It’s just as you feared: The turkeys have taken over

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman November 17, 2013 11:10
Flying? Too much work

Flying? Too much work for this Sonora bird

Thirty years ago, you never saw them here in the Mother Lode. Even two decades back sightings were highly unusual, inspiring gasps and finger-pointing that a bear or mountain lion might prompt today.

Then, as the century turned, the fortunes of this species took a turn for the better. As Thanksgiving 2013 approaches, they’re everywhere.

In an era where we gnash teeth and butt heads over the fate of endangered owls, frogs and beetles, we need not worry about wild turkeys. Flocks strut, gobble, scratch, peck and, most obviously, reproduce with abandon across the Sierra foothills.

Turkeys today are about as threatened as squirrels or blue jays.

“They’ve exploded,” says Ron Colombani, a retired state game warden who helped plant some of the first turkeys in Tuolumne County many years ago.

“Multiplied exponentially,” agrees the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center’s John Buckley, who’s seen the birds trooping through shopping centers, scratching and pecking on freeway median strips and even walking down a city street in Sacramento.

No one keeps track of turkey populations, but estimates range from thousands to many thousands in Tuolumne County alone.

How common are they?

So common that they’ve become a police-blotter staple, blocking roads, ravaging gardens, roosting in neighborhood trees and leaving sloppy deposits on walkways and patios. In 2007, a tom turkey flew into the windshield of a school bus at Highways 12 and 49. Later, an 11-year-old Valley Springs girl had to fend off an aggressive band of turkey hens by swinging her school backpack.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife, although it has no numbers, has issued “predation permits” allowing turkey-aggrieved property owners to kill or trap particularly aggressive birds. It also officially advises targets of turkey aggression to use “open umbrellas” to fend off the angry birds.

Spotted owls, clearly, they’re not.

“We’ve gone from hunters to exterminators,” says Kevin Townsend, who’s been bagging his Thanksgiving turkey with a bow and arrow for the past 10 years and finds it easier than ever to locate his quarry.

Two questions occur as I encounter the resident flock of more than 20 birds at the bottom of Yankee Hill Road on my daily commute: Where did all these birds come from? And how cheap and easy would it be to bag one for Thanksgiving dinner?

First off, all our 21st Century turkeys are aliens.

The last native California wild turkeys were killed off by an epic drought 10,000 years ago, according to archaeologists. The Golden State was then turkey free for the next 9,864 years. On the plus side, Thanksgiving was celebrated only in the final 88 of those years.

These two are safe from bloggers, at least, in 2013

These two are safe from bloggers, at least, in 2013

A few farm-raised domestic turkeys and Mexican imports were released into the Southern California wilds beginning in 1877, but with limited success. In 1959, however, the state began releasing wild birds trapped in and imported from other states.

Sonoran Jim Maddox, a retired state wildlife biologist, recalls releasing 25 “California hybrid” turkeys – out-of-state imports that over the years crossbred in San Luis Obispo County – at the Crook Ranch near Groveland in 1971. “A couple of them flew clear over the Tuolumne River,” he remembers. “I was impressed.”

But then that population “disappeared into the woodwork for a few years.”

The next plants, Maddox continues, came in the early 1980s, when Merriam turkeys native to the Colorado and Arizona mountains were released behind Twain Harte and Rio Grande birds from the desert Southwest were released in the low country near Peoria Flat.

Colombani remembers that California traded trapped wild pheasants to Pennsylvania and New Mexico for some of the turkeys planted here. And Maddox adds that a few wild birds raised and released by the late Altaville rancher Reno Alto may have flown south across the Stanislaus River to become part of the mix.

In any case, Tuolumne County breeding stock amounted to fewer than 100 birds.

“The population simmered at a low level for a long time,” says Maddox. “But in the late 1990s, we began to see birds in new places and hunters began to report more success.”

Flocks got larger and turkeys spread to all but the county’s most mountainous areas. By the time another decade passed, gobblers and hens were pretty much everywhere.

