March 20, 2023

Theyre in the backyard. Theyre up on the roof and at the front door. They stop traffic and make a mad dash for your car.

The feathered beast making a b-line for your front bumper is New Jerseys wild turkey, the not-so-rare bird that seems to roam the nations most densely populated state with abandon.

The bird that to many Garden Staters looks better on a dinner plate than scurrying across the front lawn has in recent years come out of the wild in increasing numbers, flocking to suburbia in its never-ending quest for an easy meal.

Turkeys are a highly-adaptable bird that can live in many different habitats, said Jimmy Sloan, the upland game bird biologist for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Wild turkeys are found in all 21 of New Jerseys counties, he added.

It wasnt always this way. The bird that the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock are believed to have served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was once plentiful in the U.S., but the twin forces of industrialization and urbanization over the last 400 years destroyed much of the wild turkeys natural habitat.

Nowhere was that loss of habitat more profound than in New Jersey, where the wild turkey had all but disappeared by 1977. That was the year the state Division of Fish and Wildlife released 22 birds into the wild and started a restoration project that appears to have been wildly successful.

On this Thanksgiving, there are an estimated 21,000 wild turkeys on the loose across the state and flocks of the birds frequently pop up in places where they are not always welcome.

A flock of wild turkeys wanders along a decommissioned rail line that runs between suburban neighborhoods in Cape May Court House in Cape May County on Nov. 21, 2022. New Jersey has an estimated 21,000 wild turkeys. State wildlife officials reintroduced wild turkeys in 1977 after the population was wiped out.Matt Dowling | NJ Advance Media for

Turkeys, like many birds, are territorial animals that guard their turf and can be aggressive. Theyre big and gather in flocks, particularly in the wintertime, and theyre hard to get rid of.

Like black bears, wild turkeys are a controlled species that is managed by the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, which oversees turkey hunting seasons in the spring and fall.

According to state officials, hunters harvested 2,428 wild turkeys in 2022, up slightly from last years total of 2,327. Sloan said the states wild turkey population appears to have peaked around 2006 with an estimated 23,000. The population has declined slightly since then and is now stable.

Still, the quest for food will lure turkeys from the forests to farmers fields and beyond. Some have found their way to suburbia to peck at seeded lawns and the bird feeders that many people keep in their backyards, Sloan said.

Back in 2019, wild turkeys were wreaking havoc in Toms River. The situation prompted Todd Frazier, a Toms River resident who played third base for the New York Mets and the Yankees, among other teams, to tweet that Gov. Phil Murphy should do something.

Toms River and the Toms River wildlife say they cant move them. Thats ridiculous. They have come close to harming my family and friends, ruined my cars, trashed my yard and much more, Frazier tweeted.

The state removed some of the birds, but theres still a problem in Holiday City in Toms River, according to residents.

A flock of wild turkeys wanders along a decommissioned rail line that runs between suburban neighborhoods in Cape May Court House in Cape May County on Nov. 21, 2022. New Jersey has an estimated 21,000 wild turkeys. State wildlife officials reintroduced wild turkeys in 1977 after the population was wiped out.Matt Dowling | NJ Advance Media for

This fall, Sloan said the state Division of Fish and Wildlife have responded to nuisance complaints from Deptford in Gloucester County, Sicklerville in Camden County, and the Holiday City retirement community, where wild turkeys have been running rampant since 2019.

Flocks of birds have also been spotted as far south as Middle Township in Cape May County and as far north as Ridgewood in Bergen County and on Garret Mountain in Passaic County.

Because wild turkeys are a managed species, its illegal to poach them. Fish and Wildlife officials will trap problem birds and release them back into the wild but only if the turkey is doing significant property damage, like tearing up the landscape or denting cars with their beaks.

Theyre always hanging around. If theyre not doing any damage, we cant relocate them. Its no different than a cardinal flying into your bird feeder. We wouldnt relocate a cardinal, Sloan said.

One Holiday City resident, Alice Agnello, said shes had three close encounters with wild turkeys at the retirement village located in Toms River. The first happened in May, when she came home from work one day and pulled into her driveway.

I heard a strange noise as I got out of the car, Agnello said. I looked in the back of the car and saw this turkey. I grabbed my pocketbook, got inside the garage and hit the close button.

Then, a couple weeks later, she was driving her pet chihuahua, Summer, to the vet when a big bird darted out in front of her car. She hit the brakes and grabbed her phone to capture the moment on video. The same thing happened a few weeks ago, when she was behind the wheel when a turkey started pecking at her car.

I dont know if its the same turkey, but these turkeys are crazy around here, she said.

Agnello said she felt a bit intimidated by the encounters. It seems he wanted either me or my car, she said. Ill admit it: Im a coward. Im not brave.

Sloan said humans have little to worry about. Turkeys see their reflection in the metal on the car door and mistake it for another male, he said.

The males are dominant, he said. They think they see another male, so its time to fight.

A flock of wild turkeys wanders through a suburban neighborhood in Middle Township in Cape May County on Nov. 21, 2022.Matt Dowling | NJ Advance Media for

The female turkeys lay between eight and 14 eggs a year. But only about 60 percent of the eggs survive the birds natural predators. In the wild, the turkeys natural enemies are the fox, the coyote and the racoon, Sloan said.

After the eggs hatch in spring, the females lead the brood of chicks as they mature. Although wild turkeys can fly, they dont wander very far. They usually stick to from 100 to 2,000 acres, Sloan said.

Youre not going to see this bird flying 50 miles, he said.

Fannie Gray, a Montclair resident, believes the same wild turkey has been hanging around her house for the better part of two years. The bird comes and goes, she said.

Grays house on Wilde Place is only a few blocks from downtown Montclair and the heavy traffic of Bloomfield Avenue. Gray has her own theory about the birds range.

I think she comes down from the reservation, meaning the Eagle Rock Reservation, a hilltop that is less than a mile away.

After disappearing for about four or five months, the turkey returned to her backyard last week just in time for Thanksgiving and made its presence known, she said.

Its a she, Gray said. And I think its the same bird. I can tell shes back because she pooped on the front porch.

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Richard Cowen may be reached at [email protected]

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