Fowl Play: Wild Turkeys Flock and Waddle in the Watersheds

Often seen in flocks of five to fifty birds, wild turkeys are common in the SFPUC’s Alameda Creek and Peninsula watersheds, usually waddling slowly together in search of their next meal.

The wild turkeys in the SFPUC’s watersheds, and occasionally wandering suburban streets, are not native to California. Most are descendants of farm-raised turkeys from the southwestern United States who were brought to California for hunting on public managed land and private trophy hunting clubs. These turkey populations have been steadily growing and adapting to life in the wild, making their home in woodlands and grasslands.

Wild turkeys. Photo courtesy: Sarah Lenz, Crystal Springs watershed keeper.

Like humans at a Thanksgiving gathering, wild turkeys are opportunistic omnivores and love to forage. In our watersheds, they enjoy eating mainly nuts, fruit, seeds, plants, and tubers. Acorns are high on the list of their favorite foods. They are also known to eat some insects and some reptiles and amphibians. Adult wild turkeys can weigh from ten to over twenty pounds. Domestic turkeys are specially bred to be heavier and can weight twice as much as their wild cousins.

Contrary to popular belief, wild turkeys can fly and are often seen flying into trees at night where they roost. However, they are not known for distance travel and can only fly for about a quarter mile. There is a very good chance the domesticated turkey you may be cooking for your Thanksgiving meal has never been airborne.

Wild turkeys. Photo courtesy: Sarah Lenz, Crystal Springs watershed keeper.

As they slowly waddle through our watershed lands, male wild turkeys, also known as toms or gobblers, will employ their wattle, a fleshy growth under their throat, to alert nearby hens or other males about their current mood. When the wattle is bright red, males are wooing a female for courtship. If seen with a white or blue wattle, they may be stressed, frightened or angry.

Male wild turkeys ‘strut’ to show their dominance or to entice a nearby hen. They lower their wings and spread their tail feathers to form a fan. The gobble, a loud male vocalization that can be heard up to a mile away, is another way to let nearby hens, and competing males, know he is in the area. In fact, wild turkeys can become aggressive toward humans during mating season, usually in the Springtime, so keep some distance to avoid fowl play.

Wild turkeys. Photo courtesy: Sarah Lenz, Crystal Springs watershed keeper.