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California's Turkey Population Moves to Town

Al Gibes / Capital Public Radio

Why did the turkeys cross the road?

Al Gibes / Capital Public Radio

Some 130,000 people are licensed to hunt birds in California. Some already know wild turkey hunting season opened this week. But you don’t have to go to woodland areas to find these large birds.  The number of wild turkeys in urban areas seems to be growing. 

On a fall morning, few people walk around the Effie Yeaw Nature Center in Carmichael. But dozens of wild turkeys are foraging through fallen leaves next to the American River
“The irridesence of the feathers is marvelous, they’re a beautiful bird," says Paul Tebbel is director of the nature center. “The population has certainly grown in the last couple of decades. There’s very little predation.”

In open landscapes like this, where females graze quietly and males fan out their tail feathers, turkeys can be a pleasant and peaceful way to experience wildlife. But where there are more homes and more people, it can be a different story.

“Nobody likes them, They’re just a nuisance. And we can’t kill them," says Ben Gordon with the Limeridge Homeowners Association, a community of almost 250 houses in Concord.

He says in the last three years, 150 to 200 turkeys have showed up.

1111 turkeys foraging Rancho Cordova

Turkeys foraging in Rancho Cordova. Submission by: Wilson Lewis

“They’ve been all over the development," says Gordon. "We see them everywhere. They cross the streets.”

Gordon says the turkeys on the periphery of the development don’t bother people, but they leave a mess on sidewalks, pick apart lawns and land on rooftops and trees.

“Somebody told me, ‘You could shoot them and eat them, and they’re really good eating.’ And I said ‘Oh, did you do that? And he said ‘Well no, I wouldn’t do that, it’s against the law,’” says Gordon.

Turkeys were introduced in California for hunting. But you can’t hunt in most cities. California started establishing the birds in wild land areas in 1959 and stopped 15 years ago. But since then the population has grown and moved to town. 

“They hadn’t even really looked at the available data to try and assess what might be impacted by introducing these large omnivores into a naïve landscape," says Dan Gluesenkamp, director of the California Native Plant Society.

The organization that sued the state to stop the turkey releases. While a species of turkey did exist in California until 10,000 years ago, Gluesenkamp considers these large wild birds, some of which originated in Texas, to be invasive in California.

“You can look at a flock of 60 turkeys, and those birds weigh about 20 pounds each. And when you do the simple math, that’s a lot of biomass that they’re vacuuming off the landscape," says Gluesenkamp. "So if you care about the wildflowers, and you care about the bugs, and you care about snakes, and you care about frogs… Then the more turkeys you got, the less of everything else.”

1111-turkeys -p

Wild turkeys in Fair Oaks. Beth Ruyak / Capital Public Radio

Gluesenkamp did a study that showed turkeys remove acorns and eat a lot of small critters. But there isn’t much research showing the ecological harm turkeys might cause. Still, Gluesencamp says species in the ecosystem are like rivets in an airplane.

“You can pop a lot of rivets out of an airplane before something goes wrong," says Gluesenkamp. "There’s a lot of extra rivets holding those wings together. But you don’t know which rivets are critical. And you don’t know when you’ve popped one too many until the plane starts to crash."

Gluesenkamp says there aren’t a lot of predators to hold turkey populations in check. He thinks hunters should be allowed to take more. But state wildlife managers say that wouldn’t help the urban turkey population. 

“Turkeys are somewhat nomadic, so over time they’re going to move to the areas that frankly the living is the easiest," says Scott Gardner with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

1112-turkeys -in -a -neighborhood

Turkeys roam a neighborhood along University Avenue near Howe Avenue. Al Gibes Capital Public Radio

Gardner says management options are limited in cities. Firearms laws and private property considerations prevent hunting. Turkeys are very tolerant of people, people tolerate turkeys, and feed them. And turkeys avoid being trapped.

“They still are wild animals," he says. "We inevitably will not get all of the turkeys.”

Gardner says he doesn’t consider the turkeys to be out of control, but in light of current environmental concerns, the department might have made a different choice about introducing them.

“Given the very different time that we’re in than 1959, we probably would not be proposing to release them in the state today," he says.

Conservation biologist John Eadie of UC Davis says wild turkeys illustrate the need for new strategies to manage wildlife in cities.

“Their survival seems to be high, their production seems to be high, things cannot grow exponentially," says Eadie. "I think the populations from what I’m seeing in local urban areas are increasing because of these factors. Something probably has to be done to bring that into balance.”

One way he says people can help reduce the number of turkeys in cities? Stop feeding them.

The map below shows where wild turkeys have been spotted in the Sacramento region.


Turkey icon designed by Christy Presler / Noun Project

Do you have any turkey sightings of your own? Send photos of your turkey sightings and where they happened to community@capradio.org. You can also complete the form below.