An unusual sight this past week got me thinking that Thursday is exactly 18 weeks until Thanksgiving.
A group of wild turkeys keeps showing up in the yards around my East Side home, although judging from comments on the neighborhood Facebook page, they haven’t spurred my gobble-smitten neighbors to any dinner-related musings of their own.
I admit the eight juvenile turkeys, or poults, of the bunch are cute. They and their two accompanying hens are fun to watch, too — as much as for their gangly, awkward-looking ways as their novelty.
But why in a city with so many parks and natural areas would wild turkeys opt for my dense, formally industrial, decidedly urban neck of the woods (so to speak)?
After being hunted out of existence in the state by the late 1800s, turkey populations have come back nicely since they were re-introduced in the late 1970s.
It’s not that their numbers are so high that they’ve run out of more appropriate habitat, though, said Scott Walter, an upland wildlife ecologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. In fact, he said their numbers have been relatively stable in our part of the state over the last 10 or 15 years.
Rather, “turkeys are proving to be pretty adaptable,” he said, and city or country matters less to them than whether there’s food to eat and trees to roost in.
Anna Pidgeon, a UW-Madison ecologist, said turkeys are feeding generalists, and will eat anything from small snakes to seeds, apples and acorns. Older areas of the city like mine also have plenty of mature trees.
Urban environments present fewer natural predators, Pidgeon said, and turkeys have learned that urban humans leave them alone. I expect that if I borrowed a shotgun and tried to pick off one of the hens to pop into the oven 18 weeks from now, I’d not only become the neighborhood pariah, but get arrested, too.
Still, “life’s not all beer and Skittles there in town,” Walter said.
There might not be many coyotes and foxes, but there are cars and dogs.
It’s not clear whether my neighborhood’s turkeys are born-and-bred East Siders or transplants.
After I described the poults’ size to Pidgeon and Walter, they said they could be either, although Walter said turkeys generally don’t grow up more than a mile or so from where they nest.
Their family structure is probably a blended one, with two mothers looking after their combined young, Walter said. Tom turkeys don’t participate in raising their offspring, and hens with poults will sometimes join forces.
That seems not only smart but — given the recent court ruling overturning the state’s ban on gay marriage — timely.
So would it be a good thing for turkeys to become a common sight in Madison?
Maybe not if they start digging in people’s gardens and chasing the kids, Walter said. Toms especially can get pretty mean. Just do a YouTube search for “wild turkey attacks.”
Pidgeon also pointed to Canada geese as one example of a wild animal species that became a little too accustomed to the urban lifestyle.
Madison’s turkeys would be wise to avoid getting that comfortable, given that some of Madison’s geese reportedly ended up as dinner.
But if not, I got dibs on the dark meat.