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Turkey takeover: Wild birds strut their stuff in Lebanon, Albany, Corvallis and beyond

Lebanon is turkey town.

Take a stroll, and you’re likely to run into a flock of wild turkeys. You might see them peering through shop windows downtown, using crosswalks to navigate the traffic, or out in the neighborhoods, pecking for insects and strutting their beautiful plumage for everyone to see.

Lebanon resident Jill Chapman has a flock on her block. For the past two years, she’s been watching them move about the neighborhood near Cascades School, eating apples, grapes and berries. Two males in the flock are roosting in massive pine trees across the street from her house. The rest shelter behind a barn nearby.

“That’s where they grew up; they had a lot of babies this year,” Chapman said. “They’re here prancing every morning; they’re a lot of fun.”

Turkeys can be mean, though. A few of the cats on the street have learned that these birds don’t want to be anyone’s dinner. Chapman said one kitty, known affectionately as ‘Slappy’ because he pretends to want attention and then slaps your hand away, got a tough lesson from the two big toms.

“They got mad, chased him around a car — four circles in a row,” she said. “Finally, the cat got smart enough to hide under the car, and he sat there for probably five hours, even after the turkeys were gone.”

Chapman said the turkeys give the area a character of its own. The flocks in Lebanon are stars in their own right, with a Facebook page, Where In the World are the Wild Turkeys in Lebanon, Oregon, on which people share photos and videos, sometimes daily, of the town's turkeys on parade.

Lebanon Mayor Paul Aziz said the turkeys are certainly famous, noting that the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce produced a bumper sticker that says, "I brake for turkeys." He said the turkeys can be spotted all around town and people get a kick out of them.

Perhaps one of the best examples of Lebanon’s love for its feathered residents was the Quirky Turkey pageant, last held in 2019. Turkey decoys were displayed around town, decked out with costumes, lights, music and more. A new form of downtown sculpture project — sorry, no turkeys — is coming for summer 2022.

The turkeys aren't only in Lebanon. You can see the birds in many urban and rural places in Linn and Benton counties.

Albany City Councilor Marilyn Smith knows of a few wild turkey flocks among the city’s non-voting constituents. She said people either hate them or love them. People will call City Hall asking about how to get rid of them.

“They block traffic. I had to stop for half a dozen blocking two lanes of Pacific Boulevard by the Y one morning a couple of years ago,” Smith said in an email. “They peck at shiny mirrors, chrome, paint (mating behavior). They chase bicycles, perch on cars, mob lawns and gardens.”

Corvallis resident Karyle Butcher lives in the Skyline West neighborhood, the northwestern tip of town where the turkeys are often seen. Citing an OSU research paper, she said it’s ironic that wild turkeys were introduced in Oregon to provide hunting opportunities — among other benefits.

“Now, of course, many of the turkeys have moved into the city and seem to live a very protected life, so clearly, some good decision-making on their part,” Butcher said. She added the birds are “seriously annoying but also rather spectacular when they are air bound.”

Talking turkey

It’s difficult to say when turkey sightings in urban areas became typical. District Wildlife Biologist Greg Reed, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the issue of city-dwelling turkeys has been building since the 2000s. He said it usually starts with a small flock that people generally enjoy seeing.

“Only when the populations build up and become residents in town do we start to get regular complaints,” Reed said. “Most of the time there is someone feeding the turkeys in close proximity to the complaints.”

However, when turkeys congregate in urban areas, especially in large flocks, they can be problematic. Fish and Wildlife gets complaints about aggressive and noisy toms, damage to landscaping and gardens, and messes left behind. The birds often grow unnaturally big because people are both intentionally and unintentionally feeding the birds.

ODFW has worked with several local municipalities, including Corvallis, Dallas, Lebanon, and Philomath, to enact ordinances intended to prevent the feeding of turkeys. Reed said those ordinances, when enforced, are a good step in alleviating some of the turkey's wrath.

Turkeys aren’t picky about habitats, able to exist on a variety of land types, according to ODFW. Their optimal habitat is a mix of open areas for foraging and displaying during breeding season, along with more dense cover for nesting and escaping predators, as well as timbered areas for roosting.

Mid-valley turkeys are associated with agricultural areas adjacent to forests. They’re particularly fond of oak savannas and woodlands because acorns provide an abundant food source, according to Fish and Wildlife. They increasingly frequent rural and suburban areas probably because of supplemental feeding and less risk of predation.

At night, almost all turkeys except those under 2 weeks old fly up into trees to roost for safety from predators, according to ODFW. They roost in a variety of tree species, including both conifers and hardwoods, mostly in more mature stands. Most roosting takes place out of town, but there are some resident flocks that will roost within city limits.

When turkeys are reported to ODFW, there can be a number of different responses. The first step is usually education and advice on what is attracting the birds and how to prevent/remove that. Hazing, which is legal with a free permit, is often a possible solution.

Hazing can be done with noise to scare the turkeys away, hoses or sprinklers to deter them from yards, or using lasers to haze them out of roost trees, according to Fish and Wildlife. If the issues are occurring outside of town, people can use propane cannons or other loud noises to scare them off.

According to ODFW, wild turkeys aren’t native to the state. They were first introduced in 1961. Since that time, more than 10,000 turkeys have been transplanted across Oregon. They come in two subspecies — Merriam’s and Rio Grande — and are found in nearly every county.

Turkey numbers dropped drastically as the birds were over-harvested after the U.S. was settled. By the 20th century, half the states that once had turkeys no longer had wild stock, according to ODFW, though recent decades have seen a turnaround for wild turkey populations.

History of wild turkeys in Oregon

Oregon's experience with turkeys dates to 1899, when private individuals made releases in southern Oregon. None of the early attempts were successful at establishing sustaining populations. The turkeys either died off or became domesticated. Successes came from live-trapping wild birds and quickly releasing them in the right habitats.

In 1961, wild-trapped Merriam's stock was obtained from Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico and released in three Oregon locations: the White River Game Management Area in Wasco County; Garrison Butte in Jefferson County, and the Wenaha Game Management Area in Wallowa County. The program was expanded over the years with more imported birds and additional release sites.

A milestone was reached with the first release of Rio Grande turkeys in 1975. The birds were received from California and released in the foothills east of Medford. California obtained the initial stock from Texas in 1968. Proving itself adaptable across Oregon, the Rio Grande has been the focus of stocking since the mid-1980s.

ODFW reports say wild turkey populations have grown in concert with human influence on the landscape in the past 20 years. Their density has increased, particularly in the Blue Mountains and the Willamette Valley. Growing flocks are met with expanding development, making for increasing nuisance complaints from landowners.

In most cases, turkey nuisance or damage complaints near populated areas are caused by the presence of supplemental feed, according to ODFW.

A 2013 study funded by the agency and Oregon State University looked at turkey eating habits and possible impacts of foraging turkeys on native wildlife and plants. No evidence was found of significant competition between wild turkeys and other wildlife, or that turkeys negatively impact plant populations.

Cody Mann covers the cities of Albany and Lebanon. He can be contacted at 541-812-6113 or Cody.Mann@lee.net.

“They’re here prancing every morning; they’re a lot of fun.” ~Jill Chapman, Lebanon

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