They were spotted waddling around West Philly earlier this year, not far from Penn’s campus. They’ve been seen in small flocks in Northeast Philly, especially around Pennypack Park. And across the city at random times, wild turkeys have been pecking and scratching away at parked cars, perplexed by their own reflections.
Look, sometimes you’ll just see wild turkeys meandering through Philadelphia streets, like this one spotted window shopping in the Northeast over the weekend — just in time for Thanksgiving.
“We have a whole lot of park land here, 9,000 acres of Fairmount Park,” said Jerry Czech, a wildlife conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “So people think ‘where’s this wildlife come from?’ [Wild turkeys] don’t have lines that differentiate and tell them ‘I don’t belong here.'”
These guys have been around for awhile. In 1683, William Penn wrote in a letter to the Earl of Sunderland: “Turkeys of the wood, I have had of 40- and 50-pound weight.” He was probably exaggerating. Ben Franklin was also a big fan of wild turkeys, calling them “birds of courage” (but probably not wanting them to be the national bird).
So over the years, they’ve wandered the city. Czech says he’s fielded reports of wild turkeys being spotted in West Philly — especially in the Cobb’s Creek area, anywhere in the Northeast near Pennypack Park, the Northeast Philly Airport as well as the Schuylkill Center in the Roxborough area.
John Morgan, a wildlife biologist for the state Game Commission, said not to be alarmed if you spot a few wild turkeys, especially in open areas or around oak trees. The birds eat mainly hard mast like acorns as well as all kinds of insects and bugs. While woodlands are ideal, they do wander across county lines and into Philadelphia from time-to-time because they spot an open area or two with their excellent eyesight. And if they breed here in the springtime, two birds can quickly become more than that.
They get into Philadelphia via “corridors,” Czech said, because many types of wildlife including foxes, deer and wild turkeys will travel through thin strips of woods that connect two larger wooded areas. For instance part of Pennypack Park travels along Pennypack Creek from the Delaware and into Montgomery County where there are wooded areas.
Another part of the park creeps up toward the Northeast Airport where there are hundreds of acres of open airfields and wooded crash zones. Wildlife love this place, and use the thin wooded corridor to get down into Pennypack Park. And from there, apparently go shopping in strip malls.
But how’d these birds get here in the first place?
Back in 1922 when the turkey population was in danger in Pennsylvania because of over-hunting, the Game Commission was ordered by the state government to secure 100 Mexican wild turkeys to release here “at a cost not to exceed $10 each,” according to the Commission. Eight years later, the Game Commission opened up nearly 1,000 acres of land in Juniata County to breed and grow the wild turkey population. In 1945, it was moved to Lycoming County in central Pennsylvania.
By 1980, the “trap and transfer program” that relocated turkeys from other areas that was initiated by the state was seen as an overwhelming success as the turkey population grew over time. In 2000, it was estimated that there were 400,000 turkeys in Pennsylvania, the most in two centuries. So the now 40-year-old National Wild Turkey Federation ended up following the state’s lead.
Jay Montgomery sits on the statewide board of the National Wild Turkey Federation and also runs the Chester County local chapter that’s called the Brandywine Thunderin’ Toms (named after male turkeys called Toms or Gobblers, whereas female turkeys are called hens.) He said the birds haven’t always had a huge presence in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, and many wild turkeys were brought to the state over the years from other places to breed and actually increase the population.
It was less than a decade ago when the NWTF, which calls itself a conservation group, pulled back on its trap-and-transfer program here in Pennsylvania, Montgomery said. But before then the groups would travel to midwestern states where there’s an abundance of wild turkeys, trap them, and bring them to certain parts of Pennsylvania to breed and create a larger turkey population.
The NWTF didn’t place many in southeastern Pennsylvania because it’s more densely populated with humans around here than say the central part of the state where the group focused its efforts.
But Montgomery did issue a warning: Wild turkeys are “wary” birds that have good senses of sight and smell and are easily spooked. In addition, the gobblers that head up the flocks can be super territorial, so be careful if you see turkeys wandering around your neighborhood.
Czech added that the Game Commission wants people know that feeding the turkeys might seem like a good idea at the time (hey, maybe some consolation for the Thanksgiving damage we do to their species) but when you feed turkeys and they get used to coming to you for food, it can ultimately damage their populations because they’re getting to comfortable around people.
“Just try to leave them alone,” he said. “People say there’s a turkey walking around, but if you just leave it alone, 99 percent of the time it’s going to go away. Unless we find that food source and find out neighbor Joe is feeding them.”