game regulations stipulate that the turkeys must be returned within three miles of where they were found. As a result, Maggiora takes a lot of field trips.
Maggiora and two turkeys drive through the East Bay in total silence. The birds sit in the back, packed in dog-sized kennels covered in floral sheets.
“Right now they’re listening to my voice, but they’ve never heard it before this,” Maggiora whispers. “I don’t want them associating people as a good thing.”
She drives along the border of Alameda County and Contra Costa County, near the city of Livermore, passing large-scale condo developments that all seem to end in the word “Ranch.” These are offset by green hills, where Maggiora is headed.
“Up until ten years ago, this was nothing but rolling hills and homesteads,” she says.
Farther into the hills, near a horse stable, she rounds a corner and comes across an unexpected welcoming committee: 30 turkeys standing in front of the car.
Maggiora gets out and gobbles at the birds to attract their attention. She’s pulls out one of the kennels, sets it on top of a fence, and struggles to open the door. The turkey inside bangs against the cage with its chest. When the latch is raised, the turkey takes off like a bat out of hell. The other turkeys sprint after it, like the bird released was their long lost brother. Maggiora looks pleased.
“If the bird comes to me, I’ve failed,” she says, “and I’ve never had that happened.”
Maggiora’s plan goes off without a hitch, but that doesn’t mean her solution is the only way to deal with wild turkeys’ increasing domestication. In cases where turkeys become a nuisance, Fish and Wildlife issues what is known as a depredation permit, which grants license to eliminate problem turkeys. But these permits are only issued when turkeys cause property damage. Fish and Wildlife suggests installing motion-sensitive sprinklers, removing bird feeders, or owning a dog to keep the turkeys at Bay. They even suggest arming oneself with an open umbrella, when faced with an aggressive turkey.
One of the simplest suggestions, though, to keep the delicate balance, is this: people should stop feeding them cat food.