In a famous comparison to the bald eagle, Ben Franklin once said the wild turkey is "a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original Native of America though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage."
Turkeys are a ubiquitous part of American culture today.
And this time of year, they take center stage, so to speak, on one of our pre-eminent national holidays.
But what do we really know about wild turkeys?
Schoolchildren know that when the first Europeans arrived in the New World, native wild turkeys were plentiful and provided an important food source for American Indians. Some may even know that by the early 1900s, deforestation and market hunting had put wild turkeys in danger of extinction throughout their range, which includes the eastern and Midwestern regions of our country.
Hunting management and improved forestry practices helped the wild turkey population rebound, and today that population is estimated at 7 million birds in the United States.
It is interesting to note that although wild turkeys are not native to California, a prehistoric relative that went extinct during the last ice age is the second-most abundant bird fossil recorded in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.
The first known example of modern wild turkeys in California was when birds were brought here in 1877 by a group of ranchers.
In the 1920s, the California Department of Fish and Game experimented with introducing turkeys raised on game farms in California. These domestically reared birds ultimately did not have the skills to survive in the wild. So, by the late 1950s, Fish and Game began importing turkeys that were trapped in the wild in Texas and other states for a release program that lasted until 1999.
Today, California's wild turkeys are found in about 18 percent of our state.
Contrary to some popular misconceptions, wild turkeys are not dumb, flightless birds.
Although their domestic cousins may be no Ben Franklins, wild turkeys can learn and have outstanding memories. They have keen senses for spotting something out of the ordinary.
Their strong vision plays an important role is spotting danger and foraging for food.
And, yes, wild turkeys can fly. They will fly to the highest trees at night to avoid predators.
Males, called toms or gobblers, have long reddish-yellow to grayish-green legs and a black body and can weigh up to 20 pounds. Each foot has three large toes pointing forward and a spur up its leg. On the ground, wild turkeys can reach speeds up to 25 mph and in flight 55 mph. The average life span is three to five years.
Ten years ago, many Californians would have been fascinated to see a wild turkey.
Today, what was a novelty is now a nuisance in many residential areas, often in areas where new housing has been built near oak woodlands or other open spaces populated by turkeys.
Many residents feed wild turkeys and treat them like pets. Others want them to go away.
At Fish and Game, we often receive complaints about turkeys eating crops and grapes, scratching up landscaping, leaving their droppings on sidewalks, roosting on top of cars and damaging paint, being aggressive and causing general nuisances.
Many, if not most, of these problematic interactions can be traced to someone feeding them.
Sadly, Fish and Game now issues depredation permits to landowners to kill hundreds of turkeys each year that are causing property damage. Fish and Game's Keep Me Wild Program tries to educate the public about living with wildlife at a safe distance.
For those living in or around wild turkeys, Fish and Game recommends the following:
Never feed wild turkeys. They have plenty of food in the wild and do not need supplemental feeding.
If turkeys are causing problems in your yard, remove all sources of food such as bird feeders and/or pet food, and consider motion-detecting sprinklers to discourage visits.
Know that wild turkeys typically will not enter yards with dogs.
If confronted by a wild turkey behaving aggressively, back away. Turkeys often strut and gobble at people, but rarely actually come into contact with them.
If you find an injured turkey, report it to your nearest Fish and Game regional office or wildlife rehab center. Do not pick up injured birds, for the bird's safety and yours.
Depredation permits can be issued if wild turkeys are causing excessive property damage.
As wild turkeys have become more common in our state, we need to treat them like the wild animals they are and enjoy their antics from a distance.