Thursday, May 11, 2006

Urbana's Wild Turkeys and Priorities in Wildlife Conservation

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**Click here and select "View Slideshow" to see a series of six photos taken by Bernie Sloan of Urbana as two of the turkeys come after him. And Bernie is a fan of the turkeys!**

It looks like the turkeys that have roamed Urbana over the past year are going to be relocated soon, if they can be caught. Since I take great pleasure in observing urban wildlife, I’ve enjoyed the fact that they chose to move in among us. But I’ve also come around to the position that these turkeys are out of place in the city, and really ought to be moved.

The fate of the Urbana turkeys isn’t really a conservation issue, if we understand conservation to be about maintaining the various species of plants and animals indigenous to a region.

Turkeys were absent from Illinois by the early decades of the twentieth century thanks to habitat loss and over-hunting. But efforts to reintroduce them in our state and elsewhere, which began in the 1950s and continued up until about six years ago, proved very successful.

Illinois currently boasts turkeys in just about every habitat that will support them, and recent estimates put the state population at 135,000. Harvests by turkey hunters break records from one year to the next, with last year’s spring take statewide surpassing 15,000 birds.

The question raised by the Urbana turkeys is more one of how we balance an interest in sharing the landscape with wildlife against people’s tolerance for threats to their safety. Wild turkeys are imposing birds, with adult males often weighing twenty pounds or more. They’re fast too, capable of running at speeds of up to twenty-five miles an hour.

The trouble with the Urbana turkeys is that they have been using their speed to chase people, rather than run away from them.

I should admit here that I was skeptical when I first heard reports of the Urbana turkeys’ aggression, since I had never seen wild turkeys doing anything other than trying to get away from me. At the time I also suggested to my wife that it’s a disservice to children to simply remove from their lives any wild creature that might be perceived as a threat. And I’m still wary of that.

But at least two of Urbana’s most wanted have engaged in sustained efforts to peck physically capable adults, individuals who had done nothing to provoke them and who had some trouble getting away. I think it’s unreasonable to ask that people put up with wild turkeys that act that way in town. (Outside of town I’m thinking birds that act that way wouldn’t last very long, either.)

In the long run, it’s more useful for those of us who value wildlife to direct our attention to the preservation and restoration of habitat, rather than the fate of individual animals.

Take a look at a map of east central Illinois sometime and consider where wild turkeys might live without getting into trouble with people. There aren’t many places.

For my part, I’d rather see a little more turkey habitat in Champaign County instead of turkeys adapted to life in the city.