During the holidays, Americans eat more than 68 million turkeys. Many are raised in environmentally controlled barns, some have limited access to the outdoors and others are farm-raised.
But often the wilder version of the seasonal hen is considered a pest in urban areas.
People who live in places like Midtown Sacramento or anywhere along the American River are familiar with the birds. They're active all year, they hold up traffic, destroy gardens and leave droppings everywhere.
"In some instances, they've been known to roost on cars and can scratch paint,” said Elaine Lander, an Urban & Community Integrated Pest Management Educator with the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Lander recently wrote a blog post about how to manage turkeys as a homeowner in an urban setting. She says the best way to avoid turkeys is simple: Don't feed them, especially since it’s illegal to feed wildlife in California.
"The larger adults can be upwards of 20 pounds,” said Landers. “Their urban populations are growing and so we're trying to let folks know what they can do if they encounter wild turkeys. "
Lander recommends removing bird feeders that attract the birds and installing motion-detecting sprinklers to scare turkeys off. Dogs can also deter turkeys from entering a yard.
With two major rivers around Sacramento, the city decided in 2010 to no longer respond to calls about trapped healthy wildlife. City officials say “residents must learn to cohabitate with [turkeys] in order to preserve the natural conditions and habitats of this region.”
Turkeys were first introduced into California on Santa Cruz Island in 1877 as game birds — although some say the turkeys introduced to California have ancestors that were once native to the state around 10,000 years ago.
The California Fish and Game Commission had a turkey raising program that was eventually terminated because it didn’t succeed. But in the late 1950s wild turkey populations began to take flight. The agency attributes the growth to a device (the cannon-net trap) that made it easy to trap and relocate the birds. It’s now mostly used to relocate problem turkeys.
Today turkey numbers are still growing and occupy about 18 percent of the state, says California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Peter Tira. The department doesn't have an estimate of the total number of turkeys in the state.
“We are seeing turkeys colonizing urban and suburban areas,” said Tira. “They can be found across the state in deserts, forests, and cities. They can eat all kinds of foods; they travel in groups and they have lots of eyes to avoid predators.”
Merriam’s wild turkeys and Rio Grande wild turkeys are the most common in the Sacramento area. Turkeys are most active in the spring because of mating,when the male calls and struts and gathers a harem of five or more females. But Tira says turkey sightings are a regular thing, even outside his office.
“We’re seeing turkeys in places where we have never existed before,” Tira said of places like downtown Sacramento and even Oakland.
“People think, ‘Oh, what a dumb bird,’ but they are actually quite smart because they know exactly where they are safe. They know when they are downtown there are no mountain lions or coyotes that are going to chase after them.”
Turkeys can become aggressive during the breeding season, occasionally even charging toward people.
But Tira says even if turkeys are a nuisance, shooting them is illegal in urban areas.
“You can’t hunt turkeys everywhere,” says Tira. “It really depends on where you live and where you want to go hunting. Most urban laws have restrictions on hunting or discharging lethal weapons within city limits.”
Still, the CDFW website says homeowners experiencing property damage from wild turkeys can get a depredation permit from a local CDFW office.
In unincorporated areas hunting turkeys is dependent on county law. Tira recommends calling the local sheriff's office for more details.
But there are areas where hunting wild turkeys is allowed, including some state wildlife areas, refuges or other public lands.
“There are places close by where you can turkey hunt, but you're not going to be able to turkey hunt in the city,” said Tira.
To hunt wild turkeys you'll need a hunting license and upland game bird validation.
“If you’re a hunter, you’re king if you can supply your Thanksgiving table with a wild turkey,” said Tira.
Clarification: We've updated the story to note that bird feeders attract both hens and toms, and that while dogs can deter a turkey from entering a yard, UCIPM doesn't specifically recommend you get one.