Turkeys on Our Turf?

Wild Turkeys Are Roaming around the ‘burbs

By Glenda C. Booth

October 17, 2018

A California teenager on a school trip traipsing through Mount Vernon, George Washington’s mansion, asked, “Do you have emus at Mount Vernon?” Startled that someone would expect an emu at an 18th century, Virginia plantation that managers interpret as it was during the first president’s era, the docent replied, “Heavens, no. Why?” The obviously wildlife-challenged youngster announced, “We saw emus down near Washington’s tomb earlier today.” “Ah,” said the docent, “You saw turkeys.”

With Thanksgiving approaching, it’s time to talk turkey, not the main entreé of the annual, stuff-yourself meal, but wild turkeys, gangly fowl that are increasingly wassling around the ‘burbs, often in unexpected environs. These are not the plump, white gobblers that end up on the dinner table. Wild turkeys are slimmer, around 15 pounds and dark brown with shiny, bronze highlights.

  • Last month, city of Alexandria Naturalist Jane Yeingst saw one in a backyard of the 600-700 block of Timber Branch Parkway. She’s gotten reports of turkeys in Ivy Hill Cemetery. “Several years ago, they were sitting on the roof of Beverly Hills Methodist Church hung out for weeks,” she snickers, adding, “we’ve seen them for years.”
  • In March, the Animal Welfare League captured a wild turkey poking around a Rosslyn construction site, confirmed the gender and returned him to a woodsy patch. Three weeks later, a different turkey ambled around Rosslyn’s streets.
  • Last year, Rod Simmons, Alexandria’s Natural Resource Manager, saw a wild turkey trotting across a residential neighborhood of large oaks and hickories on the eastern part of Arlington’s Reserve Hill on the east side of Little Falls Road.
  • David Lawlor, Natural Resources Manager for Fairfax County’s Huntley Meadows Park, says that the park has a “healthy population,” between 25 and 100. “Every year we see hens, gobblers and poults,” he reports. A poult is a young fowl.
  • A little further south at the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, visitors typically see five to ten in a flock feeding along the hiking trails every season, according to Christopher Wicker, Wildlife Biologist.

To some, Meleagris gallopavo may have a catchy scientific name and elegant, bronze plumage, but wildlife biologists’ descriptions may be a bit unkind from a human point of view. Take John H. Rappole’s description of the male in Wildlife of the Mid-Atlantic: “Dark brown body with iridescent bronze highlights; naked red head and neck; blue skin on face with dangling red wattles; hairy beard hanging from breast; tail dark barred with buff; tarsi with spurs . . . polygynous, with no apparent participation by the male in care for the brood at any stage. . . .” Turkeys are an attractive bronze in hue, but deadbeat dads, apparently, say scientists.

Numbers Rising

North American wild turkey populations hit historic lows in the late 1920s nearing total extinction because of hunting, lumbering and conversion of forests to farmlands. Wildlife managers made concerted restoration efforts by enhancing favored habitats and capturing and relocating turkeys to favorable habitats, says Patrick McCurdy with the National Wild Turkey Foundation. Turkeys are found in every state except Alaska and yes, even Hawaii.

Today, turkey populations are rising in 49 of Virginia’s 95 counties, including Fairfax and populations are considered stable in the others. Counties with “high” populations have .92 turkeys per square mile of turkey habitat. Fairfax County’s numbers are very low, .25 per square mile of turkey habitat, but increasing, Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries data show.

Are they invading the suburbs? Not from the turkeys’ perspective. Ever-metastasizing development has fragmented and invaded what the birds likely consider to be their domain.

Turkeys have not always twittered human heartstrings, having been equated with fools or idiots in American lore. Ken Kaufman in Lives of North American Birds rhapsodizes about wild turkeys, describing them as “wary and magnificent,” but disparages their barnyard kin as “a rather stupid creature,” hence “leading to the insulting tone of the word ‘turkey.’”

The flip side, however, is Benjamin Franklin’s view, who, when comparing the turkey to the bald eagle, sang the praises of his favorite avian: “. . . the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Head to the Woods

Despite sightings in parks, cemeteries, suburban yards and city streets, wild turkeys prefer woodlands and open clearings where they can feed on acorns, seeds, berries, grass blades and sometimes frogs and snakes. They forage by walking and scratching in leaf litter. Hens lay from 10 to 15 eggs.

David Lawlor advises, “To see wild turkeys, spend a lot time in woods. It’s mostly by chance that you can see them.” Turkeys are very wary and have excellent eyesight. Successful turkey spotters, he says, “have to be patient and have a good eye. Turkeys disappear rapidly for the size of the bird that they are. When they run, they can run like the wind when they put their mind to it.” In the fall, they usually are in flocks for protection, looking for acorns and seeds.

Alonso Abugattas, author of the Capital Naturalist, cautions, “It’s not often easy to see turkeys. Your best chance is right before dusk as they fly up to roost and after and during rains in more open areas. Seeing wild turkeys is never a guarantee.” On his blog, he explains that keen observers might see large tracks, “paint” from their droppings under a tree roost or scrapes in the soil from their scratching for nuts and insects.

Listening for Gobbles Is Futile Now

Turkey fans are unlikely to hear much gobbling outside this time of year. Spring sightings are easier because male turkey hormones are bubbling and the birds are in courtship mode. Says Lawlor, “The best time to see gobblers is in the spring because they are less wary when females are receptive, gobblers more vocal and out in plain sight because males are looking for hens.” During mating season, testosterone-driven male turkeys puff up into feathery balls, flare their tails into a fan, swell up their wattles, rattle their wing feathers, strut around and gobble. It’s all about romance. The unabashed gobbler announces his presence by incessant gobbling, hoping to attract females. In this excited, anticipatory mood, the male gobbles a lot, many times a day. Gobbledygook?

So, fellas, you’ve got four months to finetune your gobbling and perfect your strut. Meanwhile, what you’re likely to eat at the Thanksgiving table is one of those stupid birds.

More

“Turkey Tidbits,” by Alonso Abugattas, Capital Naturalist

ABC 7 WJLA’s video of the Rosslyn turkey

Virginia Turkey Basics