Wild turkeys move in on campus

The bird may be adapting to urban life, according to University research.

by John Hageman

Students walking around campus may have been greeted with a strange sight Tuesday âÄîwild turkeys.

Three turkeys were seen roaming near McNamara Alumni Center. With its proximity to the concrete jungle of downtown Minneapolis and cars zipping past them along University Avenue, the area is an unnatural environment for a wild turkey.

But their presence in urban settings may not be so rare in the future.

City life provides several advantages for turkeys, according to Bryan Luth, a wildlife specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. In the city, a turkey is less likely to be killed by predators or shot by hunters because of firearm discharging ordinances.

At the turn of the 20th century, turkeys were in danger of extinction. Today their population has spiked to more than 7 million in the U.S., thanks to repopulation efforts in the 1970s.

Turkeys began spreading from southern Minnesota to farther north. But scientists never expected to see them move into urban areas like they have in the past few years.

Karl Tinsley, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota who is currently researching why turkeys are moving into urban environments, said turkeys will go wherever they can find food. With a generalist diet and people feeding them, turkeys have adapted relatively well to city life.

Their normal food supplies are inaccessible during the winter, so they move in on bird feeders and other sources to survive. Once spring begins, turkeysâÄô flocks tend to disperse and they spread to other areas, Tinsley said.

The birds that have been spotted at McNamara, behind Willey Hall and near Midwest Mountaineering, likely traveled the riverbank or the train tracks through Dinkytown, Tinsley said.

Tinsley is using radio collars on 30 turkeys in the state to track their movements. He said one of these turkeys in Shoreview, a Twin Cities suburb, was raiding bird feeders and crab apple trees and nested near the Arden Hills Army training center.

In a surprise move, she took her young from the nest and back into the neighborhoods after breeding season. This could mean more turkeys populating cities in the future.

“Obviously itâÄôs a learned behavior that sheâÄôs passing along,” Tinsley said. “SheâÄôs saying, âÄòThereâÄôs more food here and less predators than out there.âÄô”

As more turkeys roam urban environments, they may become more comfortable with humans, Tinsley said. The turkeys he follows in rural areas flee once a human comes within 200 yards, but those in the city can be approached within 20 feet without being scared off.

“They seem to be highly adaptable,” Tinsley said. “But theyâÄôre still weary of humans.”

Because they are considered wildlife, the cityâÄôs animal control department wasnâÄôt dispatched to corral the campus turkeys Tuesday. They are free to roam until they become a problem, city spokesman Matt Lindstrom said.

He added that the department only has the capacity to deal with domestic animals and injured wildlife.

Last year, Shoreview contracted the president of Canada Goose Management to capture a group of turkeys that broke branches and damaged cars in the area. But that plan was scrapped in the spring when turkeys began to disperse.

Tinsley said the birds arenâÄôt a significant danger to humans but more of a nuisance. Likely the biggest problem they can cause on campus is holding up traffic by standing in the middle of the street.

“TheyâÄôre very stubborn birds,” Tinsley said.