This male turkey announces himself with a rap at the back door.
Brenda Morris has some new neighbors.
"I heard that there was a family around but I hadn't gotten to see the babies yet," says Morris, a schoolteacher who lives on Madison's east side near Olbrich Gardens. "So I got up early the next morning, and sure enough they came walking down our street."
There were 11 turkeys in all -- two adults and nine chicks, or poults.
"They were just sort of browsing around in people's flowerbeds," Morris recalls of that early July morning.
Amber Rahn, who lives off of North Thompson Drive on the east side, was disturbed one morning this spring by violent rapping at her back door.
"I looked out my upstairs living room window, which overlooks the backyard, and sure enough, someone was knocking," says Rahn. It was a giant male turkey.
"That was just the beginning," says Rahn.
The turkey trotted off that first day, but since then he has made nearly daily appearances in Rahn's yard taking naps, pacing or rapping at the door.
"It's to the point where I can open my sliding glass upstairs patio door and screen door and holler at him, and he practically ignores me," says Rahn.
Madison's wild turkey population is growing steadily, and experts predict it will continue to rise. Over the last 10 years they have migrated into the city from all directions, and now thrive and live in green spaces all over Madison. This summer, they've been roaming city neighborhoods and making a move for people's yards.
Turkeys are native to Wisconsin, but were eradicated from the state in the 1880s due to unregulated market hunting and vast destruction of habitat. Wisconsin populations of Canada geese, white-tailed deer and sandhill cranes were also nearly lost.
Wildlife ecologists made several failed attempts at reintroducing turkeys before the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources finally succeeded in the 1970s after exchanging some ruffed grouse for Missouri's wild turkeys. Three hundred and fifty birds were brought to Wisconsin and released, mostly in Vernon County, northwest of Madison.
A brood of turkeys can have anywhere from four to a dozen eggs, and in the last few decades the turkey population has grown exponentially under the care and management of the DNR. When turkeys became well established in one area, the DNR used trap-and-transfer techniques to spread them to other areas. In the 1990s turkeys were secure enough that a turkey hunting season was established.
Turkeys now live in most of the state, though they are concentrated in southern Wisconsin.
"It's been a slow process of population increase and population expansion from the centers of reintroduction," says Anna Pidgeon, professor of forest and wildlife ecology at the UW-Madison.
Statewide, the turkey population has stabilized at around 400,000 birds. Urban areas, however, still offer turkeys some unexplored potential.
"You get a small flock established in a park or a woodland in your neighborhood, in a couple years they've hatched a few clutches," says Scott Walter, upland wildlife ecologist for the DNR. "And the numbers just grow as they tend to grow in nature."
Turkeys are generalist foragers, eating everything from small snakes and big insects to fruit and nuts.
"Turkeys tend to be attracted to areas based on the resources that are present," says Walter. "If those resources are covered or removed, then the turkeys will move on."
Living with turkeys
As turkeys become more common in Madison, interactions with humans become more likely. Dan Hirchert, a wildlife damage ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources, remembers when turkeys first arrived in Madison a decade ago.
"Some turkeys in the Madison area here had an affinity for postal delivery folks. They'd chase them and follow them," says Hirchert. "I never really understood why."
After this debut, turkeys began hassling schoolchildren.
"We've had instances of little kids being chased on their way to the school bus stop or walking to school," says Hirchert, whose office responds to wildlife nuisance complaints from all around the state. "A turkey can be a formidable opponent for them when they darn near look eye to eye."
Hirchert reports that turkey-related calls have been increasing steadily in southern Wisconsin. In 2011, the DNR issued 40 permits for removing turkeys from property. In 2012, that number climbed to 46, and in 2013, it jumped to 75.
As of July, 57 turkey-removal permits had been issued this year. Many of those were in agricultural areas, where turkeys sometime tear the vacuum-sealed bags that farmers use for silage, eating some feed and spoiling the rest. But Hirchert estimates that around 30 calls a year come from urban areas. Five years ago, he says, there were fewer.
Urban complaints are less likely to involve silage and more likely to involve bird feeders, broken side mirrors on cars, snapped tree branches, and other petty acts of mischief. Most turkey complaints occur in the springtime, when the males are in full feather. Andy Paulios, coordinator of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative and DNR wildlife biologist, responds to a lot of nuisance calls.
"The males do this really goofy mating display every spring where they strut around in front of the hens with their tail fanned out and gobble their head off every time she clucks at him," says Paulios. "There's just not a lot of critters that are basically the living embodiment of testosterone for two months out of the year."
The important thing to remember when confronted by a turkey is to stand your ground.
"If you run, you might get chased," says Hirchert, adding that the only actual turkey-related injuries he foresees are from people tripping as they flee. "You have to show them that you're in charge of the situation, and you're not going to be bullied."
There is currently no plan in place to limit or reduce Madison's turkey population on a citywide basis. The DNR issues removal permits only when human health and safety are threatened at a relatively large scale, such as at the Dane County Regional Airport. Nuisance complaints from individuals usually just involve abatement coaching -- that is, if you tell the DNR a turkey is attacking your bird feeder, you will probably be advised to take down your bird feeder.
Because turkeys captured in Madison and relocated elsewhere would likely seek out an urban environment again, Hirchert says population management would probably involve killing turkeys off. Similar efforts have been used with geese -- the birds are processed into gooseburgers and distributed to food pantries.
"Could something like that happen with turkeys?" asks Hirchert. "Absolutely."
But so far, neither Brenda Morris nor Amber Rahn wants to run their visitors out of town.
"Turkeys are kind of funny-looking, but the little ones are really cute," says Morris. "I like to see some wildlife around the neighborhood."
"With a wild animal visiting your yard, you have new experiences and moments of enjoyment each and every time," says Rahn. "I'm happy to hose some patio poop and give up some bird seed to the turkeys for that pleasure."