Some of us in these days of isolation begin to notice things we may have overlooked earlier. A good example: What wanders through our yards and across our streets, can weigh more than 20 pounds, and can run faster than 20 mph? Would you believe wild turkey?
With these weeks of human inactivity, lighter traffic and relative quiet, we hear many reports of a surge of wildlife. Porpoises and jellyfish swim in the now azure waterways of Venice. Wild goats, deer and bear wander into centers of towns and villages all over the U.S., curiously searching these strange, new places for food. Birds sing without the competing roar of early morning commuters barreling down the roads. We are even favored with glimpses of a bob-white, woodcock or pheasant, and now wild turkey, striding across the spring landscape.
One of our largest birds, with a wingspan of 4.5 feet, the eastern wild turkey had an avid fan in one of America’s founders, Benjamin Franklin. He penned his admiration of the gobblers in a letter to his daughter in 1784, two years after the Continental Congress approved the bald eagle to be the centerpiece of the Great Seal of the United States.
Franklin wrote that the eagle was a bird of “bad moral character,” that “does not get his living honestly” because it steals food from the fishing hawk. He called the eagle “too lazy to fish for himself.” He went so far as to call the eagle “a rank coward.” These traits he contrasted to the turkey, “…a true original native of North America,” and “a bird of courage.”
Once common in many regions, over-hunting and development caused turkeys to be virtually extinct on Long Island. From the late 1800s until the late 1900s, there were none to be found. Then New York State and Suffolk County collaborated to reintroduce about 75 of them, chiefly in Southhaven County Park and Hither Hills State Park.
Today, according to the State DEC, 6,000 of them flourish throughout Suffolk and into pockets of eastern Nassau. This is twice the number in 2009, which was the first year the state allowed hunting them. They tell us that throughout the state, eastern wild turkeys number about 180,000 in the wild, down from their peak of almost 300,000 in 2001. These ground birds, that roost high above ground after dark, are easier to count and track, owing to their habit of keeping regular routes.
Turkeys suffer in harsh winters, and from common predators of their young, such as crows and raccoons. Half of their nests are lost to predation. As if that’s not enough, adult turkeys have to dodge birds of prey, especially great horned owls.
While these factors have kept wild turkey populations under control, the DEC has been studying “management options,” for our area, according to their L.I. regional office. Their “turkey study,” is ongoing, with the goal of updating their 2005 management plan. They even ask Long Islanders to call them (631-444-0310) to report sightings. Next year, they will resume seeking permission from property owners for DEC agents, using hand-held traps, or by shooting nets across a field, to trap, band and release them.
On a recent weekend, the DEC allowed hunting of turkey on LI, limited to bagging one bird, and only by kids 12 to 15 years old, with a proper permit and license, accompanied by an adult. This limited L.I. turkey hunt will recur sometime this fall. And May 1-31, it’s open season on wild turkey north of the Bronx-Westchester line.
While some regard the eastern wild turkey as a pleasant feature of nature, others see them as pests. Consider the 2016 police video to be found on the CBS NY news website, showing a mailman trapped in his USPS truck, surrounded by a flock of turkeys in Hillsdale, New Jersey.
It was only when police blasted their patrol car siren that the turkeys scattered. The postal service should add turkey to the obstacles of wind, rain, etc. that they overcome to deliver the mail. In the meantime, Hillsdale residents told of turkeys with aggressive behavior, pecking at cars, chasing trucks, damaging lawns and scaring people back into their homes.
Last November, Toms River, New Jersey found its place on the gobbler map: Todd Frazier, former Mets and Yankees infielder, tweeted a picture of the wild turkeys covering his SUV, adding, “You see the claws on these things – they’re no joke.”
Frazier’s neighbors complained of flocks reaching 50 in number, causing traffic problems, and that they have become so aggressive that parents don’t let their small children out to play. When Benjamin Franklin admired turkeys’ courage, he never foresaw this. Some find that repeatedly opening and closing an umbrella will scare them off.
Staten Island had similar problems with increasingly active flocks. Homeowners there speak of how turkeys peck alarmingly at their doors when bird feeders are empty. They find encounters to be no joy of natural wonder. Roland Stewart at Staten Island borough hall explains that his community finally addressed rising complaints about wild turkeys, with help from the New York City Council, by relocating a number of them to upstate areas. This has become their standard means of control every six months.
While NYSDEC officials won’t quite say so, their management plans aim to stay ahead of any excesses that wild turkeys have shown elsewhere. They flock in significantly large numbers in some places, particularly in the areas of Ridge and Brookhaven National Laboratory. They have been seen all over the East End. The DEC reports that turkeys in some areas of Long Island have begun to have an “impact” on agriculture and landscaping.
As long as we have lightly forested areas with grasslands, our adaptable wild turkeys are here to stay. Being ground birds, they can only fly short distances, so their major defense is sight. That is why they avoid heavily forested landscapes. A welcome habit is their diet of ticks and other insects, along with the seeds of grasses and what we call weeds.
Turkeys on Long Island once again present our classic challenge with wildlife: Have they finally reached the level of being a nuisance — or have we?
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