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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Let's talk turkey and get them out of the suburbs.

A few years ago we had a group of wild turkeys living in the bush next to our pasture. Every day we saw them hurrying across the field, in a line along the stone fence. I once counted forty of them. They never ventured near the house, because we have dogs and other animals that would scare them away. When the neighbours dismantled their corn crib, the turkeys left. We still see a handful of them scurrying across the bottom field once in a while, and sometimes you can watch toms competing in a grand mating dance for the ladies. The turkeys are not fazed by the sheep and they will mingle in the midst of the herd, right next to the donkey and horse.

That particular brand of turkey boldness is what is freaking out the people of Barrhaven right now. Turkeys are strutting across intersections, down sidewalks, into back yards and up to store fronts, in search of food. The problem, say wildlife experts from the wild bird care centre, is that houses are going up very quickly in areas that were once forested. The turkeys are attracted by the easy access to food in the suburbs: fast food restaurants with outdoor garbage cans, and overflowing bird feeders in every backyard garden.

The Barrhaven rafter or gobble of turkeys is close to 50 in number. Some people are reporting that the birds are not only bold; at certain times of year they are actually aggressive. Residents are sharing their turkey encounters in social media posts. One woman uploaded a video of two turkeys nipping at her heels as she tried to walk down the sidewalk. Some seniors have noted they are now afraid to go outside for fear of being attacked by the wild beasts.

Experts say it is not aggression, really, but hunger or ardour that has these turkeys approaching humans. Springtime makes them a little crazy anyway, as it marks the beginning of mating season. And it’s only natural they would want to have a few good meals before all that dancing begins. Then of course there is also the habit they have formed, as their initial presence in the suburbs was likely met with a warm welcome and numerous offerings of treats. When they see people, they think food. We have it and they want it.

There are close to 70,000 wild turkeys in the province of Ontario now. It is legal to hunt them but many hunters say the season is too short, complicated and expensive to be worthwhile. The hunt took only 8,000 turkeys out of the population last year.

The Ministry of Natural Resources will relocate wildlife that ventures too far into civilization, but they will only move them one kilometre from where they were found. This isn’t quite far enough for the people of Barrhaven. Now that winter is ending and birds are better able to fend for themselves, homeowners are being advised to stop filling their birdfeeders. If they are empty, the turkeys aren’t going to hang around.

The other obvious advice is to only put garbage outside on garbage day, and to ensure it is in a container with a tight-fitting lid. When I lived in Barrhaven I left a smelly bag of shrimp shells on my back porch, much to the delight of the entire family of Mr. and Mrs. Raccoon and their friends, the Skunks.

As seasons change, the turkeys may move farther into the evergreen forest, away from civilization. If they persist in the suburbs, MNR may have to consider relaxing their relocation protocol and hunting regulations. Part of the appeal of living close to the city while surrounded by countryside is the occasional glimpse of deer, coyotes or other wildlife. But when the critters are waiting on your front step for you to head out to the bus stop in the morning, you don’t call them a rafter of turkeys anymore: they’re a gang.

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