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Marin IJ Articles

Not everyone is wild about turkeys

  • James Campbell
  • Perhaps the biggest complaint Bay Area gardeners have about wild turkey visitors is the poop.

    Turkeys are the largest game birds in North America and their droppings are proportional to their size. Turkeys sometimes roam in gangs (yup, that is the proper name for a flock) numbering between six and 30, so if you do the math, it can get pretty messy. It’s easy to tell the difference between the feces of a male (a gobbler or a tom), which is j-shaped and a female (or hen), which is spiral, but most people couldn’t care less. They just want to discourage the big birds from foraging and defecating in their gardens.

    If you have lived in Marin for a while, you probably remember a time when the only turkeys you saw were at the grocery store. That’s 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 like most of us, the turkeys found Marin to be a perfect place to live. Rio Grande wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) are transplants from Texas and Oklahoma, so they prefer living in 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.

    The California State Department of Parks and Recreation have identified three potential negative environmental impacts from wild turkeys: their consumption of endangered reptiles and amphibians, their competition with ground-dwelling birds for resources and their contribution to the spread of sudden oak death. To date, none of these concerns have been the subject of any long-term, comprehensive studies.

    Wild turkeys are omnivores and opportunistic feeders. Their diet consists mainly of plant matter, seeds and invertebrates, but they have been known to consume vertebrates on occasion. A lot of the garden damage blamed on turkeys is actually caused by other animals like racoons, deer and squirrels, but you might still witness turkeys feasting in your garden. My friend in Sonoma shared a video of a gang of turkeys eating the grapes off his vines just as he was planning to harvest.

    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 bird seed or unsecured garbage.

    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 in Marin. 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 will usually 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 the loud noises or hose squirt, the Humane Society also suggests popping open an umbrella, installing a motion activated sprinkler, throwing tennis balls or waiving your arms while blowing on a whistle.

    During the mating season (February to May) male 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 will scare easily.

    For information on how to deal with other large pests in your garden, go to marinmg.ucanr.edu and click on the link to home, garden, turf and landscape pests.