December 10, 2021
Talking turkey in the San Juans: strutting the line between welcome wildlife and pest
Gretchen K. Wing

How to tame a turkey: find a youngster to chase the bird until it is exhausted, then give it a hug. Maddie Anderson demonstrates that solution in this 10-year-old photo from Lopez Island, where, along with Orcas Island and other human-dominated neighborhoods across the country, wild turkeys are encroaching. (Courtesy photo Jennifer Meng)

December 10, 2021
Talking turkey in the San Juans: strutting the line between welcome wildlife and pest
Gretchen K. Wing

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The month after Thanksgiving may seem a strange time to feature turkeys, but: first, no recipes here, and second, we’re talking not Butterball, but Meleagris gallopavo, the American wild turkey, once — so the story goes — promoted by Ben Franklin for national bird honors.

Of late their encroachment into human-dominated spaces appears to be on the increase, both nationally (as noted recently by The New York Times among others,) and in some of the San Juan Islands. Encouraging locals to talk turkey, one quickly learns that these ungainly yet beautiful birds are valued by some, but excoriated by others.

This raises the blowin’-in-the-wind question: How many times must wildlife annoy us before we call it a pest?

Technically speaking, the turkeys of Lopez and Orcas islands — and San Juan, before their disappearance — are a wild breed (with a few domesticated escapees here and there), and free-roaming, but they are native to the eastern United States.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife introduced them to the islands for hunting around 1980, along with elegant golden pheasants (still occasionally sighted) and Chilean tinamou (now gone). “The tinamous just hung around the end of our driveway or wandered up and down the roadside — pretty lame hunting targets! Some of them were roadkill,” remembered longtime Lopezian Wendy Mickle.

Liking the neighborhood

But turkeys flourished on Orcas and the south end of Lopez, to the point where they might now be categorized as synanthropes — wild animals adapted to live near humans, like pigeons or raccoons.

Turkeys are “all over the island,” Orcas resident Tami Griffin noted on the Facebook page You Know You’re From Orcas Island When…, although their numbers seem to have been inflated by some domesticated birds going rogue.

On Lopez, turkeys are part of daily life in some neighborhoods, sometimes to a startling degree.

“I was quietly relaxing in my hammock near my driveway one afternoon, about five years ago, and somehow a wild turkey was startled, and he half-flew, half-leapt into the air, flapping, and buzzed past my face, making a LOUD squawking noise. I screamed,” recalled Leanne Morrow Thomas, who lives on Lopez’s midsection, on Facebook’s Lopez Island Community Board. “Never saw him again or any other turkey in our neighborhood; I obviously didn’t make a very friendly impression.” 

To some, it’s the turkeys who aren’t making a good impression.

Aggressive, voracious … and cute

“The turkeys that were released on Orcas in the eighties were a pain. We had chickens that I feared to feed because the male turkey was very aggressive, especially in the spring,” Vicki Willits Bartram from Orcas posted on You Know You’re From Orcas Island When…. “They would roost on the antennas for the TV and break them. …My family visiting from the city freaked out when the band of turkeys woke them up in the morning. [The birds] pooped all over our steps and yard.”

In a tongue-in-cheek jab, Bartram added, “I enjoyed Thanksgiving.”

Others worry about the overall environmental impact of large numbers.

Lopez southender Tony Angell described via email a flock of 30 turkeys near his home, and wondered if a study of their diet would “reveal to what degree they eat the eggs and flightless young of ground nesting species, like quail. …Turkeys are voracious feeders, and may well be impacting populations of native garter snakes and salamanders.”

Formally know as a rafter for their tendency to roost on the rafters of barns and sheds, a group of tom turkeys roams an Orcas Island yard. (Courtesy photo Carol Wright)

But Dennis Barci, a resident of Snohomish County and an avid hunter with close ties on Lopez, downplayed such concerns. “Eggs and baby birds, that’s a stretch,” he said, conceding, “young garter snakes, maybe.” While Barci’s experience is with mainland turkeys, he noted that this breed largely eats insects, seeds and berries. 

What about farmers? Might turkeys attract their ire? Apparently, it depends on the crop.

“Having had a small orchard that was devastated by turkeys, I can only say they are pretty tough to fence out,” Lopezian Sherrie Brentson commented on the Facebook page Lopez Island Then and Now.

