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Wild Turkeys: Pest or part of the Marin landscape?

If you lived in Marin prior to 1988 you remember a time when the only turkeys you saw were at the grocery store. This is because, in 1988, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife introduced wild turkeys onto Loma Alta hill on the west side of Lucas Valley. The idea was to provide hunting opportunities on private lands, and the turkeys have thrived. If you are a wild turkey, Marin is a perfect place to live and raise a family.

Wild turkeys  Photo: Pixabay
Wild turkeys Photo: Pixabay

Wild turkeys are not native to Marin County
Despite the quarter million or more wild turkeys (species Meleagris gallopavo, subspecies Rio Grande) making themselves at home in California, they are not a native bird. The wild turkeys of Marin are transplants from Texas and Oklahoma. They enjoy living in our oak woodlands adjacent to open grassland. The oaks provide a safe place for the birds to roost at night while the open grasslands provide an area to forage.

Turkeys make a mess in the garden
Perhaps the biggest complaint Bay Area gardeners have about wild turkey visitors is the mess they leave behind. Wild turkeys are omnivores and opportunistic feeders. They scratch around in the soil and among plants looking for food: insects, larvae, worms, seeds, soft fruits, nuts, plant matter, and sometimes small reptiles and amphibians.

They create a mess while they're at it, and they also leave their droppings behind. Turkeys are the largest game birds in North America, and their droppings are proportional to their size. Turkeys sometimes roam in gangs (yes. this is the proper name for a ”flock” of turkeys) numbering between six and 30, so it can get pretty messy.

Wild turkeys and their impact on the environment
The California State Department of Parks and Recreation has identified three potential negative environmental impacts caused by wild turkeys: their occasional consumption of endangered reptiles and amphibians, their competition with ground-dwelling birds for resources, and their contribution to the spread of sudden oak death. However, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, these effects are subtle and too difficult to detect in the short-term. To date, none of these concerns have been the subject of any comprehensive studies.

How to discourage wild turkeys from taking over your garden
If you don’t want turkeys in your garden, don’t feed them. The novelty of the birds sometimes inspires direct handouts, but more often they find spilled birdseed or unsecured garbage to eat.

The other thing you want to avoid is letting wild turkeys roost on your property. They usually roost in trees, but they can often be spotted on a roof or deck. The good news is they are relatively easy to move along. The Humane Society reports that making loud noises or giving them a squirt with a hose usually will do the trick.

Wild turkeys do have a pecking order of dominance and may view fearful behavior in people and pets as a sign that they are subservient. If a wild turkey or gang of turkeys have moved into your neighborhood or garden, you want to quickly establish your dominance by hazing the turkeys. Along with loud noises or hose squirts, the Humane Society also suggests popping open an umbrella, installing a motion-activated sprinkler, throwing tennis balls, or waving your arms while blowing a whistle.

During the mating season (February to May) male “tom” turkeys have been known to wander into neighborhoods looking for a mate. They may respond aggressively to their own reflection in windows and on shiny cars. Just haze the turkey away and think about covering the reflective surface. Although wild turkeys are large and can look intimidating, they are timid and scare easily.

Wild turkey behavior and antics
Instead of scaring turkeys away, you might choose to just relax, sit back, observe, and enjoy the ongoing antics of wild turkeys.

Tom turkeys on display.  Photo: shutterstock
Tom turkeys on display. Photo: shutterstock

Male turkey (tom)
During breeding season, toms are in full display. They use their iridescent red, green, copper, bronze, and gold feathers to attract females (hens) and fan out their tail feathers to emphasis the point. Adult toms, called gobblers, grow a cluster of long modified feathers at the center of the their chest. This cluster is called the turkey's beard.

Male turkeys sometimes drag their wings on the ground while walking. If you close your eyes and listen, it sounds like a lady’s long dress dragging across a dance floor.

Tom turkey Photo: Pixabay
Tom turkey Photo: Pixabay
Head and neck color changes
In addition to showing off their feathers, a male turkey’s head and neck can go from gray and blue when calm, to bright red when angry or during courtship. Toms also have peculiar fleshy growths on the neck, under the chin and above the beak. The one in the throat area is termed caruncle. Wattles are located under the chin and the snood lies flapping on the beak. These growths are also normally gray or blue and can become bright red to display anger or to attract females.

A gang of hens Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com
A gang of hens Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com
Female turkeys (hens)
While not as colorful as toms, turkey hens are very attentive and protective mothers. In April, the hens look for the perfect spot to build a ground nest, searching out an area with moderately dense understory that allows a view of potential predators and provides some concealment of the nest. In May, hens lay 10-12 eggs and spend most of their time on their nests, incubating the eggs for the next 26-28 days. Baby turkey poults hatch in late May and June. The poults join their mother and start pecking for food 24 hours after hatching. They constantly make pipping sounds to communicate with the hen. Poults can fly into low shrubs and trees after two weeks, feed mainly on insects, and grow very fast. By late summer/early fall the pecking order is established and the gangs are formed. By winter, the juveniles are fully grown.

Gobble, cluck, and purr
Male turkeys can be a little noisy during the spring; they gobble, making a loud, rapid, gurgling sound to announce their presence to females.
Turkeys also make a clucking sound-- one or more short staccato notes to get attention. Sometimes a cluck is followed by a purr, a rolling sound indicating contentment.

Predators
While a hen can lay 10-12 eggs in the spring, there are lots of predators looking for an egg, tender poult, or adult turkey for dinner. Hens will double up with another hen for added supervision and protection of their poults. Wild turkey eggs, poults, and adult turkeys are threatened by numerous species, including snakes, skunks, opossums, raccoons, rodents, dogs, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, hawks, owls, crows, ravens, and eagles.

Original article by James Campbell for the Marin IJ
Edited for the Leaflet by Lisa MacCubbin