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Birds of a Feather

On the hunt for Eugene’s (not so) wild turkeys
Eugene’s gang of turkeys. Photo by Trask Bedortha.
Eugene’s gang of turkeys. Photo by Trask Bedortha.

No less an enlightened American than Benjamin Franklin was royally pissed that the U.S. Congress, after six long years of deliberation, declared our national bird to be the bald eagle. Franklin, inventor of bifocals and the lightning rod, suggested a bird of a different feather altogether. In place of the dishonest, lazy raptor of “bad moral character” that is the bald eagle, this Founding Father suggested a fowl he deemed far less foul — the wild turkey.

The bald eagle, Franklin wrote to his daughter in January of 1784, was a “rank Coward,” whereas Ben admired an avian that was “withal a true original Native of America,” one that, although at times a tad “vain & silly,” would remorselessly assault any British grenadier foolhardy enough to “invade his (the turkey’s) Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Vain, silly and, if you ask me, more than a little creepy, shifty and ominously dim-witted — which, in our devolving political climate, only further enhances the bird’s emblematic status. Envision a gobbler on the flip side of a quarter, gun in one talon and foreclosure notice in the other: It’s not so outrageous. I can’t speak for bald eagles, but wild turkeys do seem to be an engrained, albeit oddly atavistic, element of the national scene. And here in Eugene, they’ve become as much a fact of life as hippies, hash and hula hoops. Wild turkeys own the streets. They’ve banded together and staked their hood, on their wattled way to celebrity status.

Just look at all the people taking pictures of them, like ad-hoc paparazzi of persistence and pluck.

For the better part of a month, I’ve been tracking an infamous gang of gobblers that has taken up residence in my West Eugene neighborhood. They make for strange neighbors — aloof, somewhat presumptuous, averse to backyard barbecues — but I have no serious beef with them; it’s a free country, and Eugene has a long-standing tradition of tolerance. These turkeys, perhaps by proxy of the famous presidential turkey pardon, first appeared on my street shortly after Thanksgiving, slowly strutting single-file down the sidewalk like some lost regiment searching for its decimated westward outpost.

Maybe you’ve seen them: An undiminished rafter of five plump, plumed, polygamous Rio Grandes, two toms and three hens, whose zone of foraging is bound, roughly, to the east and west by Pearl and Chambers, respectively; north by 5th Avenue and perhaps beyond, deep into the heart of the Whiteaker; and as far south, as one respondent claimed in an EW Facebook posting, “above Rockridge (in the) vicinity of 50th.”

The first time I happened upon this gang of turkeys, I nearly shit my pants (and by “gang” I mean no disparagement, as it is an accepted term for a group of gobblers). I’d never seen anything like it — a clutch of winged zombie pinheads, shaped like upside-down question marks and somehow vulture-like in appearance, dark and reptilian and as out of place as a manatee in Montana. Having grown up in a rural hamlet on Washington’s Key Peninsula before moving in third grade to Minneapolis, eventually ending up Seattle, I’d encountered everything from deer, pheasant, bald eagles, orca, otters and brown bear in the wild, not to mention those unlikely nocturnal creatures that thrive in urban grit, possum and raccoons.

But turkeys? Five of them, jaywalking, orderly and unflappably, almost arrogantly, across 11th and Polk, like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road? Here we enter the dimension of humming monoliths and Log Ladies, a Lynch-like scene of urbanity that alerts neural anomalies. As another Facebook wild-turkey respondent said about first seeing them in Eugene: “I thought I was f@#king crazy.”

Nope — not crazy. Though wild turkeys are not native to Oregon, their presence here is no mystery or preternatural zone-slippage. In fact, according to Dave Budeau, upland game bird coordinator with Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, the first release of these birds into Oregon habitats dates back to at least the late-1800s. “Many releases were domestically raised birds that did not fare well in the wild and eventually disappeared,” Budeau says.

Turkeys, however, make for good viewing and hunting, so hardier breeds of wild turkeys, such as Rio Grandes from Texas and Merriam’s turkeys from the southwest, “were trapped in other states and released into Oregon in an attempt to establish wild populations,” Budeau says. “Many of the wild turkeys that we now have stemmed from releases in the 1970s of wild-trapped Rio Grande turkeys.”

The transplant took.

My own research into Eugene’s wild turkey phenomenon, largely anecdotal and not remotely scientific, involved reading up on the bird, perusing statistical data and, more immediately, tracking them down and observing their behavior. I’m sad to report that the most salient thing I can say about tracking, following and bird watching wild turkeys for any length of time is this: They are boring.

Like cows, they are easily spooked, and when they aren’t just standing around, they move slowly. I tried to trick my photographer into getting attacked by sending him into an enclosed space to get a good picture — no go. Like sex, celebrity and the Super Bowl, it is way more exciting anticipating them than finding them. 

In fact, the single most dramatic turkey-related event I witnessed was the a young woman with a dog walked into heavy rush hour traffic along W. 11th, stopped in the middle of the street and held up her hand to stop the onslaught of cars as the turkeys crossed the road. So I can’t tell you why the turkey crossed the road, but I can tell you how. And, for me, the most amazing thing about these five, apparently stupid-beyond-Darwinian-fittest-survival birds is that, minus such foolhardy human intervention, their numbers have not diminished. Five arrived. Five remain. Go figure.

