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Friday, February 23, 2024

UW-Madison's campus provides a nearly ideal makeshift turkey habitat because of the low level of predators and abundance of trees.

It’s not just Thanksgiving: The Turkey take over in Madison

How the Thanksgiving staple represents a conservation success story.

Getting into the Thanksgiving mood in Madison is easy: falling leaves are a golden color, the air is cool and crisp, and turkeys waddle through the city. 

Except turkeys aren’t just in Madison for the festive season. They are here all the time. Year round. Everywhere you look.

Despite Madison’s urban environment, turkey habitat is plentiful. 

“We have clumps of forests, and then we've got a lot of open areas in terms of residential lawn golf courses,” University of Wisconsin-Madison wildlife ecologist David Drake told The Daily Cardinal. “They'll use those trees to roost at night so they're safe off the ground, but then during the day… that open area allows them to see the predators coming at them from a longer distance.”

Drake says the Lakeshore Nature Preserve and UW Arboretum provide perfect spaces for these feathery friends, which is why students see them flocking Dejope’s lawn eating insects and acorns.

“It turns out that turkeys are pretty adaptable. They're able to live in urban, suburban areas amongst a lot of people,” Drake said. “There's a lot of good habitat here, food in particular, and there's not a lot of predation, not a lot of mortality.” 

However, turkeys haven’t always been in Madison. In the 1970s, there weren’t even any turkeys in the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Decades of logging and clearing land for agriculture and development displaced turkey habitat and caused their populations to decline.

In 1976, the DNR began releasing wild turkeys into the southwestern part of the state. But in order for the released turkeys to reproduce and maintain a strong population, they needed habitat. 

“There was not as much forested land on the landscape in the early 1900s as there is now [in Wisconsin]. As that forest started coming back, that was a component of the habitat turkeys needed,” Drake said. “So they responded partly to what the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources were doing, but they also responded because the habitat was becoming more sufficient to adequate in terms of both quantity and quality.”

With the right habitat, the released wild turkeys grew in numbers to the point that the DNR established the turkey hunting season for the state in 1983. In the years following, turkey harvests increased alongside an increasing turkey population. 

However, turkey hunting is not allowed in city limits, meaning the turkey population cannot be maintained in Madison like it can in other areas. There are also limited predators to adult turkeys within the city. 

Although seeing more and more turkeys may be an annoyance to some residents, Drake isn’t worried about a growing turkey population. 

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“Turkeys don't do damage like if we have too many deer… Because they're herbivores, [deer will] overgraze vegetation, they can actually change the entire plant community of an area,” Drake said. “That's not necessarily the case with turkeys. We have too many of them and they can be a nuisance… but it's all relative. They're probably not causing the type of damage that another species like geese or white tailed deer would.” 

Although turkeys may not cause significant ecological damage, there can be negative human-turkey interactions, particularly US. Postal Service mail carrier.

“There's some thought there because mail carriers have the red and the blue on them as part of their uniform and turkey heads are kind of red and bluish. And so especially in the summer, in the springtime when the males are starting to defend territories, there's some thought that they don't distinguish between a another male turkey and a male carrier,” Drake said. 

This aggression comes out during the mating period in the springtime when the birds are protecting their territory. But Drake says turkeys shouldn’t be a concern, and there are steps to take if one is aggressive.

“I think people's reluctance is that turkeys are a relatively large bird, especially when you see something coming at you. It's kind of alarming,” he said. “The best thing to do is stand your ground, wave your arms in big circles, yell at the animal to go away… But the other thing is you can move away and they will stop charging at you. ”

Many Madisonians welcome the feathery friends, forming online communities to document their turkey encounters. The Eagle Heights Community, nestled near the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, even had an Instagram highlighting the abundance of turkeys in their backyards. The Facebook page “Turkeys of Madison” has over 1,500 members who document the unusual places they see the birds throughout the city. 

Whether it be crossing the street, playing in a sandpit, sitting on picnic tables, the turkeys have made a home in Madison, showcasing a conservation success story. 

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