Thanksgiving was a week away, and volunteers at Beacon Evangelical Free Church in Galloway Township were concerned: They had a goal of putting together 150 food baskets for families that might otherwise not have the makings for the traditional dinner, but they were still 30 turkeys short. So, they prayed.
The next morning, their prayers were answered — sort of.
For the first time in anyone’s memory, a flock of about 15 wild turkeys meandered onto the church’s property, located on South Sixth Avenue in downtown Galloway. They casually strutted to a nearby playground, prompting a wave of photos and videos.
“When I got a final head count, it was five males and 10 females. They went over to Imagination Station next door and came around the back of the church to the nursery,” said Kim Spigelmeyer, the church’s campus manager. “Later that day, they wandered into the woods across the street, and we haven’t seen them since. I’ve been an employee here for three years, and it’s the first time we’ve ever seen them out here.”
Spigelmeyer, a hunter, refrained from pulling out a shotgun to make the church’s quota. Turkeys are not currently in hunting season, he said.
Plenty of birds were later donated, and the church made its goal of 150 food baskets.
Tales of wild turkeys such as the flock that infiltrated Galloway’s town center have become increasingly common in suburban areas, South Jersey residents say. (Purists will point out that if you put several of the birds together, you have a rafter of turkeys, not a flock.)
While a new sighting in a residential area often provokes interest, state biologists say the turkey population has remained stagnant for the past seven or eight years after a slight dropoff in 2000. About 3,000 birds are killed yearly between the primary spring hunting season and shorter fall season.
“If people see them and haven’t seen them before, it doesn’t mean there’s a population increase. It just means the birds walked into a new neighborhood and perhaps have seen an interesting food source,” said Tony McBride, a biologist with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Hunting and habitat loss left turkeys almost nonexistent in the Garden State by the mid-1800s. In 1977, New Jersey imported about 20 turkeys from Vermont and New York, successfully re-establishing the species. By state estimates, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 wild turkeys roaming New Jersey today. The state does not track their population by county.
In suburban areas in the fall, gobblers generally hunt and peck for acorns and are attracted to mulched flower beds and bird seed — the equivalent of candy for turkeys. While some shoo the birds away, saying they mess up flower beds and generally make a mess, others welcome them.
Linda L’Erario has seen the birds nearly daily for the past seven years at her home on North Frankfurt Avenue in Galloway. They strut up and down the street and have become accustomed to people. With the bird seed and corn that L’Erario puts out, her front yard at times becomes a shared kitchen table for turkeys and deer.
“When the turkeys bring their babies, it’s the cutest thing,” L’Erario said.
Yet not all South Jersey residents are enthralled with the presence of the massive birds, which can grow as large as 17 pounds with a wingspan of more than 5 feet. The state Division of Fish and Wildlife receives between 40 and 50 complaints each year about unruly birds, usually in Cumberland and Gloucester counties. Most of the complaints don’t amount to much, particularly when the complaints are about just a couple of birds.
However, there is a possibility the state could intervene in one case of disorderly birds in South Jersey. In West Deptford, Gloucester County, residents have reported a flock of as many as 200 birds making a mess and occasionally holding up traffic. Groups that large are commonly made up of hens and their offspring. If the birds insist on being a nuisance, the state will trap them in nets, luring them in with corn. The turkeys would be transported to a more appropriate habitat elsewhere in the state, McBride said.
“We usually advise people to try to scare the birds and harass them to change their movements,” McBride said. “They’re big birds. Sometimes people are afraid and the turkeys sense that, but you’re bigger than they are. We tell people to bring something with them to swing.”
South Jersey residents can point to various areas where the birds have been spotted in recent years. Some birds have taken up residence at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway. Other times they wander by the Port General Store on Clarks Landing Road in Port Republic. Last year, more than 20 turkeys invaded a flower farm in Millville, pecking at flower beds and gardens to the ire of property owners. A few years earlier, a Bridgeton woman said turkeys attacked her two Corgi dogs.
And while some who have recently spotted the birds say they’ve caused a stir, the gobblers haven’t been spotted in some of their more tried and true hangouts in recent weeks.
Over the past two or three years, as many as 30 turkeys at a time have spent days on Gloria Wilson’s Mill Street property in Port Republic.
“We have a rancher, so the birds fly up on the roof and then go from there to the trees where they sleep at night. When they first showed up, we had just had a new roof put on, and I was a little bit worried about the extra traffic,” Wilson said. “Other than that, they don’t bother me at all. It’s part of nature.”
This summer, the birds “stayed over” almost every night, but there has been nary a feather at her home in the past month, she said.
“Lately, I’ve said, ‘Well, golly, we never see the turkeys anymore.’ Some people made remarks about all of the turkeys being in their freezers for Thanksgiving,” Wilson said.
Contact Jennifer Bogdan