Wild turkeys are out of control in Davis

Can the city of Davis have their birds and eat them, too?

There’s no DVD yet, but residents say it’s turkeys, not co-eds, running amok in Davis.

There’s no DVD yet, but residents say it’s turkeys, not co-eds, running amok in Davis.


The wild turkeys that strut fearlessly about the greenways of Davis, pooping on doorsteps and devouring gardens, have become a center of attention among residents fed up with the rapacious grazers.

Others enjoy and appreciate the presence of the large birds, and at least one city official wants to have his wild turkeys and eat a few, too.

John McNerney, the wildlife-resource specialist with the city of Davis, responds regularly to calls from locals about wild turkeys raiding vegetable beds, leaving droppings on welcome mats and sometimes just frightening the town’s more timid residents. Indeed, the number of wild turkeys statewide has been growing for years. They regularly enter the city limits of Sacramento, and within Davis, the birds—which first began entering the town about seven years ago—seem to have plateaued at a maximum population density.

About 60 resident turkeys, McNerney says, live comfortably within the town’s street grid on acorns, fallen fruit and free handouts, and with few predators to send them flying for the trees.

But McNerney, who says he is “a big proponent of urban foraging” and frequently makes use of public plum and walnut trees, sees the two distinct populations of wild turkeys that dwell on either side of Covell Boulevard as more than just charismatic city wildlife: He views them as a potential opportunity for urban hunter-gatherers.

“We have this resource, and it would be great to use it in a way that’s sustainable,” McNerney said. “We could reduce the numbers of conflicts we have between people and turkeys while allowing a few people to feed on them.”

The wild turkey—Meleagris gallopavo—is not native to modern California, although a closely related species occurs in the state’s fossil record. In the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles, for instance, wild-turkey remains accompany those of more glorified megafauna, such as mammoths and saber-toothed cats.

A state program from 1959 to 1999, which released turkeys captured in Texas into the forests and fields of California, planted the seeds for a population that scientists believe is roughly 250,000 today, and counting. The same trend is seen nationwide, with wild turkeys now estimated to number some 6 million coast to coast.

McNerney’s job includes fielding complaints about problem turkeys—generally hungry birds feeding on private property, though occasionally a testosterone-driven male, or tom, will aggressively swell its chest feathers beside a park pathway and intimidate a pedestrian, prompting a nervous call to the city. McNerney says actual attacks are very rare.

One of the Davis turkeys’ most frequent stomping grounds, according to McNerney, is the Davis Cemetery, while residents of the Rancho Yolo Mobile Home Park have called in many complaints over the years about turkeys in their gardens.

But there is not a simple legal means of dissuading the birds from unwanted visits. Wild turkeys are a species designated by the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife as a game species. To kill and eat one, a person must buy a state sport-hunting license as well as a bird tag.

In Davis, though—as in any municipality—discharging a firearm is generally illegal, and because turkeys are a game species, taking one by any means other than using a projectile (usually a bullet or arrow) is prohibited. The Department of Fish and Wildlife may issue a depredation permit for an especially problematic bird, though such measures have rarely taken place in Davis.

Some Davis turkeys have been captured alive, though. In 2009, state biologists, assisted by the National Wild Turkey Federation, fired a large net over an entire group of turkeys grazing in a field, capturing about 20 birds and sending them to Nevada, where state game officials are attempting to establish a huntable population. A second effort in 2011 captured a dozen more.

But by and large, the city’s turkeys have free run of the town.

Area resident Marc Palmer would like to see this dynamic change and believes Davis could sustainably harvest a small number of turkeys each year. “The turkey population is crazy now,” Palmer said. “I’ve seen groups of 20 turkeys right in town, and they go into yards and entirely de-veg people’s gardens.”

He says the turkeys of Davis appear especially plump. “I saw this one that must have been the equivalent of a 29-pound market turkey,” Palmer said. “They obviously eat well.”

Palmer is an avid hunter who supplies his home with wild game, like deer and wild pig. He has taken several turkeys, too, though he says he is reluctant to drive several hours to remote areas, burning gallons of fuel, just to take a single bird.

He’d rather go hunting in Davis—but not with a gun, of course. Rather, Palmer’s idea would be to use a bola, a simple hunting weapon made of a line and two stones, which can be used to entangle and trip one’s quarry.

“It’s a primitive method but effective and safe,” he said.

Communities elsewhere are already taking a consumptive approach to pest control. In New York City, for example, an urban population of thousands of Canada geese has grown problematic, even causing the nonfatal yet highly publicized crash of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River in 2009.

A culling effort began the next year but received criticism when officials dumped several hundred birds into a landfill. The decision was later made to begin donating depredated geese to a Pennsylvania food bank. Similar goose problems have developed elsewhere, along with plans to cull and consume the birds.

McNerney envisions a comparable program in Davis, and he expects that a reasonable level of take—perhaps a dozen birds per year—would be offset by turkeys from outside the town moving in, as well as by reproduction.

While recreational-hunting-license sales have been declining for years in California, according to Pat Foy, a warden with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, turkey hunting is actually on the rise. That’s because the numbers of turkeys are climbing, Foy said, and because turkeys tend not to inhabit high-elevation or otherwise difficult-to-access regions.

The birds are also popular because they are delicious—less fatty than farmed turkeys, but flavorful and gamey.

But as for the fat and fearless garden-fed turkeys of Davis, it remains anyone’s guess how they taste—for this Thanksgiving, anyway.