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A tale of wild turkeys

Watch them, shoo them or even hunt them; wild turkeys can be seen in increasing numbers in and around Petaluma this Thanksgiving

Penngrove resident Gordon Jasoni is visited regularly by a flock of wild turkeys. Six visited him last week, but over the past six years he’s had as many as 30 of the large birds take up residence in his yard, foraging in his garden and roosting in his trees.

Dane Golden
Published: Wednesday, November 22, 2006 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 21, 2006 at 11:40 p.m.

Petaluma is a good place for spotting a wide variety of wild birds.

Facts

TURKEY AS NATIONAL SYMBOL

“The Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America ... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to his daughter, telling of his preference of the wild turkey over the bald eagle as the national bird

TALKING TURKEY
Rafter: Flock of turkeys
Tom: Male turkey
Hen: Female turkey
Poult: Turkey chick
Jake: Young male turkey
Jennie: Young female turkey
Snood: Flap of skin that hangs over the turkey’s beak
Wattle: Flap of skin under the turkey’s chin

You can see a gaggle of geese at Lucchesi Park, a hedge of herons on the Petaluma River or a bevy of quail at Shollenberger Park, among others.

And, this Thanksgiving, you might find yourself face-to-face with a rafter of turkeys.

These rafters of turkeys, also known as flocks, can be seen on a given morning in the hills of west Petaluma, on the roads leading to the coast, on Highway 101 near San Antonio Road, on Adobe Road south of town and in Penngrove.

Over the past few years people have reported seeing flocks of as many as 60 birds, and sightings appear to be increasing in Petaluma and around the North Bay.

Michele Orsinger doesn’t remember seeing any turkeys around her La Cresta Heights neighborhood when she was growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s. She moved back to the neighborhood five years ago, and caught sight of a flock of 20 foraging in a neighbor’s garden a few weeks ago. She and a few neighbors shooed them away, startling the wild birds, which — although mostly harmless to humans — can grow to three feet tall and 25 pounds.

“One of them flew right over my head,” Orsinger said.

Unlike their common domesticated cousins, the heavier Broad Breasted White turkeys, these wild birds can indeed fly about 30 feet at a time.

Orsinger often sees another flock, or perhaps the same flock, on her regular walks near McNear School. Last Thursday she spotted it tearing up another garden. Often, she said, the flock waits on the side of I Street for traffic to pass, then crosses the road two-by-two.

Out on the road to Point Reyes, Rachel Berliner and her family have been seeing a similar flock on their ranch over the past couple of years. Their dog, part Australian Blue Heeler, herds them around and keeps them out of her garden, which is also guarded by a deer fence. Berliner is quite fond of the fine-feathered friends.

“They’re very humorous,” she said. “They’re a joy to watch.”

The most common wild turkey in the area is the Rio Grande, or Meleagris gallopavo intermedia. Native to Texas, they were introduced to California in the 1970s and ‘80s for hunting purposes by the California Department of Fish and Game, and now number about a quarter of a million.

But a growing number of people consider them an unwelcome and invasive species that have grown too quickly, and several regional studies are currently seeking to determine how much damage they are doing to the environment and crops.

One group that isn’t too happy to see them are vineyard owners, who succeeded in getting a law passed in 2005 that enables them to cull the species on their property year-round if the birds are damaging the crop.

“They’ve become a nuisance,” said Patrick McNeil, a bow hunter and member of the local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Petaluma Poults, a group that hunts the bird. Those with a hunting license can hunt the birds near Petaluma with the permission of property owners.

“We promote ethical, responsible and safe hunting practices,” said McNeil. Also, he said, hunting a turkey is not as easy as it might seem.

“A lot of people think turkeys are stupid,” McNeil said. “But a truly wild bird is very wary.”

But, you may ask, how do the wild birds taste?

“Excellent,” McNeil said. “They’re much leaner than a store-bought bird. There’s less fat on the bird.”

Sylvia Mavalwalla raises gourmet heritage turkeys on her farm off Adobe Road. When she spotted a flock of 50-60 wild turkeys near her property a few years ago, she noticed something the uninitiated might not.

Mixed within the flock were some birds with the traits of heritage birds like the ones she raises. She said she saw plumage similar to those of the Bourbon Red, Royal Palm and Blue Slate turkeys, rare (and tasty) domesticated relatives of the wild birds, indicating that they may be interbreeding.

“They are mixing it up out here,” she said.

Mavalwalla says that while she doesn’t think any of her small flock have ever escaped, she knows of a few local heritage turkey ranchers who used to release unsold turkeys into the wild at the end of the season.

Wild turkeys started visiting the garden of longtime Penngrove resident Gordon Jasoni about six or seven years ago. He’s had as many as 30 turkeys living in his yard over that time.

“They make a mess of everything,” he said. “They eat everything, and what they don’t eat they step on. They’re a real pest — my wife hates them.”

Last week there were six turkeys in his yard, eating the birdseed he puts out for other wild birds. He thinks there are fewer turkeys this year due to last winter’s flooding, which probably killed a number of them.

Over the years, he said, he’s called various agencies to try to get rid of the live (or dead) birds, but they aren’t interested.

“I’ve called Fish and Game, everybody. No one wants to do anything,” he said, adding, “I used to have a nice vegetable garden.”

(Contact Dane Golden at dgolden@arguscourier.com)

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