Outdoors: Talking turkey

The first time I ever observed wild turkeys, I was a fourth- or fifth-grader bow hunting with my father in north-central Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness. The majority of the flock was slowly working its way through miles of sagebrush, feeding with heads down. We watched them for about an hour through a spotting scope. But several birds continually kept their heads up, watching for predators. Alert, flock-oriented, protective of their young … that’s the type of turkey Ben Franklin was talking about when he wrote to his daughter in 1784, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our country. … The Turk’y is in comparison a much more respectable Bird.”

The glorious urban turkey: Whether it’s on a golf course or in a backyard, these citified-but-still-wild turkeys are part of a growing urban population of the native bird Ben Franklin called “more respectable” than the bald eagle. Photo by Jeff Ashton

But it’s a decidedly different sort of turkey that has now taken up residence in Asheville. For the last nine months, I’ve been remodeling a house in north Asheville, and in that time, the local flock working the neighborhood has doubled in size. Given the right conditions in terms of daylight, temperature, food sources and nesting sites, hens can lay eggs from March through August, and those that re-nest can produce two broods a year.

The Great Spirit designed it that way, enabling them to maintain populations in the wild where, despite their vigilance, a significant percentage get taken out by predators. But at least for now, there are no natural predators in Asheville to keep turkey populations in city neighborhoods in check, and this is creating an altogether different kind of bird.

By the first century, native people in the American Southwest had domesticated turkeys. They were kept for their sustainable production of somewhat downy feathers, which were harvested, wrapped around yucca rope and woven into warm blankets. According to author Stephen Budiansky, domestication occurred when folks began managing flocks that lived in close proximity to human settlements. It was a natural win/win arrangement, because the two species shared a flocklike social structure, and humans afforded a certain amount of protection from predators. Humans were also more likely to live in areas where there were guaranteed foraging opportunities for the big birds.

Aggressive individual turkeys were killed and eaten, while the more docile individuals were allowed to reproduce, creating flocks that became ever more dependent on people for protection. And indeed, now that several generations of turkeys have grown up and reproduced in Asheville, they, too, are dumbing down and relying on humans to keep them safe.

Photo by Jeff Ashton

Ancient folk in our part of the country never actually domesticated the turkey, though they did manage turkey habitat via controlled burning, creating weedy fields and open woods that attracted and maintained large flocks of this big, tasty bird. Come to think of it, that’s also a pretty good description of the habitat in the Asheville neighborhoods where turkeys have been propagating at alarming rates the last few years.

Recently, I’ve been talking about turkeys with people who walk past the house where I’m working. I’ve had similar conversations with folks who live in other parts of Asheville, and I’ve googled “turkeys in neighborhoods” to see just what sort of phenomenon we’re dealing with here. Almost without exception, I’m hearing how little groups of four or five turkeys began showing up in neighborhoods around town about five years ago. At first, people found it “charming” and “delightful” to see the big, stately birds pecking their way across backyards. But that attitude has changed as wandering flocks of 50 or more birds are now damaging landscape plants and leaving droppings everywhere. Suddenly those big birds don’t seem so charming.

Despite their growing numbers, however, these turkeys are not domesticated. And though I haven’t heard any significant tales of them acting aggressively (other than many reports of them attacking car tires), one north Ashevillean said the turkeys resemble surly teenagers unwilling to get out of the road when cars approach. The key point is that nobody’s killing off the more aggressive birds, who will naturally take their place at the top of the pecking order.

Turkeys are not territorial; instead, they walk “feeding circuits” through ranges that vary in size depending on how much food is available. Males and females have separate hierarchies, and within those there can be further pecking orders. According to wildlife biologists, accounts of turkey aggression are based on this behavior and the instinct to establish a pecking order with the humans they encounter.

And in fact, I’ve read about turkey attacks recently in Brookline, Mass.; Castle Rock, Colo.; Pittsburgh; Corvallis, Ore.; Madison, Wis.; Augusta, Ga.; and even Staten Island, N.Y. There have been cases of unprovoked turkeys chasing children in schoolyards. In Madison, pedestrian postal workers were armed with high-powered water pistols for protection, but once the turkeys figured out that the water didn’t harm them, they resumed their violent behavior.

Meanwhile, judging by what I’m hearing, turkey, bear and coyotes have all shown a marked increase in Asheville neighborhoods over the last four or five years. And if Asheville’s turkeys haven’t been domesticated, they have been lulled into a false sense of security.

But in places where expanding populations of some readily available food source are not restrained, it tends to create new paradigms. Predators move in—and they don’t distinguish between turkeys and family pets. Two months ago, for example, my cat of 12 years became coyote food, not too many yards from my home in the Reems Creek Valley. And friends who live in Beaverdam say a large population of neighborhood rabbits was taken out by coyotes a couple of years ago, though the critters moved on after that because the turkeys hadn’t arrived yet.

So it appears we may have a new chapter on our hands in the ever-shifting balance of nature. Stay tuned… .

[Jeff Ashton lives in Weaverville.]

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