Did the wild turkey population reach a tipping point from which there was no turning back? Was there a sudden influx of acorns, insects and grasses that the birds feed on? Did the huge new flocks – Buckley spotted one group of more than 80 near Indian Grinding Rock State Park in Amador County – ward off mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons and other predators that typically feed on birds or eggs? Did cross-breeding produce a disease-resistant strain of survivors? Did some combination of all of the above yield a growing population of super turkeys?

Or have idiot homeowners who feed table scraps and other goodies to wild turkeys – a mortal sin in the state’s eyes – brought these birds out of the deep woods and brazenly onto our roads, trails and front lawns?

Although speculation ranges widely across this broad spectrum, nobody knows for sure. This much, however, is certain: Hunting is good.

50 turkeys in Algerine Road area near Jamestown

Ray Emerald took this photo of 50 turkeys in Algerine area

“It’s much easier today,” attests Townsend, who’ll head out this week with his grandsons, 5 and 8, to bag the family’s holiday bird. California’s fall hunt runs from Nov. 9 through Dec. 8 and hunters are allowed to take one hen or tom turkey per hunt and two total – one for Thanksgiving and another for Christmas – for the season.

“I really like it,” says fourth-generation Sonora hunter Ray Emerald of what he reckons has been at least a quadrupling of the local turkey population over the past decade. “And not just because it’s easier to take birds, but I just enjoy seeing them around.”

He enjoys eating them, too. “They’re delicious when prepared right,” says Emerald, echoing the sentiments of everyone I talked to for this piece.

So, although my hunting quarry until now has pretty much limited to computer keys, I figured I could probably bag one of these Yankee Hill wild turkeys with a butterfly net. And save a few bucks.

Look at the numbers: Diestel’s Turkey Ranch in Sonora charges $2.79 a pound for their “free-range” turkeys, meaning a 20-pounder will set me back $55.80. But contrasted with wild turkeys, which range freely through most of Tuolumne County’s 1.5 million acres, the 1,000 birds at Diestel’s have the run of but a comparative broom closet – 40 acres.

Then reality hit: The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “Guide to Wild Turkey Hunting in California” is 42 pages long and speaks of advanced scouting, using decoys, making effective turkey calls (the birds have two-dozen calls), breaking up flocks then luring birds back, putting turkeys to bed then being there with a shotgun when they leave their treetop roosts in the morning and, finally, field dressing the bird by first slicing it open (from “just above the cloaca to the brisket”) then removing the entrails.

Somehow the sales room at Diestel’s seems more hospitable.

Then there are the costs, as estimated by Emerald: Hunting license ($45.93), upland bird stamp ($9.46), decent shotgun ($300 to $500), shells ($15 a box), head-to-toe camo gear ($400), decoy ($130), turkey calls ($10). That can total more than $1,100, boosting the cost of a 20-pound wild bird to about $55 a pound.

And if I buy a few other items suggested by the hunting guide – binoculars, range finder, turkey scale, hunting vest, camo makeup remover, radios, flashlight etc. – costs soar higher.

Emerald waved off my math: “It’s not about the money,” he waxes. “It’s the outdoors, it’s the experience.”

And, oh yeah, the state’s hunting guide adds, don’t forget the toilet paper.

So this year, yet again, I’m opting for indoor plumbing and a well-coddled Diestel’s turkey, complete with the plump breasts and legs of a bird that doesn’t have to make a living in the wild, escape coyotes and bobcats, or evade hunters like Townsend or Emerald.

But I’m not ruling it out next year, when I’m again scratching around for a story and the population of turkeys, almost certainly, will be even higher than it is today.

Chris Bateman, 67, is a 40-year  journalist based in Sonora, California.

Copyright 2013, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman November 17, 2013 11:10
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3 Comments

  1. Marv November 17, 12:40

    I think we should be real men and go after the turkeys with a bow and arrow. Probably should target shoot first.

  2. allan November 17, 17:55

    Fantastic piece and outstanding insight, as per usual, Chris!

  3. Nancy November 17, 20:57

    Great story, Chris!
    Save me a place in line at Diestel Turkey Ranch to pick up a healthy-fed turkey for Thanksgiving this year. Enjoy your holiday. Gobble gobble.

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