In contrast, Derek Eisel of Lopez’s Watmough Bay Farm near Angell’s property, raising chicken and goats as well as produce, said via email that he hasn’t noticed any turkey impact on his vegetable gardens, instead noting the “cute little fuzzy chicks.” 

While those in the turkey-rich areas disagreed about turkey nuisance levels, residents of Lopez’s north end, and all over San Juan Island, expressed some yearning to see more.

“Back in early and mid ’90s, I would ride my bike to Roche Harbor down the Rouleau Road hill-Limestone Point intersection and almost run into those suckers on that corner,” Steven Winterfeld wrote in the San Juan Islands Bulletin Board Facebook page.

Rhonda Johnson commented, “Haven’t seen one in 20 years, but they used to walk around town. I’ve heard there are still a few on Mount Dallas.”

Attilio Galli blamed San Juan’s beautiful but hungry foxes: “Want to see the turkeys back? Reduce the fox population and establish some safe areas.” 

Clearing the ‘pest bar’

Some of the turkeys crossed over from co-residents to pets. Jennifer Meng on Lopez shared on Facebook’s Lopez Island Community Board a 10-year-old photo of her granddaughter Maddie Anderson hugging a wild turkey. “The turkey showed up in our yard and she chased it around and around a tree until [it] got tired,” Meng said. “She picked it up, and presto! she had a new pet.” However, “Gobbles” wore out his welcome, Meng said. “The darn thing perched on our cars, pecked at the windows for attention and would even try to come inside if the door was open.” He was eventually gifted to the family of Jennifer Sanford, who chimed in, “We loved that bird! He followed the boys around everywhere.”    

The notion of turning these birds into pets leads back to the question of endearing versus pest: Why is one species seen as adorable while another, like the equally large and even-more-numerous Canada goose, generates mostly irritation?

Turkeys head up a driveway on Orcas Island, checking for something to eat along the way. (Courtesy photo Carol Wright)

Residents of all three islands agreed that what makes geese more “pesty” than turkeys, depends somewhat on individual situations.

Sherrie Brentson, who complained about turkeys in her orchard, commented, “I never had a goose perch in my trees,” but Lopezian James Burt responded, “Canada geese will destroy a grain field within a few days.”

Population size is a factor. For islanders, wild turkeys clear the “pest” bar better than Canada geese by virtue of their smaller numbers.

“For me it is a numbers game. A pest is any species which destroys or fouls its environment or my structures,” summed up Debra Maggiora of Lopez on the Lopez Island Community Board Facebook page.  (To which Rich Seubert replied, “Sounds like humans are the biggest pest.”)

Calling the tom

While turkey poop was occasionally mentioned, Orcas and Lopez residents seemed to agree that geese produce far greater amounts. As Sandi McElroy put it, “Geese are noisy and crap like crazy! Turkeys, on the other hand, just wanna care for themselves and their babies, and — bonus — they’re yummy.”

As to tastiness, Janet Raab reported on the Lopez Island Community Board that her husband shot a wild Lopez turkey three years ago that tasted “divine … like turkeys are supposed to taste. Nothing like the store-bought, even the free-range organic.”

Turkeys are legally hunted in the San Juans, with a limit of one male per year, but only in the spring. 

In general, however, local hunters appear to be rare. In the islands, not much public land is open to hunting and hunters are required by county ordinance to have written permission for hunting on private land. The lack of land to hunt on prompted WDFW in 2019 to offer up to $1,000 to private landowners to allow deer hunting on their properties to thin deer populations and protect habitat for the endangered Island Marble butterfly.

Barci agreed that, in his experience, islanders tend not to support hunters; he hunts on the mainland. He shed fascinating light on the craft of hunting, including the difference between the spring and fall hunt — fall is more about stalking, but “in spring, you’re a female turkey, calling to the tom” — and the various methods of turkey-calling.

WDFW’s Basics of Turkey Hunting in Washington added visuals to Barci’s descriptions of friction-based devices — a wooden box whose lid produces clucking sounds when moved; a disc one scrapes with a pen-shaped implement — and voice-reliant calls. The sound is compelling —enough to inspire a dog hearing the call on the receiving side of a phone interview to leap at the phone, ready to join the hunt.

As for charm, Franklin opined in a comparison between the bald eagle and the wild turkey:

“Bald Eagle…is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.”  In comparison, the turkey is “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.”

Today, both bald eagles and wild turkeys —two most-iconic American birds — reside in the San Juans.

— Reporting by Gretchen K. Wing

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