Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Talkin’ turkey where the turkeys talk back (with video)

Thursday, many of you will sit down to a turkey dinner with all the fixings. Dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy. And save room for a big piece of pumpkin pie.

You’ll give thanks and dig in. So will I, but with mixed emotions.

One morning last week, while driving into work from Oakdale, I came upon a car stopped diagonally across both lanes atop a hill near an almond orchard.

The driver tried frantically to shoo five wild turkeys out of the road. Then they chased her back to her car. They repeated their dance a couple of times as I drove closer. I tried to capture the episode on video, but didn’t have time to get my cellphone ready before she climbed back in and before they could block her car again.

No matter. They pirouetted and gobbled for me as usual, and this time even danced to the music wafting from my stereo. We’re old friends, those turkeys and me.

More than a year ago, I noticed a sizable flock in an almond orchard along Stearns Road and stopped to get some photos. A dozen, I counted at that time. But for the past several months, only five. I have no idea what happened to the others. Hunters? Coyotes? A mountain lion? Or were some part of a bumper crop because they wandered on to the road at the worst possible time?

More often than not they strut their stuff at the same place atop the hill by the almond orchard, although in recent weeks they’ve expanded their free range to include Highway 108-120 at Stearns. One Saturday, cars backed up 25 deep and the birds just stood there in total turkey defiance.

People got out of their cars to take photos and video. They’ve also been pictured on South Stearns by the Oakdale Golf and Country Club, on an Oakdale crime and safety Facebook page. The Oakdale Police Department receives five to 10 calls each day about them, records clerk Cindy Burns said, but they tend to frequent an area beyond the city limits. County animal control officers don’t respond to wild animal issues, nor do state Fish and Wildlife game wardens pretty much unless it’s a mountain lion killing pets or livestock.

“So we send a patrol officer out to chase them back up the hill,” Oakdale police Chief Lester Jenkins said. “I like seeing wildlife, but we don’t want to see them cause an accident, and don’t want to see one of those turkeys splattered on the road.”

The turkeys worry some folks while annoying others. And they pit drivers who are frustrated and honk their horns at turkeys against those who believe they should be left alone and in peace in their natural habitat. The middle of a state highway is their habitat? To the contrary, when you’re a turkey and in the middle of the road, you trot at your own risk.

And what happens when drivers honk their horns at a wild turkey? They gobble right back and, I suspect, in four-letter gobbles in turkeyspeak. Just think of the arguments they must get into with geese.

Yes, they could be escapees from a local farm. But when you hang around in this business as long as I have, and don’t drink too much of, say, Wild Turkey, something from the recesses of the memory eventually surfaces.

As a sports columnist in 1993, I wrote about the wild turkey program administered by the California Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife). Several years earlier, they began importing and relocating wild turkeys trapped in other states. California had been home to wild turkeys, but the flocks had dwindled for a variety of reasons including natural predators, hunters and possibly diseases. Officials in the late 1950s tried game-farm birds, but they weren’t as hardy as the truly wild turkeys. Hence, the imports from Texas, including the Rio Grande subspecies along with Merriam, which were released in San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara, Sonoma, Mariposa and on the western side of Tuolumne County. Both subspecies share the scientific name Meleagris gallopavo, are similar in looks, and look like the ones hanging out near Oakdale.

The turkey program succeeded beyond the department’s expectations, and the wild birds have been increasing in populations for decades. Now that they’ve flourished, the state lacks the resources to police them when they become bothersome. Hunters hunt them, but will tell you they are gamey-tasting compared with the grain-fed, butter-injected and pre-plucked turkeys purchased from grocery stores. (In fact, most folks prefer the frozenus Butterballus subspecies found in supermarket cold cases.)

Years ago, whenever my dad, daughter and I worked out our horses on federal land near J-59, we’d see flocks of anywhere from 30 to 50 turkeys in the fields along Old Don Pedro Road.

But who needs to drive up there? I’ve been able to see them nearly every day for more than a year, though not for the past few days. Did someone finally capture and relocate them? Or did they move back into the orchard for cover when it rained?

If I see them again, I’ll stop and honk. It must stick in their craws because they will gobble back – cursing me under their breath, no doubt.

That I’ll be chowing down on perhaps one of their kinfolk today? I have mixed feelings. White meat or dark?

Sorry, tom and hen friends. And be careful when you cross the road. Happy Thanksgiving!