wild turkeys

Wild turkeys crossing the street in Newark, N.J.

In the dark of night, the intruder smashed a plate glass window of a dessert shop in Lincoln, Neb. Inside, destruction.The first cop called for backup. The two officers, guns drawn, warily entered the shop.


In a back room, they found the perp, angry and ready to fight, but a little on the smallish side. It was a 25-pound wild turkey.

“The police came outside and were laughing hysterically,” says High Society Cheesecake co-owner Marcus Morris, who’d arrived at 11:30 p.m. to start baking for the next day, April 1. “The turkey had gone crazy. I started calling friends to tell them what had happened. Everyone thought it was an April Fool’s joke.”

Americans, prepare yourselves. The wild turkey is back in vast numbers and may be coming soon to a garage, backyard or windshield near you.

The High Society Cheesecake caper is one of many real-life turkey dramas playing out this spring in what could be called “Turkeys Gone Wild.”

It’s mating season, and male gobblers have begun a relentless two-month quest to have sex with as many females as possible. The urge to breed has brought these fearless, not-too-bright, testosterone-filled birds into cities and suburbs, which often provide a wonderful habitat for turkeys on the prowl.

Wild turkeys are following in the footsteps of deer — an iconic American species that was nearly wiped out, only to come back in large numbers and thrive in predator-free suburbs.

The bountiful turkey population is creating awkward interactions with people who have little experience with wildlife.

In Wenham, Mass., a man returned from Easter service and found a wild turkey had smashed his living room’s picture window.

“The turkey was patiently sitting on the couch like he was watching TV,” says Wenham Police Officer William Foley. “But he got angry when he saw us.”

The owner was afraid to come to the front door when police knocked. He didn’t want to cross paths with the turkey. Animal control officers wrestled the turkey outside, and the bird was returned to the woods unharmed.

Turkey-human confrontations are sometimes comical. New Jersey Turnpike drivers were befuddled by wild turkeys hanging out at tollbooths. In Oshkosh, Wis., police used a lampshade to shoo a turkey from a garage. In Oxford, Mass.,a turkey crossed the road to eat at McDonald’s.

Back from the brink

Wild turkeys were driven to near-extinction a century ago by hunting and habitat loss. By 1900, only 30,000 wild turkeys survived, mostly in swamps and mountains, says wildlife biologist Scott Vance of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Wild turkeys were wiped out in 17 of 36 states.

Attempts to transplant farm-raised turkeys — the Thanksgiving dinner kind — into the wild failed. The birds couldn’t hack it.

The invention of a netting gun that captured wild turkeys alive changed everything. In the 1970s, wildlife officials began relocating wild turkeys. The birds thrived in reforested areas. Today, 7 million wild turkeys live in 49 states. Alaska is the only turkey-free state.

Hunters kill about 1 million turkeys a year. Turkey hunting is the only type of hunting growing in popularity, Vance says. One reason: hunters have an excellent chance of success because there are so many birds. Feeding wild turkeys is the biggest cause of turkey trouble, he says.

So many wild turkeys were roaming the Minneapolis suburb of Shoreview that some parents were afraid for their children’s safety. One resident fed buckets of corns to the birds.

“We had complaints about property damage, traffic safety issues,” says Assistant City Manager Tom Simonson. The City Council hired a company to kill 75 of the city’s estimated 100 wild turkeys. Only five were caught — three went to the local food pantry; two got tracking devices.

Vance says humans have little to fear from wild turkeys. The birds have spurs on their feet, wings sharpened like razors from dragging on the ground and a willingness to fight. But the typical turkey is 20 to 25 pounds.

“You’re more likely to be injured running away from the bird,” Vance says.

Mostly, male birds interact with humans. Mating season lasts from February through May, depending on an area’s climate. When mating season ends, male turkeys regroup in bachelor packs, hanging with their posse until the next mating season. They don’t help around the nest or nurture their young.

A smaller hazard

The small size of wild turkeys makes them less of a road hazard than 200-pound deer. However, last month, two people were killed near Omaha when their van swerved to avoid one. Vance says those are the only deaths he knows related to wild turkeys.

Truck driver J.C. Caldwell narrowly escaped. He was driving at 55 mph on a rural road in Washington County, Tenn., March 23 when a large turkey struck his windshield.

“His face was up against the windshield, his eyes looking straight at me,” Caldwell says.

Caldwell has confronted nearly every hazard possible during 29 years on the road, once hitting two deer on the same trip. This was his first turkey. When he tells other truckers, “they think I’m on drugs, that I’m blowing smoke.”

Even Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Stanton, who handled the case, was surprised. “I’ve seen car versus bear, car versus deer, car versus cat, but this is the first time I’ve seen car versus turkey,” he says.

V ia USA Today