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Episode 133: Fowl play or feathered friends?

In this episode, Maya Atherly-Larsen and Rachel Hoppe delve into the turkeys on the UMN campus, tracing their historical disappearance in Minnesota to their current status as Instagram celebrities.

MAYA ATHERLY-LARSEN: Hi, I’m Maya Atherly-Larsen. 

RACHEL HOPPE: And I’m Rachel Hoppe. You’re listening to In The Know, a podcast dedicated to the University of Minnesota. 

ATHERLY-LARSEN: In today’s episode, we’re discussing the ever-present campus turkeys here at the U, sometimes known as the unofficial mascots. Chances are high that you’ve crossed paths with these turkeys while navigating the Knoll or strolling near the Mall. 

HOPPE: During the 19th and 20th centuries, excess hunting nearly destroyed turkey populations in Minnesota. It wasn’t until the 1970s that turkeys were reintroduced to the state’s environment. Since their reintroduction, turkeys have successfully established themselves in different regions of Minnesota. Tim Lyons, a research scientist specializing in upland game at the Department of Natural Resources, sheds light on this noteworthy development.

TIM LYONS: Turkey’s had a pretty limited range from probably around St. Croix falls all the way down through Mankato towards Luverne. So, that’s sort of the South, Southeast part of the state, and we sort of always associated them with like a hardwood forest. So oak, hickory, beech, those sorts of trees that produce nuts or masts. That’s always been an important food source, but it’s really changed over the time because again, that’s what we sort of think of when we, well, expect to see birds, turkeys in particular, but now they go, they’re all throughout the state. They’ve expanded beyond their historical range. They’re all the way up to the Canadian border. 

ATHERLY-LARSEN: According to an article from the New York Times, turkeys started making college campuses their homes in the last several years, and the U is no exception. The Instagram account Turkeys of UMN, which boasts more than 4,000 followers, features pictures of turkeys submitted by students. One of the admins for the account said it amazed her how the turkeys are able to coexist with people on campus. Lyons says that certain factors contribute to the welcoming environment for turkeys on college campuses. 

LYONS: So I think a lot of it is just the turkey population recovering, and they’re going to fill in any sort of available habitat. What sort of makes some of these suburban or urban areas really good is that they have like the cover they need. They have the trees, a lot of older trees on campus. I know particularly East Campus and St. Paul you have larger oak trees, larger trees for them to roost in. You might have some areas that are kind of off the beaten path and shrubs or things like that where they can, you know, find other cover, but the big one in urban areas is food. Bird feeders are people that will actually just purposefully feed turkeys. So as long as that’s going on, they’re going to be hanging around.

HOPPE: Merely having people present and leaving food serves as a motivation for turkeys to linger. Both University students and staff recognize the birds’ presence. Nearly everyone on campus has something to share about the turkeys, and those who don’t likely know someone who does. Spencer Anderson, an assistant gardener responsible for University landcare, sometimes engages with the turkeys while carrying out duties such as tree trimming, trash pickup and general maintenance across campus.

SPENCER ANDERSON: Yeah, they’re around all the time, all over the campus we see them. They generally keep to themselves and there’s been a couple times where we’ve been working and they come strutting along, but they generally keep away from us, for the most part.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: While the turkeys generally stay away from the landcare workers, there are times where they get a little close. 

ANDERSON: There was a nest behind Lind Hall and there was a Mama turkey up there, and she had her nest there, and we had to kind of work around her during the summer. She ended up having babies, and just took off from there, and I’m sure some of her babies you see around campus. She just had her nest in the middle of the like garden area or like an upper like landscape area. So we had to brim some of the allium around there and she kind of just stayed to herself, but she was kind of looking at us and making sure that we weren’t getting too close.

HOPPE: The turkeys can be trouble makers at times, causing problems for drivers and pedestrians alike. 

ANDERSON: They like to close down roads, as you well know. And I have helped, I have a little gator, and I have gone around and kind of cleared them out of the way for students and cars because they kind of, they kind of don’t like to move too fast sometimes.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: As much as we love the campus turkeys, the rest of the student body seems to be split on this opinion. Rose, a student at the U, tells us what she thinks.

ROSE: I would say that I like the campus turkeys. They give me something to, I don’t know, look at and they’re kind of funny. Unless they get like maybe too close in my path, but I’ve I’ve never been scared of them, which I know some people are, but I like them.

HOPPE: On the other side of this discussion, many students, like Kira Dupal, find the turkeys kind of scary. 

KIRA DUPAL: Well, I think they’re okay, but they’re also kind of creepy. Um, I work in Peik Hall and they’re always outside the office, and everyone that I work with always comments on them and looks at them through the windows in the office.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: So, Rachel, what do you think of the turkeys?

HOPPE: Seeing the turkeys on my campus walks always brightens my day. My friends and I usually send pictures of them in our group chat. I always try to keep my distance, though. They can be mean if you get too close. What do you think?

ATHERLY-LARSEN: Well, I personally love the turkeys. I think it’s so funny when people group around them or when they cross the street and stop traffic. They really are celebrities around here. I do understand why people might be scared of them though. 

HOPPE: While the consensus is split on whether the turkeys are cute or scary, Anderson shares getting up close and personal with the turkeys. 

ANDERSON: The mama turkey that I had, so she had her babies and they were up on that little terrace or landscape area, but they couldn’t really get down too well. Some of the faculty kind of helped them put a ramp and such. One of them actually went down and couldn’t get back up. So I saw him and he started going around Lind Hall and just kind of lost. So I went over there, picked him up and brought him back to the mom turkey. She was not too happy that I had her baby, but she was happy that he came back. 

ATHERLY-LARSEN: Though the turkeys are fun to see out and about, Anderson encourages those on campus to be mindful when interacting with them and not get too close to them on a regular basis. 

ANDERSON: They are still wild animals. So, a lot of students and faculty like to take pictures of them, but, you know, they still are wild animals. So they should probably be left, not to, don’t get too close to them, I would say. You never know what they’re going to do, but they’re generally harmless.

HOPPE: As turkeys continue to thrive at the U, they will only become more comfortable being around people. It seems to me our pseudo mascot is here to stay. 

LYONS: The birds are adaptable, so they’re just becoming more used to being around people. Right? You know, if you go out to a state park, you see a turkey, they’re probably more likely to run away from you. You know, if you see one walking down a street in Minneapolis, it might come chase after you. So I think it’s just that, yeah, it’s a pretty well studied phenomenon in urban wildlife in general. They become more tolerant of people.

ATHERLY-LARSEN: This episode was written by Rachel Hoppe and Maya Atherly-Larsen and was produced by Kaylie Sirovy. As always, we appreciate you listening in and feel free to leave us an email at [email protected] with comments or questions. I’m Maya.

HOPPE: And I’m Rachel, and this is In The Know.

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