Wildlife Activists Try To Save Staten Island's Wild Turkeys

Nov 27, 2014
Originally published on November 27, 2014 7:12 pm

By one estimate, Americans will eat 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving.

But this story is not about them. It's about a smaller group of turkeys — about 100 who roam the wild streets of New York City. These feral birds live in Staten Island, the least urban of the five boroughs. Local officials have been trying to relocate the birds for years, but their plan has had trouble getting off the ground.

These turkeys are pretty easy to spot. For one thing, they tend to wander out into the middle of the street. And for another, they're big. The males get up to 3 feet tall.

"He's got his feathers puffed out," says Joanna Tierno, a resident of Midland Beach on Staten Island. "He's strutting around. He's trying to impress all the ladies over here. He's looking really handsome."

Tierno is not an ornithologist, but she's been watching these turkeys for years.

"They're very friendly," she says. "People talk about them attacking them, being aggressive. I don't know what you have to do to the turkey to get them to do that, but they really, they don't bother you. If they were in our parks and stuff, I think a lot of people would really look forward to seeing them."

But these turkeys do not confine themselves to the parks. They wander freely — on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, on the beaches along the south shore of Staten Island and into the surrounding neighborhoods.

No one is exactly sure how the turkeys got here, says David Karopkin, a wildlife activist with the group, GooseWatch NYC.

"The legend that I've been told is about 10 or 15 years ago, there was a gentleman who had five or 10 of these turkeys in his backyard," Karopkin says. "And he didn't want to keep them anymore, so he let them go. That's 10 or 15 years that these turkeys have been living on the south shore, on the beach, reproducing and so their numbers grew."

And the population grew much to the dismay of some in the neighborhood.

"They poop all over the place," says resident Dominic Gaeta. "I have to watch where I walk and step with the dog and everything. Plus they eat up the yard. They mess my garden up. One time I had 41 in my yard — 41."

Nicole Malliotakis, who represents the south shore of Staten Island in the state assembly, understands Gaeta's frustration.

"It's just not fit for Staten Island, that many birds," she says. "I mean, if it was a few turkeys, it's fine.

"We are the city of New York," she adds. "I know we're not Manhattan, but we still have tremendous amount of vehicles. We have people's homes that are being destroyed by the birds. They've become a nuisance."

For years, the neighbors have been asking for the birds to be relocated. But the state Department of Environmental Conservation says their pedigree makes them "hybrid" animals, which means that they can't just be released into the wild elsewhere. Last year, the psychiatric hospital arranged to have several dozen of the birds rounded up and shipped to a poultry processing plant. Animal activists, including Karopkin, cried foul.

"These turkeys were killed for no other reason than the fact that they poop and cross the street," Karopkin says. "And that's absolutely unacceptable."

The psychiatric hospital will try rounding up the birds again next month. But this time, 100 of the turkeys are headed to a wildlife refuge in the Hudson Valley that's been specifically designated for them. That will be a relief for some in the neighborhood. But not for Tierno.

"I'd rather them be happy someplace else than be here and be killed," Tierno says. "But I will miss them. I love seeing the turkeys. I look forward to seeing them. I know a lot of people do, and that's how they got to be this tame."

Tierno might still get to see the turkeys. If this year's round-up doesn't catch all the birds, the population might take off again next year.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

By one estimate, Americans will eat 46 million turkeys today. This story is not about them. It's about a smaller group of turkeys, around 100, who roam the wild streets of New York City. These feral birds live in Staten Island the least urban of the five boroughs. Local officials have been trying to relocate the birds for years, but their plan has had trouble getting off the ground. Sorry, NPR's Joel Rose reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEY GOBBLING)

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: These turkeys are pretty easy to spot. For one thing, they tend to wander out into the middle of the street, and for another, they're big. The males get up to three-feet tall.

JOANNA TIERNO: He's got his - oh, his feathers puffed out. He's strutting around. He's trying to impress all the ladies over here. (Laughter). He's looking really handsome.

ROSE: This is Joanna Tierno. She's not an ornithologist, but she's been watching these birds for years as a resident of Midland Beach on Staten Island.

TIERNO: They're very friendly. You know, people talk about them attacking them and being aggressive. I don't know what you have to do to the turkey to get them to do that, but they don't bother you. You know, if they were in our parks and stuff, I think a lot of people would really look forward to seeing them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURKEY SQUAWKING)

ROSE: But these turkeys do not confine themselves to the parks. They wander freely on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital on the beaches along the south shore of Staten Island and into the surrounding neighborhoods. No one is exactly sure how the turkeys got here, says David Karopkin, a wildlife activist with the group GooseWatch NYC.

DAVID KAROPKIN: The legend that I've been told is about 10 or 15 years ago, there was a gentleman who had, you know, 5 or 10 of these turkeys in his backyard. And he didn't want to keep them anymore, so he let them go. And that's 10 or 15 years that these turkeys have been living on the south shore on the beach, reproducing. And so their numbers grew.

ROSE: And grew, to the dismay of some in neighborhood, like Dominic Gaeta.

DOMINIC GAETA: They poop all over the place. And I have a watch where I walk and step with the dog and everything. Plus, they eat up the yard. They mess my garden up. One time, I had 41 in my yard - 41.

NICOLE MALLIOTAKIS: It's just not fit for Staten Island, that many birds. I mean, if it was a few turkeys, that's fine.

ROSE: Nicole Malliotakis represents the south shore of Staten Island in the state assembly.

MALLIOTAKIS: We are the city of New York. And I know we're not Manhattan, but we still have tremendous amount of vehicles. We have people's homes that are being destroyed by the birds. They become a nuisance.

ROSE: For years, the neighbors have been asking for the birds to be relocated. But the State Department of Environmental Conservation says their pedigree makes them hybrid animals, which means they can't just be released into the wild elsewhere. Last year, the psychiatric hospital arranged to have several dozen of the birds rounded up and shipped to a poultry processing plant. Animal activists, including David Karopkin, cried foul.

KAROPKIN: These turkeys were killed for no other reason than the fact that they poop and cross the street. And that's absolutely unacceptable.

ROSE: The psychiatric hospital will try rounding up the birds again next month. But this time, 100 of the turkeys are headed to a wildlife refuge in the Hudson Valley that's been specially designated for them. That will be a relief for some in the neighborhood, but not for Joanna Tierno.

TIERNO: I'd rather them be happy someplace else than be here and be killed. But I will miss them, you know. I love seeing the turkeys. I look forward to seeing them. And I know a lot of people do, and that's how they got to be this tame.

ROSE: Tierno might still get to see the turkeys. If this year's roundup doesn't catch all the birds, the population might take off again next year. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.