When an American icon gets on your nerves.
A couple of million wild turkey hunters in full camouflage go out to the forests and meadows every year to try out various seductive techniques to lure the wary birds into range. Meanwhile, paradoxically, there are turkeys of the same species (Meleagris gallopavo) boldly approaching human beings. In fact some of the birds are chasing runners and bicyclists, digging up flower beds, consuming farmers’ seed corn, and strolling through parking lots and across backyards. More than a few homeowners, if it were legal, could plug a wild turkey from their back decks without donning camouflage or learning turkey calls. The birds seem to have learned where they can coexist with unthreatening human beings, and it’s getting on our nerves. These birds are big; an adult male can be 16 to 24 pounds with a wingspan of close to five feet, and they have sharp spurs on their legs. They can run up to 20 miles per hour on their velociraptor legs and fly at 55 miles per hour in bursts. They’re the largest North American ground-nesting bird, and the bolder ones are on the way to becoming as much of a nuisance to some as Canada geese.
In the wild the turkeys are easily spooked by unusual sights or sounds, so the hopeful shooters cover themselves in drab camouflage from head to toe, including a face mask with a narrow eye opening—hijab for hunters. Turkey hunting is one of the fastest-growing shooting sports; the National Wild Turkey Federation counts 2.6 million turkey hunters. Part of the appeal has to be that it’s a performance. The extremely skilled use their own voices to imitate turkey calls; others make the sounds with a wooden box that has a noisemaking handle or a slate that’s struck with a wooden stick. Whichever method, it’s not easy to re-create the gobble of a randy tom, the purr of a contented female, the cackle of a receptive hen, or the companionable clucks of flock talk.
The males have iridescent plumage in red, bronze, and gold. They have featherless red heads, long beards of feathers on their chests, and a selection of fleshy appendages on head and neck. The females are smaller and mousier. In his courtship display the male fans his tail out—part peacock, part Native American headdress—and struts in Mick Jagger fashion, though with more dignity.
Benjamin Franklin preferred the wild turkey—“a much more respectable bird”—to the bald eagle as an American symbol. The early European settlers found New England well stocked with wild turkeys, but by the early 20th century the birds had been hunted to near extinction, with populations down to a few thousand. So, in the 1950s, game managers spread wild turkeys into their native grounds and beyond—the lower 48 and more. (There are none in Alaska, but some turkey lover settled a flock in Hawaii.) Now there are at least seven million gobbling and clucking around North America and the Big Island.
This is one more case of a successful conservation effort with unforeseen consequences. There are generations of wild turkeys that have been born into towns and suburbs where they thrive eating tender greens, seeds, and insects, and, like white-tailed deer and black bears, they’ve lost their fear of people. They’ve turned out to be surprisingly adaptable, getting along in a much smaller area than their wild range. At the same time, plenty of traditionally cautious wild turkeys are thriving in habitat preserved in large measure by game bird hunters.
The male turkey’s aggression issues peak during the spring breeding time, but in the fall, young male turkeys who’ve been kicked out of the flock by established males can turn surly. The birds are intimidating, but according to Paul D. Curtis, the coordinator of Cornell University’s Wildlife Damage Management Program, the worst that could happen is that a bird could kick with legs and spurs, causing a puncture wound. “Not pleasant,” Curtis says, “but not life threatening.”
What is most life threatening to turkey hunters is another hunter. The more convincing your gobbles, clucks, and cackles, the greater the risk of being mistaken for a turkey. Position is crucial; hunters are advised to call only when they have a large tree at their back.
CONSTANCE CASEY IS A FORMER NEW YORK CITY PARKS DEPARTMENT GARDENER AND WRITES ON NATURAL HISTORY FOR THE ONLINE MAGAZINE SLATE.