Moorhead seeks to thwart turkey takeover

A wild turkey rushes across a street in front of a car
A wild turkey rushes across the street while a driver waits for it to cross in a residential neighborhood in Moorhead on Wednesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Wild turkeys are driving some Moorhead, Minn., residents to distraction.

A public meeting hosted by the city’s police department Wednesday night drew about 70 people — many with harrowing tales of turkey conflict.

It’s not clear just how many turkeys live in Moorhead, but they’re often seen strolling sidewalks, blocking doors — and traffic — and getting attention for their antics on social media.

In some of the city’s neighborhoods, some residents feel as though the turkeys are taking over.

"I cannot in a kind way describe the filth we live with,” said Brett Bernath.

He explained that about 20 to 30 turkeys roost in a backyard tree, and leave a big mess.

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“I cannot walk in and out of my house through my doors without tramping through piles,” he said. “You could swab my shoes right now: I'm covered in filth. My house is covered in filth. My pets eat and roll in it. My child plays in it."

Bernath suspects the turkeys are attracted to his yard because some of his neighbors feed them.

The differing viewpoints on backyard wildlife have created some neighborhood tension.

"My son has tried to chase them off at times and been threatened by neighbors who really, really like them. You know — grumpy old men,” Bernath said. “My dogs certainly have fun chasing them, but it doesn't deter them from returning."

Bernath said he enjoys watching the turkeys — he just doesn’t like living with them.

The wild turkey population in Moorhead isn’t new, but it is growing. There’s no comprehensive count of exactly how many wild turkeys roam the city, but the police department — which also runs the city’s animal control unit — estimates about 300 turkeys are currently roosting and strutting in residential neighborhoods.

The birds seem to be attracted by the wooded corridor of the Red River and have expanded their territory into neighborhoods, where they find food, shelter and very few natural predators.

A rafter of wild turkeys walking along a snowy sidewalk
Wild turkeys in a residential neighborhood in Moorhead on Wednesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

State’s ‘greatest conservation success’ story becomes city’s neighborhood nuisance

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources calls the restoration of the wild turkey over the past 25 years “one of Minnesota's greatest conservation success stories.”

The birds are native to the state but were mostly wiped out by hunting. In 1971, the state started reintroducing wild turkeys in southeastern Minnesota.

They can now be found from the southeast to the northwest corners of the state.

Drew Kalvoda said the flock in his Moorhead neighborhood has grown from a half dozen to two or three dozen. At first, he didn't believe his children when they told him they were being chased by turkeys.

He didn’t believe them, that is, "until one day, when I rounded the corner to do some yard work and was met by a five-foot wingspan, claws out, female turkey. And her chick was right in front of me," said Kalvoda. “They are that fast, that aggressive.”

And while he, too, enjoys wildlife, Kalvoda said he thinks Moorhead’s turkey population is getting out of control.

Most of the people at Wednesday night’s meeting agreed with him. But Moorhead’s rafters of turkeys — that’s what a flock is called — weren’t completely without their backers.

Zenas Baer, who lives in a south Moorhead neighborhood, thinks the birds should be left alone.

"I have many, many turkeys as my friends. I call them my friends. They are my neighbors, they are fellow living creatures,” Baer said.

He said he doesn’t mind cleaning up the mess the turkeys often leave on his front stoop.

"The turkeys are a direct descendant of the dinosaurs. They're direct descendants of creatures that lived long ago," said Baer. “And we should learn to live in harmony with life forms rather than in opposition to, conquering, killing and controlling.”

But, “to a postal worker, a turkey is like a velociraptor,” said Ryan West.

He’s a mail carrier in Moorhead — and he said he runs a gauntlet of turkeys almost every day.

“I don't know what we did to them to make them hate us so much, but I generally have three to eight — just about every day, as soon as they see my truck, they come from two blocks away,” he said. “They swarm me.”

West says some days he has to use his mailbag to shield himself from the aggressive male turkeys. He’s tried deterrents like an air horn, and chasing the birds away, but to no avail.

Managing turkeys no easy task

There are no quick or easy solutions to managing wildlife in a city. The turkeys are wild animals. They have food from foraging and visiting yards where people feed them, shelter among homes and trees; and few natural predators — mostly skunks, raccoons and coyotes.

And while it’s legal to hunt wild turkeys in Minnesota, Deputy Police Chief Tory Jacobson said hunting in the city limits isn’t a good option. He pointed out that Fargo, N.D., just across the Red River, has tried an archery turkey hunt, with little impact on the turkey population.

In the meantime, Moorhead has attempted to address the problem. About a year ago, the city considered capturing and relocating some birds to South Dakota. (The Minnesota DNR is not currently relocating wild turkeys elsewhere in the state.) But that idea fell through when South Dakota officials decided against using what they considered “urban turkeys” to repopulate rural areas.

“Certainly, we will not have the answer that’s going to fix this complex problem,” Jacobson said. “But we have to try and attack it from many different angles.”

The city is considering several possible options to slow the turkey invasion, some of which came up at Wednesday’s meeting.

One solution might be a ban on feeding turkeys, so they’re less likely to congregate in neighborhoods.

The city might also consider requesting a permit from the state Department of Natural Resources to remove aggressive turkeys, said Jacobson.

But the police department doesn’t have the skills or resources to add wildlife management to its list of responsibilities, he added.

Animal-related calls to the police department are usually handled by the department's community service officers, who take on a range of calls from stolen bikes to unlocking vehicles.

But turkeys are a different story. They can quickly shred the nets those officers use to catch small animals.

The city will also confer with biologists on possible ways to control the turkey population — perhaps by removing or destroying eggs.

Many of the options would need to be approved by the DNR because the state manages wild turkeys as a game species.

Jacobson promised the city will move quickly to create a management plan, but he said any comprehensive plan to manage turkeys will require more resources and expertise.

And in the meantime, he urged patience for those feeling besieged by the roving rafters of wild turkeys in their neighborhoods.

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