Retired Chenaya Strutton recently drove through a very nice residential area in Reedsport, on the central Oregon coast. On the side of the road was a flock of wild turkeys, so she stopped to take a photo.
“A man came up to me and saw his reflection in my hubcap and he started attacking his reflection,” Strutton said. “You know, flying up, hitting it with its spurs and flapping and stuff.”
Turkey’s activity breeds turkey activity, so by the time she tried to leave, there were 30 birds around the car.
“So for a long time we sat in this huge mass of turkeys and watched them attack our hubcaps,” she said.
Reedsport isn’t the only town where Oregon’s wild turkey population lives up to its adjective. In Jefferson, herds stole cars and cleared plants. In Eugene, they pooped on grass. And near Moro, a woman died after a wild turkey hit her motorcycle.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife receives about 160 complaints about wild turkeys each year. Brandon Dyches, who manages the agency’s Hunt By Reservation program, said many of those complaints are non-trivial.
“A few hundred birds will land on your roof, that’s a lot of weight. I’ve seen barns get damaged,” said Dyches, who is employed by the nonprofit Pheasants Forever that partners with ODFW. “I’ve seen tons of turkey poop. When farmers plant seeds and those seeds begin to germinate, turkeys love to eat them. …I have seen vineyards where turkeys spring up and eat grapes. Turkeys have a varied ability to wreak havoc.”
Turkeys are not native to Oregon. Domesticated birds were introduced by pioneers in the 1890s, but they did not go into the wild. Then, in the 1960s, wild turkeys were brought in from Texas to create hunting opportunities, and they’ve been thriving ever since.
The birds can eat almost anything from acorns to snails and live almost everywhere from golf courses to residential areas – especially if there is a well-stocked bird feeder.
It is not clear how much damage they cause to native species. But Bob Sallinger with Portland Audubon isn’t too concerned.
“We generally do not consider them a threat to the environment (plants or native species),” Sallinger wrote in an email. “The conflicts I know involve the effects of farming, property damage and sometimes aggressive behavior towards people.”
Turkey’s aggression and other issues are why the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is now running the Hunt By Reservation program to connect hunters with farmers who have turkeys on their land.
On a recent Saturday morning, Dyches and a team of hunters helped Albany farmer Loren Gerig clear brambles from a goat pasture.
“We’re getting a 70-year-old fence off the ground,” Dyches said. “And it’s just a job that nobody should be doing.”
The hunters volunteer as a thank you for allowing them to hunt on Gerig’s ranch – one of many in the state where people can set aside time to hunt. People don’t have to volunteer if they want to hunt turkeys on farms. They can simply go online to the state’s Hunt By Reservation website, search for a venue, and pay. A hunting license costs about $35 and a turkey license is about $27.
At first, Gerig was concerned about the obligations associated with allowing hunters on his property. He was afraid they wouldn’t close the gates or trample on his gates.
The approximately ten wild turkeys on his land were no problem either. They just eat the acorns and windfalls. But he decided to allow the hunt because he’s heard the horror stories and he doesn’t want his flock to spiral out of control.
“I thought I was going to stick my neck out a little bit. And I’m glad I did,” Gerig said.
Gerig is happy that the hunters have helped him clear land and that they seem to be keeping the turkeys under control.
Dyches started hunting to learn more about where our food comes from and said wild turkey tastes fantastic.
“My wife, she’ll tell you she prefers wild turkey,” he said. “My opinion is: it’s the taste of turkey, times two. It’s just intense, pure wild turkey without the craziness that factory animals bring.”
There are two turkey seasons, one in the fall and the other in the spring. And unlike some deer hunts, participants don’t have to smell themselves with urine. Hunting wild turkeys involves being in a camouflaged situation and then using calls to attract the birds. Those calls can be made by mouth or with wood scratched onto a piece of slate.
Clayton Chambers lives in Portland, works at Nike and did not grow up hunting. But he also wanted to learn about wild food. So he took hunter courses across the state and now it feels like he sees turkeys everywhere.
“If you just drive down, you’ll see two dozen birds in someone’s yard,” Chambers said.
But he doesn’t just jump out of the car to catch a bird.
“You don’t want to go and get some sort of one out of the yard,” Chambers said. “You want to have the full turkey experience, right? And there’s something about being out in the woods, in the woods, instead of just going out and harvesting a bird in a backyard.
The number of turkey complaints filed with the state has fallen 15 percent in the past year. But that decline isn’t necessarily driven by the new hunter-farmer partnerships available under the Hunt By Reservation program, said ODFW game coordinator Mikal Cline.
“Correlation doesn’t mean causation,” Cline said.
What does seem clear, at least to the hunters and farmers interviewed for this story, is that the new system makes it possible for both groups to get a little more or less of what they want.
Oh, and if you’re hoping for some “turkey flavor times two” at Thanksgiving, taking your phone out to order one won’t work. If you want to have a wild turkey on your table this fall, you’ll either have to learn to hunt or befriend a hunter with the skill to catch enough birds. There is a maximum of five birds per year.