NEW YORK — Say “wild” and “New York City,” and few might fill in these blanks: a flock of feral turkeys causing a flap in a city that defines urbanity.
Yet a population of roving turkeys on Staten Island has become a mess-making, traffic-stopping scourge to some residents, an impromptu natural attraction to others and a fraught project for government officials.
Since dozens of the turkeys were rounded up and killed this summer, the birds’ future has become a topic as heated as a Thanksgiving meat thermometer.
“We don’t want to kill them. We just want them to leave us alone,” says Barbara Laing, who watched as at least 50 turkeys converged outside her house around sundown one recent evening with a chorus of honks — their own and those of drivers futilely trying to shoo them out of traffic.
The turkeys milled on the grass, flew up like cartoon ghosts into a large maple tree, and settled in for the night.
It’s a sight that charms onlookers and sometimes residents, when the turkeys aren’t fouling yards with droppings, devouring gardens, waking up residents with raucous pre-dawn mating sessions, and utterly disregarding dogs and other supposed deterrents.
“They really are a beautiful bird ... but they ruined our property,” says Laing’s sister and next-door neighbor, Mary Jane Froese.
After decades of effort to halt the decline of the symbolically American birds, experts say the nation’s wild turkey population has rebounded from about 300,000 in the early 1950s to an estimated 7 million now.
The forest-dwelling gobbler has adapted to settings as populated as lower Manhattan, where a turkey nicknamed Zelda hangs out. They’ve been accused of attacking residents in Brookline, Mass., and menacing schoolchildren in Glendale, Wis.
Turkey tensions have come to a big-city head on Staten Island, where the birds started congregating at a state psychiatric hospital and attracting notice a decade or so ago.
Now, nearly everyone on the island seems to have a turkey story, not to mention an opinion.
Turkey gripes have led to at least one arrest — of a resident who set off fireworks to try to disperse them from his block in 2007 — and schemes such as coating turkey eggs with vegetable oil in hopes of preventing embryos from developing. (It didn’t work.)
The controversy peaked in August, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture captured some of the estimated 80 birds at the psychiatric hospital and took them to be slaughtered, with state Department of Environmental Conservation approval.
After an outcry, an animal shelter in the Catskills agreed in September to take all the turkeys it could, 28 of them.
Feathers were ruffled anew last month when more birds were rounded up and killed. State officials said the roundups were necessary because the flock was launching “attacks on patients, employees and visitors” and raising sanitation concerns.
And in an urban quirk, officials deemed Staten Island’s wild turkeys to be not quite wild — rather, a mix of domestic and wild strains, meaning they couldn’t be released to mix with other, fully wild turkeys elsewhere.
Officials envision the slaughtered, now-frozen birds becoming a turkey dinner for food pantries, but they’re awaiting test results for pesticides and other chemicals the birds might have gobbled up. The results aren’t expected before Thanksgiving.
Some residents and local officials backed the roundups as necessary, if regrettable.
If the birds can’t be released in the wild, “I would rather see them slaughtered than see them cause an automobile accident,” says Staten Island Borough President James Molinari. “They’re not made for a city.”
But others were aghast.
“It’s a horrible thing. You take animals and just kill them? What kind of world are we living in?” says Joe McAllister, a local neighborhood association president who joined dozens of people at an August roadside protest denouncing the slaughters. Online petitions have gathered thousands of signatures.
For now, it’s unclear whether more captures are planned. In the meantime, Froese and Laing watch their ad-hoc turkey flock with a sense of familiarity, if not fondness.
“It’s very interesting to watch them. It really is. You learn a lot from it,” Froese says, but “now it’s time for them to move out.”