WASHINGTON – On a sunny spring day, cardinals, meadowlarks and bobolinks flit through the forested area between Kenilworth Marsh and the Anacostia River. A serpentine concrete bike and pedestrian path winds through this idyllic stretch just blocks from a dense working-class neighborhood, but no one’s there.
Just steps away, about a dozen neighbors jog and walk on a synthetic light rail. Hikers and cyclists say they are scared of the trail through the forest after a spate of attacks recently. Cliff Robinson pauses to explain.
“Because of those turkeys!” says Mr. Robinson, 70, a retired court clerk. “I was attacked there. Three weeks ago. I tried to get away from him and he came after me. He didn’t let me pass.”
The suspect: a stocky male, 1.90 m tall, with a blue head and neck, pink chin flaps that turn red when he struts, glossy black and fluorescent breast feathers, and a large fanned bronze tail. The weapons: sharp beaks and claws used to slash passers-by in the legs and thighs. The victims: more than a dozen hikers and cyclists, including several in need of urgent medical care, tetanus shots and antibiotics.
“There’s a humorous element to it,” said Dan Rauch, a wildlife biologist with the DC Department of Energy & Environment who is part of a team trying to apprehend the perpetrator. “There’s a terror turkey following a river trail. If I hadn’t seen the videos myself, I would have thought it was an urban myth.”
Because this is the nation’s capital, a multi-agency task force of more than half a dozen agencies has pulled together a trawl across cities, states and provinces to try and lock up the wily bird.
Wild turkeys are making a nationwide comeback after nearly becoming extinct a century ago, according to an issue of Turkey Interview Talking Points drafted by the National Park Service and reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. With the proliferation of wild turkeys, about 7 million nationwide, there has been a surge in unfortunate encounters with the public from California to Massachusetts.
Most interactions are harmless and typically turkeys become aggressive during the breeding season between March and May, although attacks can occur at any time. Men are aggressive to establish dominance. Often they protect chickens and a nest with eggs or chicks. Attacks in Turkey have left people with bloody punctures, scratches and bruises.
Outside of Boston in November 2020, Liz Poulette said she was on her way to a dunkin’ for coffee (big, ice cream, cream, a Splenda) when a wild turkey started tailing her. “I had started walking backwards to keep an eye on it and didn’t want to make any sudden movements,” Ms Poulette said in an email. “When it was a few meters away, it suddenly jumped at me. Like something out of a cartoon, I had to use my purse to punch it back.” She suffered scratches on her arm.
Around the same time, in Oakland, California, a turkey named Gerald living in a municipal rose garden wounded several park visitors and became so aggressive that one resident complained the bird reminded him of “the velociraptor scenes in Jurassic Park.” The city closed the garden until it was captured and relocated by state gaming officials. It was an ordeal that lasted for months, said Oakland Animal Services director Ann Dunn, who read a media report about the DC bird. “Even seeing the word ‘turkey attack’ brings back bad memories,” she said.
In Washington, the tom turkey, resident along a popular 6-year-old Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, has evolved into a fearsome bully that has become increasingly aggressive since it was first sighted at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a historic facility that managed by the National Park Service. Joe Cashman, a park guide known to everyone as “Ranger Joe,” said he and another park guide were on bike patrol when they were chased by the birds last fall.
“We had fun doing that,” said Ranger Joe. “Then we got complaints. It started to get aggressive. It’s getting more and more aggressive.”
Warning signs were put up in January. In February, turkey aggression became extreme. Wild turkeys can run up to 25 miles per hour, according to Turkey Talking Points.
“It’s strutting its stuff and spreading its tail feathers,” Ranger Joe said, sharing video of the tom attempting to attack him. The Ranger, an Air Force Academy graduate, is no crab; he is 6 feet, 4 inches tall.
As complaints mounted, the valet grew annoyed. “It’s not a good situation,” said Ranger Joe. “We want to find a balance between protecting wildlife and protecting our visitors.”
“Why is the turkey still ‘at large’? ‘ ask the topics of conversation. “Turkeys are elusive birds and difficult to catch.”
Hunters have agreed to take matters into their own hands. “I put the turkey in a pot,” one visitor told Ranger Joe. The offers were rejected. “We don’t want to kill it,” said Ranger Joe. The park service warns the public to avoid wildlife. “We understand the public wants to help, but please don’t try to catch the turkey,” the talking points read. “Just let us know if you see him.”
The National Park Service hatched a plan. “The park determined that the turkey needed to be captured and relocated,” the talking points read.
Enter the District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment, Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has also recruited the Humane Rescue Alliance, the nonprofit that serves as Washington’s animal control unit.
The fowl were also seen fleeing across the state line to Bladensburg, Md., so Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources are also involved in the case, which in 2021 killed 9,146 of the birds statewide reported in his Wild Turkey Observation Survey.
The fugitive is smart, says Ranger Joe, because he flees “when he sees nets.” Animal police recently cornered him under a bridge, but he flew across the Anacostia River to the US National Arboretum – implicating another federal agency in the hunt, the US Department of Agriculture.
The turkey fled into familiar territory. The arboretum’s USDA wildlife manager Sue Greeley said the turkey had been nesting in the 446-acre federal park since spring 2021 until last fall. During the summer he fattened up on the Brood X cicadas, which showed up by the millions. Then, Ms Greeley said, the cat may have taken off to avoid predators, including coyotes and possibly bald eagles, the arboretum’s more famous bird residents, who have their own streaming webcam.
Or maybe it was something a worker said. The bird had a habit of following workers in the dogwood gathering last fall. “It was this comedic, detective-like situation where he was following and then pretending not to follow,” Ms. Greeley said. One day, “Near Thanksgiving, the gentleman turned and warned him that if he wasn’t careful he would have him for supper.”
The bird apparently flew it out of the arboretum with a high tail. “We haven’t seen him since November,” Ms. Greeley said.
Shortly thereafter, attacks began near Kenilworth Gardens.
Social media and local broadcasts were full of reports. “I was chased by this guy for a solid quarter mile at relatively high speed in November (I was lucky enough to be on my bike, not sure how that would have ended if I had been on foot) before he eventually Bridge gave up, which is where I ended up pausing for this shot,” a victim posted above a photo on a local blog, PoPville.com.
“A wild turkey that attacked me on the Anacostia Trail last night (Wednesday). I ended up in the ER with stab wounds to my legs and had to be given a tetanus shot and antibiotics,” another turkey target wrote in February. “It was terrifying.”
An elderly woman told Ranger Joe she fended off the turkey with a fanny pack. Ranger Joe defended himself with a rolled up plastic fence.
On a recent morning, ranger Joe Terri warned Swegle, a tourist visiting Kenilworth Gardens with her family, and asked the Swegles to report any sightings. She said she is familiar with turkeys because they nest in her yard in Dixon, Illinois, but these birds are docile. “That’s great,” Mrs. Swegle said. “We’re in pursuit!”
write to James V. Grimaldi at [email protected]
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