Wild turkeys are invading South Jersey neighborhoods, boldly trekking across lawns and roads as if Thanksgiving wasn't looming.
An angry tom chased a curious photographer away from a flock of six recently in Hainesport, shaking its head and wattle and chirping incessantly. It clearly was claiming Deacon Road, on the edge of a woods in Burlington County, as its territory.
Up until 10 days ago, a flock of 100 to 200 roamed a tiny housing cluster in Deptford, Gloucester County. Over a month, the birds left behind messy droppings and occasionally stalled traffic.
Then, suddenly, the flock vanished.
Resident Bill Robinson speculates that leaf blowers frightened the gobblers away. Or maybe it was a bow-and-arrow hunter in the area, he said.
Or perhaps the birds' survival instinct kicked in when neighbors began carrying home grocery bags packed with cranberries and gravy mix.
After receiving complaints from residents in the Westville Grove section of Deptford, state biologists were gearing to trap the birds this week.
The bait - 50 pounds of corn - recently was sprinkled across Robinson's lawn. Tony McBride, a biologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife who monitors the birds, was just waiting to hear that the turkeys had assembled.
"One must have found a food source somewhere" and the rest followed, McBride said. In the fall and winter, the birds, which need a combination of forest and field to survive, flock to forage for scarcer food. They eat insects and acorns, and scratch up flower beds for sprouts.
The Deptford turkeys "could be a couple of streets away or a mile away," McBride said. "I have a feeling they'll return sometime later in the winter."
State biologists will be ready with a large net attached to a rocket, he said. The turkeys will be trapped and relocated.
Deptford is the first place this year to report a turkey problem, McBride said. Typically, the division is summoned once or twice a year to control a turkey nuisance. Some years, he said, there may be as many as 10 trappings needed. Most of the big flocks have been found in Cumberland and Salem Counties.
In Pennsylvania, such turkey troubles are rare, said Jerry Feaser, spokesman for the Game Commission.
"A few years ago there were two aggressive turkeys in the Lancaster area," he said. "They were darting in and out of traffic and chasing people." By the time state workers arrived, one had been hit by a car and the other had flown off, he said.
"Typically, a wild turkey will run the other direction because they don't like to be near people," said Cheryl Trewella, a commission supervisor who oversees the southwest region. "The ones that are tame will cause problems, if people feed them. They will roost on your house, or on your vehicle at night to escape predators . . . and they have spurs" that can cause damage.
In 1977, New Jersey wildlife officials imported 22 turkeys from New York and Vermont to reintroduce the indigenous species, which had vanished.
Now, McBride says, there are about 30,000 wild turkeys in the state. The hens weigh as much as 11 pounds, while gobblers can reach 20 pounds. Most are in Sussex County, but the population in South Jersey has been on the rise.
Turkeys now can be hunted during a short season in November and again in the spring, he said.
Pennsylvania has roughly 340,000 wild turkeys, according to the Game Commission. Trewella said turkey hunting was not permitted in the southeastern region this fall because of low populations, but a males-only hunt will be allowed in May.
Robinson discovered turkeys at his backyard bird feeder in Deptford three years ago. His rancher sits adjacent to a small woods and Little Timber Creek, which also provide shelter to deer, foxes, and other wildlife.
At first, Robinson and his wife, Janet, enjoyed the spectacle as the birds would swoop down from the trees at dawn and gather on his lawn. When the deer dared to come too close, the turkeys would fan their feathers and scare them off.
"In the beginning, when you see a handful, it's nature. . . . It was interesting to watch them," said Robinson, a retired steamfitter whose birthday sometimes falls on Thanksgiving. By the end of the winter, the number grew to about 20, he said.
But the following year, Robinson said, the flock was 100-strong. This year, there are probably 200 turkeys, he said.
Other neighbors confirmed the multitude. The hens lay an average of a dozen eggs a year.
Robinson now sees the flock as pests. Not only do the birds peck at his screens and his car, he said, but they leave droppings all over his driveway and the street.
"They need to be thinned out," Robinson said.
In Hainesport, the problem has not reached that level. There, Bill Pate, a firefighter who lives on the fringe of Rancocas State Park, says he is thrilled by the sight of six or seven turkeys strutting past his home.
"They've been here about a year. I don't go near them; they're wild. But I love seeing them cruise around," he said.
But Deb Kranz, who boards and rides horses in the neighborhood, sees a potential for trouble. The Mount Laurel resident said a boy at the stable got too close to one turkey, and it pecked his leg. "He didn't get hurt, but he was scared," she said.
She recalled how she and her husband considered buying a home in Medford a few years ago, but changed their minds when they saw turkeys prowling the backyard.
"There were about three dozen or so. I can't believe how they are really popping up all over. They are becoming like seagulls, and they poop everywhere," she said.
McBride said the reintroduction of wild turkeys has been a success, with problems occurring only when a flock grows too large in a suburban area.
And there's the occasional gobbler that goes on the attack.
They don't bite, he said, but out-of-control turkeys may try to "spur you" with their claws. It may hurt, but generally won't inflict serious injury, he said.
"We recommend, if they try to chase you, that you carry a broom and swing it . . . or chase them back, to reinforce their natural fear of people," McBride said.
The Deptford turkeys remained a no-show as Thanksgiving nears. Neighbors reported seeing a few dozen Saturday and a few more Tuesday.
They might be the brave ones in the bunch, but they didn't stay in the neighborhood long. And they didn't stray too far from the cover of the woods.
Deptford resident Bill Robinson says he often spots 100 or more turkeys in his yard. www.philly.com/njturkeyEndText