There’s ‘a heck of a lot of turkeys’ in Berkeley

On a warm recent afternoon, a young turkey spread its wings and hopped onto a branch that was doubling as a bench for UC Berkeley student Henry Teare.

Teare took a bite of his sandwich and eyed the bird. “It’s turkey,” he said.

Wild turkeys are a staple of the city now, as common as bikers and street vendors. Berkeley residents have spotted flocks trotting down University Avenue and loitering outside Berkeley Espresso.

Berkeley’s wild turkey population took off about nine years ago in the more suburban neighborhoods of the city, said UC Berkeley Professor of Conservation Biology Steven Beissinger. Since then, the birds have become increasingly comfortable making their way into the city’s busier areas.

“I can remember seeing my first one on campus around 2003,” said Reginald Barrett, emeritus professor of environmental sciences at UC Berkeley, who has been dubbed the “turkey expert” by colleagues. “Right over there by Hilgard Hall, thinking, ‘What’s this thing doing here?’”

This year seems to have brought a particularly high number of the birds to town.

“There’s something going on this year,” said Barrett. “There’s a heck of a lot of turkeys around.”

Bay Area turkeys aren’t native to California. In the late 1800s, the California Fish and Game Commission — now known as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)— introduced farm-raised Arizona turkeys into the state for trophy hunting.

But the birds struggled to survive in the wild. They were too tame, and they didn’t recover from hunting seasons.

In the late 1950s, the commission started transporting live-trapped Rio Grande wild turkeys from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas instead. They were released in more than 200 locations across the state, including the East Bay, and they prospered where the farm-raised turkeys had died out.

The practice continued until 1996, when the California Native Plant Society, unhappy that the animals were chewing up native plants, sued the commission.

“But by that time,” said Barrett, “the turkeys were out of the bag.”

Luke Macaulay, assistant cooperative extension specialist at the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley, said wildlife thrive when they have four things: the right food, water, shelter and space. Berkeley offers all four.

Neighborhoods from the hills to the flats provide the acorns, slugs and grasses the birds feed on.

Turkeys typically nest on the ground, in dead leaves and dense shrubbery, and roost at nighttime in trees. Berkeley’s more urban neighborhoods offer places to nest as well as protection from coyotes, snakes and other predators found in woodlands and forests.

The species is also readily domesticated, which means turkeys are not daunted by coming in close contact with people.

But all wild turkey populations are prone to boom-and-bust cycles, said Macaulay. “Depending on how the season turned out for the chicks in the spring, the populations can really go gangbusters,” he said.

Back in 1992, said Barrett, plentiful rainfall and an abundant acorn yield led the Tilden Park turkey population to skyrocket. Since then, the birds’ numbers have gone up and down — but they’ve stayed generally high in the Berkeley area.

The population expansion isn’t unique to Berkeley. Though it does not keep a specific count, CDFW said California’s turkey population is “growing.”

“There seems to have been a boom in the suburban and urban areas,” said CDFW Public Information Officer Peter Tira. “We receive more calls about turkeys than ten years ago.”

CDFW receives a variety of human-turkey conflict calls, Tira said, from people upset about turkeys digging up front lawns, blocking driveways, and leaving droppings on patios.

Berkeley Animal Care Services Officer London Rivera, on the other hand, said she has not noticed a spike in population or calls regarding wild turkeys in the last few years. Berkeley Animal Care Services does not track local turkey population numbers either.

“Sometimes the bachelor birds will get feisty with their own reflection.”
— London Rivera

Rivera said she does receive occasional calls about flocks dawdling on main roads and impeding traffic, but for the most part, turkeys and Berkeley residents seem to get along just fine.

The occasional aggressive behaviors come from territorial males during breeding season in spring, and Rivera will hear from residents calling to report male turkeys pecking belligerently at their reflections on shiny cars or storefronts.

“Sometimes the bachelor birds will get feisty with their own reflection,” she said. “They’ll kick a little bit and flap their wings.”

Rivera also said she’s encountered residents leaving out seeds for wild turkeys on their lawns and has seen people hand-feeding them. Either way, it’s against state law to feed the birds — or any wild animal.

“We need to keep them cautious,” she said, “in order to protect them from things like cars and dogs.”

Annette Choi is a multimedia reporter and a master’s candidate at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.