Wild turkeys, native to North America, include five subspecies found in different ranges across the continent. These include Eastern, Osceola (Florida), Rio Grande, Merriams and Goulds. When the National Wild Turkey Federation was established in 1973, there were just 1.3 million wild turkeys in North America. Now there are more than 7 million and their numbers are growing. This is good for turkey hunters but not as favorable for homeowners. The biggest problem is well-meaning people who feed wild turkeys.
They’re So Majestic
The wild turkey is a handsome bird, iridescent with a range of colors. And they’re big – hens are typically 10 lbs. or more, and toms often weigh over 20 lbs. Turkeys are also fast, they can run at 20 or 25 mph and can hit over 50 mph in flight.
As common as they’ve become across the U.S., though, many people have never seen wild turkeys or very limited numbers of them. When turkeys show up in people’s yards or fields for the first time, it can be tempting to feed them.
Adult turkeys feed mostly on plant materials, including nuts, acorns, berries, grapes, and tubers. They scratch the ground looking for food and insects, and they congregate around areas with plentiful food. People enjoy watching and photographing them, but when people start feeding the turkeys, they usually get more than they bargained for.
Turkeys Turn Into Pests
Turkeys are active during the day, and they roost at night. They typically roost in large trees but have been known to spend the night on a roof, porch railing, or even a vehicle. Like most birds, they leave droppings everywhere. If you think six chickens in a hen house make a mess, try 30 turkeys in the yard.
The flock will multiple every year as more turkeys become accustomed to being fed. Turkeys will even start hunting for food in gardens – they love tomatoes. They can dig up flowerbeds and top off roses. They feed on agricultural crops and damage fruits and vineyards. In some northern states, they eat and soil farmers’ silage. In Western states, ranchers have haystacks torn apart and soiled by flocks of turkey.
Wild turkeys also love dust baths. They’ll dig out a hole in the dirt and then flop around in it to coat themselves with dust.
They Can Become Aggressive
Turkeys aren’t really territorial, but they do live with a flock pecking order. Because of this, especially during the breeding season, they’ll attempt to dominate or intimidate people. They can be quite aggressive at times. Once turkeys establish aggressive behavior towards humans, it can become a big problem.
Wildlife biologists are often called to kill or transplant turkeys that have made it a habit to attack children or elderly people. In just a two year span, Oregon state biologists fielded 284 turkey damage complaints - they estimated the combined financial loss at almost $26,000.
Scott Gardner, with the California Department of Fish & Game, said there are just three choices in dealing with wild turkey pests.
- Figure out a way to live with them.
- Kill them.
- Move them.
Why You Shouldn’t Feed Turkeys
- They could starve. When turkeys become habituated to eating feed supplied by humans, they learn to look for hand-outs instead of hunting their own natural foods. Cans of cracked corn and bird seed don’t supply the nutrients found in a wild turkey’s natural diet. If young turkeys grow up learning that food comes from humans, they don’t develop the necessary skills to forage naturally.
- It can spread disease. Wild turkeys are subject to several diseases, including blackhead disease and avian pox. Infectious, contagious diseases can be spread among wild and domestic birds. When turkeys congregate in your yard eating hand-outs, they’re walking around in droppings and saliva that may cause an entire flock to become ill. Because turkeys travel considerable distances and mingle with other flocks, a disease that starts in your yard could spread across several counties fairly quickly.
Turkeys can survive quite well eating natural foods found in their habitat – they don’t need handouts. Todd Lum, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, strongly recommends that people not feed wild turkeys. “They’re perfectly fine being wild, he says. There are lots of food sources out there for turkeys, they don’t need to be fed.”
If you want to really help wild turkeys to remain wild, you should hunt them. If you’re not a hunter, but you have turkeys on your rural property, you should allow turkey hunting on your land. If you don’t know any hunters, call your local game biologist. A wild turkey’s natural place in the wild, and their ability to thrive there, depends on their wariness, skills in avoiding predators, and a natural diet.