They will soon land on our dining room tables, but for many in the Tri-Valley, turkeys have been on our minds all year.
The large, vocal, sometimes comical birds seem to show up in more of our parks and neighborhoods every year, where they spark questions, debate and even conflict.
The turkeys we see in the Tri-Valley descended from game releases in Contra Costa County during the 1980s and 1990s, said Kristina Parkison, Sunol naturalist for the East Bay Regional Park District. From Contra Costa, the released birds flew south into the area, enjoying the moderate weather and lack of predators along the way. Like humans, they also benefit from the Bay Area park system.
“There are a lot of interconnected wild areas” that allow wildlife to move freely here, Parkison added.
They prefer habitat with permanent water sources and nearby roosting options, like Pleasanton Ridge and Doolan Canyon.
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), before the releases — way before — a native species of turkey gobbled across California and then went extinct about 10,000 years ago. But it turns out, all turkeys — even extinct ones — share a lot genetically. There is only one species of turkey, but there are subspecies; including the Merriam and Rio Grande in California today.
John Krause, a CDFW wildlife biologist, described an argument that the game releases were therefore not an introduction, but a reintroduction, because the released turkeys backfilled an ecological niche left by their extinct relatives so long ago.
Technically, there’s no time limit after a local extinction to call a relocation a reintroduction.
“It’s a bit esoteric, but that is an argument made by turkey supporters and does have merit,” said Krause.
But the distinction isn’t always academic.
“Some particular agencies are like, ‘no, we do not want non-native species in our parks, they must be eradicated.’” Parkison said. “So in that case, you know, depending on what agency it is, they might come in and try to cull all the animals, or catch them.”
Regardless of classification, most agree the birds are doing quite well for themselves in the Tri-Valley.
Parkison said she “never saw turkeys until probably about the last five or six years and, you know, ‘Oh there's a couple. Oh, now there's like 20 of them. Oh God, now there's like 30 of them.’”
Frankie Ayers, animal services officer for the Pleasanton Police Department, suggested the turkeys were emboldened by last year’s lockdowns.
“A quietness swept over our town — I think the animals felt more comfortable branching out into our neighborhoods,” she said.
The most recent estimate puts the state turkey population at around 250,000 birds.
What’s more, turkeys are not limited to the scenery. Parkison said males can become aggressive during the spring breeding season. If they see their reflection in a car, they may peck at it until the paint comes off. They have also been known to attack people, especially if humans invade their space. There were, for instance, several turkeys at Coyote Hills Regional Park that attacked joggers during Spring 2020.
“The turkeys would literally come running down the hillside and attack them,” said Parkison.
And then there was Gerald, the aggressive Oakland turkey, that attacked dozens of people and caused the Morcom Rose Garden to close in the summer of 2020.
In both cases, the aggressive turkeys were captured and relocated.
Shari Jackman, communications manager for Dublin Parks and Recreation, said that locally, human-turkey relations are quieter.
“Residents who live near where the turkeys roam are quite used to them and they — the residents and the turkeys — tend to avoid each other,” Jackman said.
Avoidance may be the best policy. Parkison implored people to not feed them; reminding the public to treat them as wild animals. CDFW has a “Keep Me Wild” program urging the same. Residents can however, still enjoy their presence.
“I mean, when you see one of those, in the sunlight, it's incredible,” said Parkison. “And you know, when they have their babies in the spring, watching the moms protect them and have little flocks and hear the little sounds they make — it's pretty magical. So they are pretty impressive birds, but just, you know, give them their space.”