Wild turkeys thriving in Bay Area suburbs, pooping everywhere and scratching cars

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Like a pack of troublemaking teenagers showing up to a party uninvited, about 20 wild turkeys swing by the home of Anthony and Holly Blackburn in Martinez on a daily basis.

The loitering birds scratch through the landscaping, kicking up the mulch in the plant beds and pushing it onto the street.

They poop all over the driveway and front porch and in general make a big mess.

"My wife gets irritated because she cleans up after them," Anthony told SFGate. "I like watching them on the hill across the street, scratching and pecking, and even occasionally napping. The males will occasionally fan their tails to impress the females."

Stories like this are common in the Bay Area suburbs, especially the East Bay, where wild turkeys are thriving.

California Fish and Wildlife doesn't track the population, but biologists believe the number of birds is increasing, and residents can't agree on whether they're a nuisance or a charming addition to the landscape. What's more, some scientists are concerned that all the turkey activity is disrupting California's natural ecosystem.

Turkeys aren't native to California. Farm-raised birds were actively released into wild lands from the early 1900s to the 1950s by the California Fish and Game Commission to generate revenue through hunting license sales. This population remained stagnant likely because the domesticated turkeys lacked survival skills. The commission, now known as the Department of Fish and Wildlife, introduced live-trapped wild turkeys from 1959 up until 1999, and these more durable birds have prospered.

Just how many wild turkeys live in the Bay Area is unknown as Fish and Wildlife doesn't track the population annually. The most recent statewide report from more than a decade ago indicates that the state is home to about a quarter-million wild turkeys.

"They're a species we don't spend a whole lot of time researching," says Greg Martinelli, a program manager with the Bay-Delta Fish and Wildlife office overseeing an area that extends between Santa Cruz and Sonoma County. "Their populations have been expanding, mainly in the urban areas and rural areas, especially around vineyards."

Specific data on where the population has grown isn't available either, but anecdotally the East Bay seems to be a hot bed of turkey activity.

"I grew up in the Oakland Hills and I never saw a turkey in the hills as a child, but now when I go back home I see turkeys quite often," says Peter Tira, a spokesperson for Fish and Wildlife.

"We are teeming with them out here," says Aimee Grove of Lafayette. "When [our dog] was a puppy we got stormed by one and ran all the way down the street the other direction!"

When turkeys become a nuisance, landowners can apply for a depredation permit to kill birds on their property (usually with a pellet gun or archery equipment), and Martinelli says Contra Costa County consistently issued about 40 permits a year up until 2013 when the number spiked to 60 and has remained in that range ever since. (For comparison, Marin and San Mateo counties have received only one permit request each in the past two years.)

The state's recent five-year drought might be the reason for the influx of turkeys into urban areas as food became less available in the wild lands and turkeys moved into urban areas with water gardens and lawns.

"The birds were utilizing and taking advantage of the irrigated areas and therefore the increase of permits could have just been a shift in location of stable population and not necessarily an increase in population," Martinelli says.

The turkeys have moved into areas where predators are few and hunting restricted. They're generally welcomed by the human population and find the suburbs to be a safe, comfortable haven.
Most people are delighted when a flock stops traffic as they trot across a busy street shaking their bright-red wattles, giving a neighborhood with sidewalks, street lights and strip malls a rural country feel.
"The neighborhood embraces them,” Darlene Devon Andrade of Concord shared on SFGATE's Facebook page. "We are all very careful when driving and let them roam freely in our streets and yards so they can eat and be happy!"

Other homeowners complain of birds digging up landscaping, ripping screen doors and pool covers, tearing shingles off roofs, frightening dogs and young children and pooping all over the place. In the most extreme situations, male mating birds are territorial and will scratch at cars when they spot their reflection.

"These turkeys weigh like 20 pounds and they know how to defend themselves," says Dan Gluesenkamp, executive director of the California Native Plant Society. "There are tons of stories by people's brand new Mercedes getting torn up by 20-pound Toms who are looking at their reflections."

When turkeys wreak havoc in an East Bay neighborhood, John Krause, the Fish and Wildlife biologist for Contra Costa, Alameda and Marin counties, usually knows about it. Krause fields turkey complaints and requests for depredation permits.

"The first question we ask is, 'Do you know anyone in the neighborhood who is deliberately feeding them. Almost always there's someone who is dumping a bucket of corn out for them. Deliberate feeding attracts a nuisance."

Before issuing a permit issues, Krause advises homeowners to "haze and harass birds" with loud noises and stop-motion sprinklers to break their pattern of coming into a resident's yard.
"If there's nothing to disturb them when they come into the yard, then they grow to be comfortable, and they're going to keep coming back," he says.

While homeowners are concerned about the damage turkeys do to their yards, Gluesenkamp worries they're disrupting the natural environment and says the California Native Plant Society is keeping a close eye on the birds.

"They're filter feeders," says Gluesenkamp, who has been the director of the society for five years. "They move across the landscape, 20 or 30 of them, elbow to elbow, scratching every inch of the land. Nothing escapes this line of turkeys filtering the landscape. They eat every creepy crawlie, every salamander, every lizard, every snake, every nut, every acorn, every wild flower seed, every quail egg."

Fish and Wildlife aren't conducting research on the turkey's impact on the environment but Gluesenkamp says his personal research has found that turkeys increase soil disturbance 10 times above what you would expect in the absence of the birds and reduce the abundance of bugs and other creepy crawlies in the soil three-fold.

"They're very large wild animals, and they're being pushed out of the wild areas and are becoming abundant in the urban areas where there's a lot of food and no predators," he says. "Turkeys are really cool. They're incredible birds. And we love seeing turkeys. But there are just too many."

This story was produced in partnership with SFGate.