Wild turkeys in the Twin Cities: These aren't Thanksgiving birds

A gang of turkeys wander the streets of Shorewood.
A gang of turkeys wander the streets of Shorewood, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Don't let turkeys intimidate you."

That's the DNR's advice for Twin Cities residents who encounter the wild birds on the sidewalk, in their backyards or even in traffic.

You must establish a pecking order, the agency explains — let the birds know who is superior. Be bold. Move straight ahead. Carry a broom if necessary.

This is welcome advice for residents of northeast Minneapolis and St. Anthony, Minn., who find themselves facing down turkeys a lot more frequently than on the Thanksgiving table.

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"Oh yeah, we see them a lot," said Sheila Pajerski. This summer, 21 turkeys took over her children's backyard play structure.

Turkeys on Sheila Pajerski's play structure
Twenty-one turkeys took over Sheila Pajerski's backyard play structure this summer in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Sheila Pajerski

Turkeys are native to Minnesota, but they were once nearly gone from the landscape. By the 19th century, due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting, their population was hovering near zero.

In the 1970s, the DNR staged a comeback: They brought 29 turkeys up from Missouri and released them in the southeastern corner of the state. For decades, they trapped and released the growing population, spreading the birds around southern and central counties.

There are now more than 70,000 wild turkeys in Minnesota.

The DNR calls it one of the state's "greatest conservation success stories." But the growing number of turkeys means there are a growing number of encounters between people and the birds.

According to Scott Noland, the DNR's Forest Lake-area wildlife manager, the turkeys were never intended to be city birds, but they found their way to the metro by following the rivers — the Mississippi, the Minnesota, the St. Croix and the Rum.

"Those are some nice avenues for the birds to move along. They roost in trees, and they like the open areas for nesting cover and foraging for food," Noland explained.

They hit the cities in the late 1990s, and they liked what they found: a lot of food.

Through both intentional and unintentional feeding, the urban turkey population boomed. Some residents were thrilled by the sight of the birds, and left food out. Others were unaware that their birdfeeders were turning into turkey magnets instead of songbird hangouts.

"We initially thought that Minnesota's cold winters would keep the turkey population a little more restricted, but we're finding they're a pretty hardy species, and as long as they can find a food source, they can survive the cold," Noland explained. "In the winter time, they tend to group up in flocks. It's a strength in number thing."

Right now, residents may see the birds scratching up their yards on the hunt for food — they'll eat grains, seeds, or even frogs and snakes — or roosting in their trees at night. It's a quieter time for turkeys.

A gang of turkeys in St. Anthony.
Turkeys loitered in an empty lot inside Lowry Grove Mobile Home Park in St. Anthony, Minn. last month.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In the spring, however, another key piece of DNR advice comes in handy:

"Cover windows or other reflective objects."

Liz Moran of St. Anthony learned that the hard way.

Two years ago, she was on the phone in her kitchen when she heard a loud bang. She dropped to her knees. She could hear glass shattering in the living room of her ranch house. She thought: Gunshots. Car accident. Bomb.

She crept closer.

That's when she saw the talons.

A turkey had crashed through her plate-glass window. She screamed and ran out the backdoor. A neighbor just pulling into his driveway came to help her. Armed with a shovel, he crawled back into the house through another open window — Moran had locked herself out in the chaos.

The turkey was just sitting by the back door. With a little help from the shovel, it waddled out of the house and across the street.

A turkey crashed through Liz Moran's window
On April 13, 2014, a turkey crashed through the front window of Liz Moran's house in St. Anthony, Minn.
Courtesy of Liz Moran

"I don't know if it lived," Moran said. "But I still have nightmares about turkeys chasing me out of my own house."

Scott Noland of the DNR says this type of incident is rare. Turkeys can get confused by reflections.

The most common complaint they get is about turkeys tying up traffic. Drivers who frequent Silver Lake Road know that spring time — mating season — means birds will be flashing their feathers and snarling traffic on a daily basis.

Honking does not seem to faze them.

According to the DNR, "If a hazardous situation exists, and the birds do not soon disperse on their own, they may have to be forcibly removed."

The DNR is watching the turkey population closely, Noland said, and educating people about not feeding the birds. The agency's website offers more tips for how to shoo them away: water hoses, brooms or a dog on a leash.

Noland said increased hunting opportunities outside the metro could help manage the population, but various city ordinances prevent hunting in city limits — so don't get any ideas for Thanksgiving.