● By Style
Illustration by David Norby, © Style Media Group.
If ever there was a creature with an overinflated sense of self, it’s the turkey.
And I’m not talking about the kind we’re most familiar with this month—the white, factory-farm birds that actually are overinflated, with artificially enhanced breasts that wouldn’t look out of place on a real housewife of Orange County. No, I’m talking about wild turkeys—the kind strutting among us. From Rocklin to Rio Linda you’ve probably seen them, swaggering confidently through neighborhoods, remarkably at ease among well-kept courts and asphalt avenues. Ever make eye contact with one? They look back at you like you’re the one with the problem.
Their brain may only be the size of a walnut but they seem fully aware that no hunter would dare draw a bead as they peck through lawns. Scott Gardner, with the California Department of Fish and Game, has been studying the birds for years, and you can hear the bemused awe in his voice when he, umm, talks turkey. “They are among the most people-tolerant of all animals,” he says. “[In the true wild], they can be one of, if not the hardest, animals to hunt because their hearing and eyesight are so keen.” But safely within our residential corridors, they have few worries. “That doesn’t mean they’re not still wild,” says Gardner. “They might appear to have lost their fear of you, but they haven’t.” Instead, they’ve simply learned the guy in a tie pulling into his driveway probably isn’t going to pull out a shotgun and blast them.
Nor does it appear many residents desire to do them harm. Despite their penchant for digging up gardens and obstructing traffic (I once saw a flock block Foothills Boulevard as they casually pecked their way across the street like one of them had lost a contact lens), Roseville’s Open Space Division Superintendent, Bruce Castelluci, recalls that in eight years, he’s only received one complaint. Maybe it’s just hard to hate something that looks like it was too close to the barbecue when the gas finally ignited.
Although there’s some evidence that turkeys may have lived here prehistorically, the birds we know today are not native. They come from wild flocks imported from Texas and released in California over a 40-year period (starting in 1959). They’ve adapted well; Gardner estimates there are now over a quarter million statewide.
And they’re not just thriving here. A 2010 USA Today article chronicled the resurgence of wild turkeys throughout America, which is amazing given that by the year 1900, hunting had wiped them out in 17 of their 36 native states. “Turkeys are smart at being turkeys,” Gardner says. “They’ve evolved to survive and reproduce and they’ve been wildly successful at it.” He says a momma turkey can lay between 10-18 eggs at a time. Maybe it’s the male turkey’s snood—the fleshy protuberance that hangs from the forehead over their bill. The ladies love a snazzy snood.
Benjamin Franklin favored the wild turkey over the bald eagle as the national bird. The bald eagle, he said, was “Too lazy to fish” and, “a rank coward.” But the wild turkey “is a bird of courage [that] would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards”…or get a police officer in trouble: A Tennessee cop was suspended recently after firing his gun into the air to scare a particularly brazen turkey off the hood of his patrol car, where it was taking a poop.
Gardner says if we want to try and reduce the birds from roaming, don’t actively feed them. It’s one of the things drawing them to neighborhoods in the first place. Then they look around, realize their predator threat has gone from bobcats to house cats, and decide it’d be a nice place to raise a family. As for deliberate feeding, “You’ve got someone who hates them,” Gardner notes, “living right next door to someone who doesn’t.” For that reason alone, he believes turkeys are here to stay. But don’t you get the feeling the turkeys already knew that?