“Turkeys do have very keen senses,” ODFW’s Budeau says. “They have excellent eyesight and can hear well, so they are not dumb in that respect. In the wild, they use these senses to reduce the likelihood of becoming prey. In town, they can use these same senses to increase their survival.” That said, Budeau admits that “turkeys certainly can be struck by cars, so it is a bit surprising that none of them have been lost if they are constantly crossing traffic. They may have been just lucky to date.”

So let’s talk turkey: Despite the Northwest’s preponderance of deer and elk hunters, turkey hunting is the fastest growing type of hunting nationwide, and Oregon is no slouch when it comes to the number of folks trying to wing a gobbler (most commonly with shotguns or bow-and-arrows). According to ODFW management numbers for the 2011 spring wild turkey harvest, there were 14,389 registered hunters who, averaging nearly four days of hunting apiece, bagged a total of 4,132 birds, meaning just about one in four hunters nailed a turkey.

And get this: assuming Oregon wild turkey hunters hew to the national average for hunting expenses, the state’s 2003 spring wild turkey season (14,152 hunters) generated somewhere around $11 million, with more than $412,000 of that coming just from tag sales. To say nothing of the money coming in from so-called non-consumptive wildlife activities like bird watching and picture taking — gas, equipment, film, cameras — which, for instance, a U.S. Dept. of the Interior 1998 estimate puts at $693 million spent in Oregon alone.

Budeau says Oregon’s wild turkey population appears to be stable for now, with between 40,000 and 50,000 of the things roaming the state. “Most of these turkeys would be considered truly wild, and live in natural habitat with very little contact with people.” It’s illegal to hunt turkeys in the city — even with a knife, Budeau says — so maybe the gangs that show up here ain’t so stupid after all.

Wild turkeys are known as habitat generalists with a highly adaptable “cosmopolitan” diet that allows them to thrive in a variety of settings. They also “domesticate or tame easily,” Budeau says, especially when “well-meaning folks” intentionally place snacks out for the birds. So there you have it: “Food,” Budeau says. “That is the simplest answer as to why the turkeys end up in our urban or suburban areas.” And even when folks don’t purposely feed the birds, he says, “urban/suburban areas still offer numerous food resources” ranging from pet food to wild berries and home gardens.

“In most areas this is not a problem,” Budeau explains, but in the Willamette Valley, which sports the state’s densest human population, “it is more common for turkeys to encounter humans and the food resources associated with them. There is simply more opportunity for wild turkeys to interact with humans and become hooked on the easy food resources.”

Hooked, like junkies. Heroin is notoriously difficult to kick, which may explain why our five feathered friends are reluctant to return to the wild: Who wants to go cold turkey? Who wants to trade cat food, crosswalks and local celebrity for the sodden Hobbesian hell of foraging grubs and berries when, at any time, in the wobble of wattle, some asshole in an orange vest could end you with one squeeze of the trigger?

There was a stretch of days, maybe six or seven in a row, when it seemed I couldn’t step outside without stumbling across Eugene’s gang of (not so) wild turkeys; they were the talk of the town; my friends and I started texting each other cell-phone snaps of our latest wild turkey encounters. But the day I went out looking for them, photographer in tow, scouring the city, asking passers-by (few of whom weren’t immediately aware of what we were asking), posting a call for turkey-sightings on Facebook, making turkey calls — nothing. “There are always some up by Dan Neal’s house running by the water tank. They look delicious,” said one posting. “They have been told to stay away from my trees,” said another, while others had us running from Chavez Elementary to Broadway downtown and then back to Monroe Park.

It took a full 24 hours of intermittent hunting and pecking before, by chance, I was out walking my dog when I spotted them on Polk heading west down the W. 10th alley. We cornered them in someone’s back yard, penned on three sides by a tall fence, pecking around or standing motionless, giving us the sideways eyeball.

What sort of damage might those turkeys have been causing in that backyard? We spotted a single, cylindrical turkey turd, tinted somewhere between mauve and babyshit brown, if this can be considered damage, but other than that there appeared no serious carnage. According to ODWF, during a two-year period between January 2002, and December 2003, homeowners filed 284 turkey-related damage complaints, with a combined estimated financial loss of $25,792.

Budeau says wild turkeys are capable of messing up flowerbeds and gardens. “They often forage by scratching the ground with their feet in an attempt to expose seeds or other food items,” he says, which “can damage flowers or crops.” Budeau suggests several methods for discouraging wild turkey tomfoolery, including removing artificial outdoor food sources like bird feeders or pet food, installing motion-activated sprinklers, “shiny objects blowing in the wind,” fencing, dogs as well as raking fallen nuts and fruit from your yard.

Also, though Budeau didn’t directly recommend this, it might help if the turkey paparazzi, a la Lindsay Lohan, got a bit more aggressive. “I guarantee that if every person with a camera frightened and chased after the turkeys, it would not take those turkeys long to recognize a camera-toting person as a possible threat,” he says, “and they would do everything possible to avoid photographers.”

Imagine a gang of five turkeys skulking around the Barmuda Triangle, going incognito in hoodies and sunglasses. Or better yet, taking a clue from Russell Crowe and going ballistic, charging you balls-to-the-wall and pecking out your Nikon lens.

“In general, turkeys are not dangerous, and usually are not aggressive toward people,” Budeau tells me. “However, they are large birds and can be intimidating, and almost every year there are reports of turkeys, usually adult males, chasing people or attacking cars. I am not aware of any serious injuries caused directly by a turkey.”