Wild Turkeys Visit Each Spring

Rick Lewis Benjamin Franklin preferred the wild turkey be chosen as the national bird. He thought since bald eagles stole fish from other hunters that they set a poor example. Newspapers promoted this opinion around the centennial based on a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter, Sarah, on Jan. 26, 1784.
Rick Lewis

Wild Turkeys Visit Each Spring

Marjorie Powell

As I turned onto Garfield Street early one morning a few weeks ago, I noticed a large, brown “something” in the middle of the road near the other end of the block. As I slowly moved closer, the “something” turned into a male wild turkey gobbling loudly while the bird was in full display, with his head up, his wings dropping by his sides, so they touched the roadway, his tail feathers spread into a half-circle.

Another male and a female stood by the side of the road. Wild turkeys are often seen in Berkeley and Emeryville and occasionally on Bay Farm Island, and they’ve been seen somewhere in Alameda on the 2017 Christmas Bird Count. This year they have found their way across one of the bridges (or maybe the tube) to the main island of Alameda; in addition to the southeastern edge of the city they’ve been seen in the middle of the island, so perhaps they’ll stay.

Large birds, weighing up to 20 pounds with a 5-foot wingspan, turkeys have multicolor iridescent feathers and a bare blueish-grey head and neck that turns red when the turkey is excited. A male turkey has bare growths on its neck, called wattles, a growth on its head called a snood, and a “beard” or tuft of feathers growling out from its breast. It also has spurs on its legs that it uses to fight other males for dominance. Dominant male turkeys do most of the mating with the females.

Females lay 10 to 15 eggs in a shallow depression in grasses or bushes and incubate the eggs for 25 to 31 days. Sometimes a female turkey, called a hen, will lay one of its eggs in another hen’s nest. When the eggs hatch, the chicks are covered in down and feathers, with their eyes open, and can leave the nest within a few hours.

The hens teach the chicks to peck for food and stay with the chicks for several months as they grow to adult size. Two or more females may combine their broods into a flock of as many as 30 chicks. Wild turkeys eat seed, nuts, insects, snails, salamanders and other small vertebrates.

Turkeys live in forests near fields or marshes but have adapted to living within urban areas. They can fly short distances and swim when necessary but prefer to walk and can run quickly. At night, they climb into trees to roost, usually in flocks but sometimes singly.

Turkeys used to be plentiful throughout the eastern United States, but hunting and habitat loss led to their decline until they disappeared from many parts of the country. They are still hunted today and are second only to deer as the goal of hunters each year.

Efforts to reintroduce domesticated turkeys to the wild failed. Eventually people captured wild turkeys in areas where they survived and moved them to places where turkeys had disappeared.

The turkeys that first inhabited what is now southern California went extinct 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Modern wild turkeys from Texas have been released in multiple locations in California to provide stock for hunters and they have slowly spread throughout the state in the last 60 years.

The name turkey comes from the nation of Turkey. A bird that resembles a turkey, a guineafowl from Africa, was introduced to Europeans by ships coming from Turkey to Europe. Early European settlers used the name for the large bird that they encountered in North American.

If you see wild turkeys in Alameda, especially if they are in your yard or on your street, remember that they are large wild animals and can especially be aggressive in the spring, when they are breeding. And a friend tells me that they have not learned to bag their large piles of poop.

In addition, wild turkeys do sometimes force cars to slow down or stop as they cross a street, but I hope they continue to be seen in Alameda.

Marjorie Powell is a member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.