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Wild turkeys make a home in Sonoma County

Wild turkeys are found through the countryside of Sonoma County, often finding their way into residential neighborhoods.

John Burgess / PD
Published: Monday, November 19, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 19, 2012 at 11:09 p.m.

A lot gets said about the fate of American turkeys this time of year, what with the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner and the central role they play in it.

But if biologists have it right, it's actually a brilliant time of year to be a turkey in the wild, where their job just now is to fatten up for the winter, much like many humans do.

This is the season in which wild turkey toms, hens and their yearlings flock together and feast upon any delicacies they can find - gleaning whatever might be left in the vineyards and scooping up acorns, insects, herbaceous grasses, berries and pretty much anything else.

They're omnivores, and they're opportunistic, so they'll take whatever they can get, partly accounting for their remarkable proliferation around the North Bay and the rest of California in recent decades.

And in Sonoma County and surrounding areas, they have the perfect environment: Open grasslands and rolling oak woodlands, said Scott Gardner, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game.

“You couldn't create better habitat for them,” he said.

Add to that the fact that many people enjoy feeding the turkeys, though some may do so indirectly through feeders intended for songbirds.

On Clover Drive, south of West College Avenue in Santa Rosa, the year-round flock of 10 or so has suddenly swelled to around 17, resident Linda Dubkoff said.

“And they just roam the neighborhood, go on everybody's grass, eat the bugs,” Dubkoff said. “A lot of the neighbors do not like them, ‘cuz they're kind of pesky. But they dont' bother me at all.

“I think it's nice when you see them all out there,” she said. “Everybody stops and looks at them and takes photos.”

The large birds have worn out their welcome among some in the region for a variety of reasons, however, not least the wine grapes they pilfer from the acres of vineyards planted throughout.

“In a small vineyard, they can have a fair impact,” said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

The fowl are highly tolerant of human activity and, with their population increasing exponentially, have moved into the urban-wildland interface and even suburbia, creating nuisances with their scavenging, messy droppings, unsafe road crossing habits and occasional interaction with car parts and other shiny surfaces, where male turkeys may think they see a rival and attack, wildlife officials say.

“Now, they're everywhere,” said Santa Rosa resident Dave Barry, a hunter, naturalist and birder. “We never saw them when I was a kid. Now I've seen them walk right down my street, and I've seen them walk down the street in Petaluma - neighborhood streets.”

Jeff Furlong, wildlife specialist for the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner's Office, said he's received complaints from grape growers because of grape loss and damage to irrigation tubing. Oakmont residents contend slimy turkey waste on the area walkways makes it dangerous for some pedestrians, though there's little he can do about it.

Turkeys are creatures of habit, and most nuisances exist in areas where they know they can find food, experts said.

But Fish and Game will issue depredation permits where damage to property or agriculture occurs, and it doesn't take much, said Gardner.

Introduced to California on several occasions over the past century, the modern wild turkey is a prized game bird regulated by the state Department of Fish and Game — with “much better flavor” when cooked properly, Barry said.

More than 37,000 were bagged in all of 2010, according to Fish and Game records. In the spring hunt alone, 4.4percent were taken in Sonoma County, while Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and Lake counties all were on the Top 10 list.

But the state was estimated to have about a quarter million wild turkeys when Fish and Game last made an attempt to count them in 2004, and their numbers are known to have swelled since then.

The state Department of Fish and Game is trying to add a bit more balance to the equation this year by doubling the length of the fall turkey hunting season, increasing it from 16 days to a full month, from Nov.10 to Dec. 9.

Both male and females may be hunted in the fall, potentially affecting population growth, whereas only males may be hunted in the spring, when the birds segregate themselves in flocks of a single gender. Hunters also are permitted to shoot two turkeys this fall, compared with the usual one.

But no one thinks the liberalized hunting season will seriously impede population growth in a species that has multiplied impressively since taking root in at least 18 percent of the state.

“Some people like them, and some people don't, It's a mixed bag,” said UC Berkeley environmental sciences Professor Reginald Barrett, whose studies on wild turkey diet provide the foundation for much of California's policy and research.

“The basic problem we have is that turkeys are so well adapted to California and so extensively throughout the state that the idea of getting rid of them is just not realistic,” he said. “You'd have to get the Marines to come in.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan

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