Wild about turkeys

turkey melrose neighborhood albany

A wild turkey spotted in the Melrose neighborhood in uptown Albany last year. (photo via David M)

The turkey is, of course, a centerpiece of many Thanksgiving meals. But the birds have a long and varied history in this country. Among their admirers was Ben Franklin, who once wrote that he preferred the turkey over the bald eagle as a symbol:

For in Truth 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.

So turkeys go with this country like cranberries go with, uh... turkey.

Even so, we're always a bit surprised -- and it makes us smile -- to see wild turkeys hanging out in residential areas of the Capital Region. As they peck their way through a neighbor's yard, the turkeys are just like, "What are you looking at?"

The Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center has a program coming up about wild turkeys. So we bounced a few questions about the birds to Jacqueline Citriniti, an environmental educator at the center.

It turns out wild turkeys a more interesting than a Butterball.

What's the backstory on wild turkeys -- have they always been here, or are they feral versions of domesticated turkeys?

Turkeys are native to New York State and actually predate some of the earliest human inhabitants. They always have been a hunted species and so much so that by 1840s turkeys were almost gone. Here in New York State, by the turn of the 20th century (due to no hunting regulations and 75% of trees gone from farming and building), there were only 30,000 turkeys left. In 1959, a trapping program was started by NYS DEC to catch turkeys from one area of the state and relocate them to other parts in order to ensure survival. This was called trap and transfer. By 1973, there were 1.3 million turkeys in NYS, 7 million world-wide.

Currently, there are approximately 250,000-300,000 turkeys in NYS.

How common are wild turkeys in this area?

Turkeys are very common. In fact you can see them most anywhere, city and suburbs. They live in trees(at night) and forage on the ground during the day.

Being up in trees help them to be more protected from predators. They eat fruit, seeds, insects, slugs, etc. and these can be found almost anywhere. They also will travel a long way to get food. They travel by walking, running, or flying. Turkeys can fly up to 40 mph and run up to 10 mph.

wild turkey buckingham pond neighborhood
A wild turkey in Albany's Buckingham Pond neighborhood this past summer.

How do they compare to the turkeys on farms?

Domestic turkeys cannot fly or even run very fast. The males do not have the vast vocalizations that wild male turkeys have. They only have a squeaky gobble. Domestic turkeys' temperament is suited for confinement and they feed on corn and other feed mixes. They also have larger and broader breasts.

They don't seem to mind humans -- we've seen them hanging around neighborhoods around Albany. Can wild turkeys and people get along?

This is an important question: can wild animals and people get along. Humans and any wild animal can co-exist as long as humans understand that they are wild animals, not domestic. They are not to be fed, petted, or treated in anyway as we would a domestic animal. Wild animals need their space to have their home and food, just as we humans do. Also, we will continue to see more interaction due to so much habitat loss and wild animals able to adapt to their changing surroundings .

Any threats to wild turkey populations in this area?

The threats to turkeys are predation, disease, habitat loss, and interbreeding of pen raised turkeys and wild turkeys.

This interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited.
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"Wild and Wiley Turkeys" is this Sunday (November 11) at the Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center, from 1-2:30 pm. It's $3 per person / $5 for a family (kids under five are free) -- pre-registration is required.

And here's more wild turkeys from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

Earlier on AOA: Turkey time at Coldwater Creek Farm

Comments

To learn more about wild turkeys, check out this PBS documentary "My Life as a Turkey": http://video.pbs.org/video/2168110328/

i was hoping for a hunter s. thompson reference somewhere

We had large flocks of turkeys visit our yard when we lived in Colonie, especially during the winter months. It was a lot of fun to watch them.

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