Feathered friends on Johnson Street

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August 29, 2011
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
Wild turkeys are a familiar sight in Northeast’s Audubon Park

Staff at Rewind feed them peanuts. Kids in Audubon Park throw snowballs at them. Late-night walkers
on Johnson Street spot them in the trees.

The wild turkeys that roost near the business strip along 29th and Johnson have become local celebrities — this summer, a local pastor even created a Facebook page dedicated to turkey sightings and snapshots.

“They’re kind of the neighborhood story,” said Catrina Ferraro, a recreation specialist at Audubon Park.

The turkeys have been in the neighborhood for more than a year now, and apparently it’s no surprise they would settle here. Karl Tinsley, a University of Minnesota Ph.D. student who is studying urban turkeys, said the city shields them from predators and hunting season. They eat just about anything, and they merely require trees or telephone poles to sleep.

“If they can find the niches they need to reproduce, they’ll make it,” Tinsley said.

He said urban flocks have been around the Twin Cities for 20 to 25 years. He’s studying a flock at Battle Creek Regional Park on the east side of St. Paul, as well as flocks that reach 50 to 70 turkeys in Shoreview, Minn. He said the larger flocks in Shoreview are a bit more troublesome for residents. They break tree branches, scratch up garden mulch and alarm residents as they scurry across rooftops.

Turkeys test their dominance during any new social encounter, Tinsley said, so kids who show a bit of fear can find themselves in a showdown. Turkeys have even targeted kids’ lunch bags at Shoreview bus stops.

Tinsley said the male turkeys have spurs, but he doesn’t think Northeasters need to worry about run-ins.

“I’ve never heard of a turkey attacking anyone,” he said. “If they are a nuisance, you can squirt them with water or a hose, or let the dog bark at them.”

Bryan Lueth, the Department of Natural Resources’ north metro area wildlife manager, agreed.

“At most, they are a 15 to 20 pound bird. What harm are they going to do to you?” he said, adding that the spurs on the backside of the leg wouldn’t do much more than make a scratch. “They need to learn that every person is dominant to them.”

In Audubon Park, Ferraro said the turkeys usually don’t bother anybody. But kids occasionally pick on them and even throw snowballs, prompting angry turkeys to run after the children.

“I tell them that one of these days, they’re going to get attacked,” Ferraro said, laughing.

She spots the turkeys in the park after it rains, pecking the ground and searching for worms.

Tinsley said the winter is an especially nice time for a turkey to live in the city. It can’t scratch down to find food under more than 30 centimeters of snow, so it appreciates all the neighborhood bird feeders. Juvenile birds eat lots of insects off of flower beds, bushes and trees, and adults aren’t too picky — they’ll eat acorns, berries, or even salamanders and toads.

“If they haven’t seen it, they’ll investigate it,”
he said.

Rewind General Manager Missy Dodge said the turkeys will eat any snack she has on hand — peanuts, raisins or crackers.

Turkeys travel in larger packs during the winter. The Northeast group numbered about six this year. During summer nesting periods, they break into little bachelor parties of two to three males while the females split up and find nests.

Tinsley said nesting is the most challenging aspect of a turkey’s urban life. It needs a nest on the ground that’s concealed from predators like raccoons, crows and coyotes. It also needs to hide from humans.

“If they get flushed off a nest, typically they abandon it,” Tinsley said.

Nevertheless, turkeys are a huge conservation success story. They were nearly extinct in the 1920s and ’30s due to overhunting and habitat destruction, and today there are seven million birds across the country.

Tinsley is studying how turkeys adapt to urban habitats. He’s always looking for property owners that will allow him to trap a turkey and attach radio transmitters for tracking. By using radio telemetry, he can compare the success of urban and rural nests.

Tinsley isn’t the only one with an eye on the turkeys.

“Wherever they are, someone is taking a picture of them,” said Kory Kleinsasser, a Waite Park Church pastor who started the “Northeast Minneapolis Turkeys” Facebook page. When he arrived in town about a year ago, he was surprised to walk into a coffee shop and hear two separate conversations about the turkeys.

“Pretty early on when I came here, I realized they were iconic figures,” he said.

Some of the most recent sightings came from a chef at Hazel’s, who spotted the turkeys outside the restaurant, and Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church Pastor Dave Solberg, who recently noticed them off of St. Anthony Parkway. The turkeys come and go at Gustavus, and occasionally take up residence in the trees there off of Johnson Street.

“The only trouble they have caused is they poop on the sidewalk. Other than that, they are a real novelty,” Solberg said. “We have some classic pictures on our board.”

Contributing writer Michelle Bruch covers Northeast for The Journal.