Wild turkeys are thriving across California, but as the climate warms habitats like Sacramento may not be able to sustain the invasive species that people either hate or love.
“People are seeing them more often in places where they might not think a turkey would live,” said Peter Tira, an information officer with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “During the drought there were very few natural resources out on the wild landscape. Water was hard to find, food was hard to find and turkeys kind of moved into the cities and suburbs.”
Even though wild turkeys are flourishing, where turkeys live may change as the globe warms. It’s not that they’ll go extinct, but some of the habitat they currently live in won’t be suitable for them. Still, some experts don't see them leaving the suburban homes they've come to enjoy just because of climate change.
A Shrinking Range
Tira says presently wild turkey numbers are expanding, although CDFW doesn’t count turkeys, and can be found in ecosystems and cities from Mexico to the Oregon border.
“They're incredibly adaptable,” he said. “They have found much of California to their liking and they can live in all different kinds of habitats.”
The five species of turkeys that exist in California today were introduced into the state beginning in 1877 as game birds by ranchers, but there are some fossil records of turkeys from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.
As the climate warms it just might be too hot for the birds. And the habitat they rely on — like trees and wooded areas — could be suffering as well, says Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation for Audubon California.
“Our models have predicted turkeys moving into Northern California, and we've just seen massive, unprecedented fires in Northern California. And that's going to impact turkeys,” she said.
Last year Audubon modeled how turkeys and other birds will fare under three different climate warming scenarios — if the world warms 1.5, 2 or 3 degrees Celsius.
“Our models are predicting a 19% range loss,” she said. “A lot of that is associated with urban areas like San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and also the very edges of the Central Valley up into the foothills.”
For the birds, each scenario likely means less water, food and fewer places to live because of the effects of climate change: drought, wildfire, extreme rain events, and flooding.
“So they'll march up into the foothills, they'll march to the coast and they'll head north,” she said. “This would be a process over a number of years.”
Besides wildfire, one effect of climate change on turkey habitat Jones is worried about is heat waves because eggs can’t be exposed to hot temperatures for long periods of time.
“If temperatures get too hot a turkey can only keep eggs cool for so long and they need to come and go from their nests to forage,” she said.
Jones says the warming felt by the first two scenarios will likely happen and is already in motion, because carbon emissions worldwide haven’t been curbed enough. But she says the worst climate scenario, where habitat is no longer viable for the birds in most of the Central Valley, is avoidable. Many nations are working to keep warming worldwide below 2 degrees Celsius through the Paris Climate Agreement, which the United States formally left this month and President-elect Joe Biden said he would rejoin.
“If we can implement policies and practices to slow down the rate of climate change … we'll save a lot of birds, habitats and wildlife, and also conditions for human communities as well,” she said.
Will Turkeys Leave California Cities?
One other impact of warming temperatures could be that more people move into urban areas increasing the size of cities, which would mean even more “loss of habitat in Sacramento, San Jose and San Francisco areas,” Jones said.
But even as temperatures warm, turkeys adapted to city life won’t likely abandon water and food sources in urban areas for the woods, said Greg Giusti, forest and wildland ecologist emeritus with the University of California Division of Agriculture Natural Resources. He’s also writing a book about turkey behavior.
“I don't see them leaving downtown Davis because of climate change,” he said. “Let me be blunt. I see them simply adapting to the environment that they're in. As people will adapt, I think they will adapt as well.”
He says the birds will prefer the safety of cities where there are enough resources, trees to shade under and very few threats besides cars.
“They're not going to migrate in the sense that they're going to travel great distances, they'll try to find an exploit,” he said. “It's not gonna be hard for a turkey in downtown Woodland or Davis to find a shade tree. If it gets too hot, it's not gonna be too hard to find a water source.”
The idea that turkeys will just adapt jives with Tira with CDFW because as omnivores they can live in all types of climates and they’re set up better than other species.
“Other species, even if they're very abundant, have very strict habitat requirements,” he said. “Turkeys are the opposite. They're the survivors ... They can eat all kinds of things. They can survive in the middle of the city. They can survive out in the wilderness.”
And if wild turkeys do move into more wildland areas there are other ways to control the population. The main being hunting. At the moment, Tira says, people can hunt up to five birds a year (two in the fall and in three in the spring). But if you live in an urban area you’re most likely not allowed to shoot them. Because Tira says most cities have laws that restrict hunting within city limits.
“In the city they have no predators around, nobody's hunting them, it's all very casual,” he said. “They just don't have much to fear and they know it. So nobody bothers them, nobody harasses them. But when you're hunting them, it's a different story.”
But even if more of these big birds move into rural areas Tira thinks wild turkeys will be resilient to climate change. He says the vast range of where wild turkeys live across the state and nation shows that they’re here to stay even if their range just becomes a bit concentrated as temperatures warm.
“We find them in all kinds of different landscapes. The high altitudes of the Sierras down to the desert regions, and on the coasts and the forest and inland,” he said. “If any species is going to adapt and survive climate change, wild turkeys are certainly in a good position to do that.”
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