That Special Member of the Community
Oct 30, 2016 06:20PM ● Published by Julie Ross
What resident of Contra Costa County can run as fast as Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt? Hint: This resident has four toes – three in the front and a shorter one in the back. Oh, and around five or six thousand feathers. Another hint: It is a relative of the domestic bird commonly associated with Thanksgiving. Over the past several years, wild turkeys have infiltrated our neighborhoods, but not just ours; these birds are found in every state except Alaska. Where the heck did they come from?
Wild turkeys are native to the North American continent and were an important food source for Native Americans and settlers from Europe. As these settlers cleared land for agriculture and hunted wild turkeys year-round, the wild turkey population dwindled dramatically. By 1920, wild turkeys were lost from 18 of the 39 states they had inhabited. Numbers reached their lowest point in the 1930s.Wildlife recovery programs began in the 1940s. Scientists caught wild birds and moved them to restored habitats. This catch-and-relocate method was very successful.
In another program, eggs were collected from wild nests and the young were raised in pens. The pen-raised method was a complete failure. Birds raised by humans lacked the survival skills they would have learned from their parents, such as avoiding predators, learning the geography of their home range, and accessing food sources. They also would have missed out on learning social behaviors such as flocking and perfecting proper turkey vocalizations, from the whistle to the yelp to the gobble.
In the mid-1960s and about 30 years after, the California Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife) introduced wild turkeys in California as a game bird. Purists might say that wild turkeys were “re-introduced” rather than “introduced” to California because wild turkey fossils have been found in our state, indicating turkey ancestors were native to what is now California.
In any case, wild turkeys clearly love it here. On a walk with my two dogs this morning, I came across a flock of 14 adult turkeys standing in the middle of the road. My dogs don’t bark at or chase turkeys, but the birds chose to give them a wide berth anyway, first trotting off onto a nearby lawn and then flying up onto the roof of a house. I would have loved to see