There’s a threat haunting the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in Washington. It hunts the lonely, quiet stretch of woods between an aquatic garden and a recreation center. Suddenly, it appears in front of a biker, walker or runner and gives chase, flapping, slashing with its heels – and gobbling. It’s a male wild turkey, and it’s already sent someone to urgent care.
Now, scientists, park rangers and others are out to catch the wild butterball. Despite its fowl attitude, victims want it peacefully relocated. The turkey’s presence might ruffle feathers, but it’s also a sign of the recovery of a species – a story of conservation success.
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If you’ve never seen a turkey outside of a sandwich, you’re not alone. “We probably went four or five, six decades without turkeys in the district, unless it was a very, very small population that no one knew anything about,” explains DC wildlife biologist Dan Rauch. “They have been pushed out by habitat change, by development, by hunting.”
Wild turkeys were abundant before Western colonization. Indigenous peoples domesticated the bird across North and Central America, and most wild ones were relatively docile. Europeans recognized good food when they saw it, and turkeys became features of festive dinners by the 16th century, as Jim Sterba notes in “Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds.” But the drumsticks came at a price. Once abundant across North America, turkeys were missing from most of the East Coast by the 1920s.
Beginning in the 1960s, “there was a lot of interest in getting turkeys reestablished in the country,” explains Bob Long, wild turkey and upland game bird wildlife manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The birds prefer environments where forest and meadow meet and came flocking to suburbs and parks. Now, Long estimates there are more than 4 million of the birds strutting their stuffing across the East Coast.
Rauch thinks the national flock is even bigger, at 7 million birds nationwide, though no one knows for sure. The District, he guesses, has about 100. They tend to be secretive, he notes, and usually scatter when humans approach.
At least, most of them do. On March 22, Clark Weigel, a special education specialist, was biking along the trail when he spotted a turkey in the path. Weigel dismounted and tried to leave, but the tom attacked, pecking and flapping. After throwing two phones and a radio at the enraged bird, Weigel finally threw his bike. The turkey slunk off. He left behind scattered feathers and a shaken but unharmed cyclist. “It’s not something that I would expect to do at all, having to defend myself against a wild animal in DC,” Weigel says. “I actually stuck around to file [a] report because solely I thought I had injured the animal.”
That same day, the turkey appeared in the path of Terrance Savitsky, a research statistician at the Bureau of Labor Statistics out for a morning run. Savitsky backed up and tried to run the other way. The turkey ran, too. “Man, was it fast. I started running and realized it was gaining on me,” Savistky says.
Another victim posted a photo of the turkey in full plumage to the local PoPville blog, reporting that he ended up in urgent care “with puncture wounds on my legs and I had to get a tetanus shot and antibiotics” after getting the wrong end of its heels.
Running away won’t help, says Long. “They’re really good on their feet. They’ll typically run from danger rather than fly,” he says. They can reach 25 miles an hour on the ground and can fly, too, up to 50 miles an hour.
Normally, turkeys top out around 20 pounds, with fleshy watts that hang down their necks and another protuberance called a snood hanging over the beak. But when a tom turkey is out to display and intimidate, he stands up straight, up to 2 1/2 feet tall. Their watts and snoods flush and swell.
Ruffled feathers are not unusual in the spring. Turkey mating season usually runs from March to May – and the DC turkey dating scene could make anyone irritable. But Joe Cashman, a park guide at the Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, first encountered the turkey on a bike patrol in October, when he spotted a male and two females. “The male kind of chased us a little bit. We thought that was odd,” he says.
Then the complaints came rolling in. Cashman estimates that Kenilworth has received at least a dozen. There are now warning signs around the turkey’s stalking grounds near the Aquatic Gardens and on the trail running north, an area another victim has taken to calling “Gobbler’s Gulch.” Cashman is also walking or biking the trail three times per day. He’s spotted the turkey numerous times – and been chased twice.
Most turkeys are not aggressive, Rauch notes. If you see a bird that won’t budget, he says, make yourself look big and make noise. Don’t turn your back on it. If you’re on a bike, don’t get off. A stick can be useful to make yourself look large and intimidating. And no matter how aggressive, turkeys can’t get or spread rabies.
Cashman is keeping Rauch abreast of the turkey’s whereabouts. Rauch has been out playing turkey calls to try to draw the tom out. Thus far it has been evading justice, crossing state lines to end up closer to Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Maryland, and flapping across the Anacostia to the Arboretum when cornered.
Savitsky and Weigel are both feeling a bit chicken confronting the turkey again and are avoiding the trail. The signs aren’t enough, Savitsky says. “The sign says avoid the turkey. It’s not like that – it’s not like you have any choice,” he says. “If you’re on the path and he’s on the path, whatever you do, he’s going to attack you.”
There’s no question the bird needs a new home, Cashman agrees. Trail users should proceed with caution. But the presence of wild turkeys is otherwise a cause for celebration. “The ecosystem is improving, and so wild turkeys are part of that ecosystem,” he says. “So it’s a good thing that they’re around.”
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