For most Americans, turkeys come in plastic, from supermarkets. Their feathers are gone. Their gobble has been silenced. They are certainly not scaring the bejesus out of your dog, or attacking your car because they have seen a reflection of themselves in the grillwork and wrongly perceived an enemy worthy of attack.
It turns out that genuine, free-range wild turkeys — not to be confused with the farm-raised kind that most people will overcook on Thursday — are increasingly finding their free range to include suburbs from New England to California and lots of spots between.
Human-turkey conflicts are on the rise.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving last year, for example, Ashley Kruse noticed that glass from a second-story window of her house in Council Bluffs, Iowa, had shattered onto her driveway. She walked upstairs to find a room covered in blood and turkey feathers. A turkey had smashed its way inside, for reasons only a turkey could say.
“He left a mess, but he was no longer there,” said Kruse, who works for the city. “It was disgusting and hilarious at the same time.”
The turkey-trashed room had to be repainted and recarpeted, she said.
As a nation, we have done this to ourselves. Starting in the early 1950s, wild turkeys were reintroduced into states where they had fallen on hard times as their habitat shrunk, and newly introduced — often with enthusiastic state participation — into places like the Pacific Northwest, where they had never existed in nature.
Mark Hatfield, a wildlife biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation, a turkey advocacy group, said the effort may well rank as one of the most ambitious wildlife programs in the nation’s history, with more than 20,000 wild birds trapped and moved across state lines and 200,000 other birds moved to new spots within their own states in just the last 30 years or so.
Every state but Alaska now has a hunting season on wild turkeys, which have an estimated population of about 6.2 million across the nation, up from about 1.3 million in the mid-1970s.
“One thing that works in favor of the wild turkeys is their adaptability,” Hatfield said.
Adaptable is one word for them. An invading force bent on total, if sometimes muddled, global domination is closer to what the Pajerski family of St. Anthony, Minn., has experienced.
When Sheila Pajerski’s youngest child, M.J., was 3 years old, he looked out the window of the family home outside Minneapolis and began yelling for his father. “Daddy, Daddy, there’s something outside!” he said.
Twenty-one turkeys had settled on the backyard play set. The animals stayed a half-hour, then left.
Wild turkeys, relatively new to the suburbs, do not always know how to behave. Sometimes they climb on the roofs of houses, which, it seems, can freak people out. Twenty to 30 pounds (smaller for females) of clattering, gobbling assertiveness on slate makes a racket. Other times they descend as a flock to roost on back fences or high in trees, quietly or often not-so-quietly waiting for dinner, or a cue to action, like something from a Hitchcock film.
Their sense of traffic laws can also be unsettling. “In the early spring when the snow is just melting, turkeys will sometimes go where there’s intersections, where there’s a four-way stop,” said Cynthia Osmundson, regional wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“They seem confused but they also don’t want to move. That creates problems,” she said.
Texas has the most turkeys in the nation, with an estimated population of half a million, followed by Alabama, Kansas and Wisconsin. As the birds vanished from most of their range in the early 20th century, they held strong in a few places: Missouri, New York, South Carolina. So many of the modern descendants, spread far and wide through turkey-loving relocation efforts, are transplants from those states or from other states that rebuilt their populations quickly and had birds to share.
“They’ve got it made — all the habitat they want and very little predation,” said Madonna Luers, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In Boston and its suburbs, where nuisance complaints have soared in recent years, wild birds stumble into the streets in front of cars or relieve themselves in doorways. Others gaze at length at their reflections in storefront windows.
“We’ve seen them go from being a novelty, a rarity, to now it’s just a normality,” said David Scarpitti, a wildlife biologist with the state of Massachusetts.
Some residents have emerged from their homes to see “a dozen turkeys standing on the back railing,” leaving feces on the porches, he said.
“They are social and noisy animals, and there’s usually a lot of vocalization going on,” he said. “It could be 20 birds gobbling their heads off at 3:30 in the morning, and not everyone appreciates that.”
Hunting in most urban areas is also not an option, though the city of Council Bluffs in Iowa has recently allowed bowhunting within city limits in an effort to control the birds.
Washington state has also given up on moving turkeys that become nuisances. Their numbers are so large that it started to seem like shoveling against a blizzard, Luers said.
The town of Brookline, near Boston, now has a tutorial on turkey life and psychology on its website.
“Wild turkeys have a ‘pecking order’ and people who act fearfully will be treated as subordinates,” the site advises.
If you are approached by a turkey, the website says, “do not back away or turn your back.” Rather, it says, “Step toward the turkey and act confidently.”
That is sometimes easier said than done.
During mating season, large groups of turkeys in Omaha, Neb., have a frustrating habit of blocking Dodge Street, a main thoroughfare, during the middle of the morning rush hour. When that happens, Laura Stastny is often called in to clear the way.
“I’ll go straight to the male and shoo him off the road, and then I shoo everyone else off the road,” said Stastny, the executive director of Nebraska Wildlife Rehab.
She said the turkeys “generally cooperate,” but it takes a self-assured approach to scare off the birds. “I’m usually more confident than the turkey,” she said.