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Ravenous Wild Turkeys Spur Vintners' Gripes of Wrath

The nonnative fowl are gobbling the prized wine grapes of Sonoma County, farmers say.

October 29, 2003|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

GEYSERVILLE, Calif. — As dusk descends on the hilly vineyards of Sonoma County you can hear the war drums pounding. KA-BOOM. Gobble. Gobble. KA-BOOM. Gobble. Gobble.

Actually, it's the sound of grape grower Avtar Sandhu firing his 12-gauge shotgun into the air to drive away a flock of wild turkeys. Sandhu is one of many farmers here -- as well as an increasing number of homeowners and business proprietors -- who claim the wild turkey situation is out of control in Northern California's renowned wine country.

"They're more than just pests," fumed Sandhu, a retired Bechtel Co. engineering executive who has farmed in Sonoma County for 25 years, "they've become a plague."

Ranged against the angry grape farmers are the men and women of the National Wild Turkey Federation, an influential hunters group, who contend that the magnificent birds pose no threat to man or merlot. The federation folk, who beginning in 1973 have spearheaded a successful movement to save the native American bird from extinction, say the state's estimated 100,000 wild turkeys are being unfairly blamed for crimes committed by raccoons, ground squirrels, skunks, opossums and other critters.

With the Nov. 8-23 fall hunting season drawing near and Thanksgiving just around the corner, the turkey flap has feathers flying here, from the fruit-laden canopies of ripe cabernet in the fields to the driveways of exclusive retirement communities outside urban Santa Rosa.

"A lot of people think the turkeys are wonderful to have around," said Janet Schink, who lives in the gated Wild Oak community, "but when they have 40 to 50 of them going through their backyard rooting up their plants -- they become a little more ambivalent."

As Schink spoke, a flock of 20 turkeys filed resolutely through the neighborhood. Some perched on the hood of a parked Mercedes-Benz; others walked on lawns undeterred by gardeners with roaring leaf blowers.

"I used to get two or three complaints a year about the turkeys," said state Fish and Game biologist Scott Gardner. "Now I'm getting that many a week." Wild Oak residents say it's the biggest wildlife problem in several years, at least since an invasion of feral pigs practically ruined the local polo field.

Ideal Conditions

Ground zero for the turkey controversy, said Gardner, is Sonoma County, where the wooded hillsides and temperate climate provide ideal conditions for the 20- to 30-pound, 3- to 4-foot tall Meleagris gallopavo, a North American native that Benjamin Franklin once recommended as the national bird instead of the bald eagle.

The problem is that although the bird is native to the continent, it is not indigenous to California, at least not for thousands of years. At the urging of the hunting lobby, the birds were brought in from outside by the Department of Fish and Game beginning in the 1950s. That puts wild turkeys in the "imported exotic" category, adding more weight to farmers' complaints that the state should never have introduced them. Most of the turkeys in California were brought from Texas.

"The fact that it is not a native species makes turkeys a little tricky," said Reginald H. Barrett, a professor of wildlife management at UC Berkeley. "When farmers complain that raccoons are eating their grapes you can say 'That's too bad; you're the one who brought in the grapes.' But turkeys are different because it was Fish and Game that brought them in."

To prove the wild turkey innocent, the hunters federation this year installed dozens of cameras in Sonoma and Napa vineyards to photograph nocturnal grape thieves.

"The preliminary results," Wild Turkey Federation regional director Steve Moreno said happily, "are just what we thought. There are no turkeys at all eating the grapes. But we've got plenty of pictures of raccoons standing on their hind legs, holding onto the irrigation drip lines and having a feast."

Nonsense, retort the farmers. Turkeys are well-known "opportunistic omnivores" who dine on everything from garden vegetables to lizards. "Anyone who thinks they don't eat grapes is fooling themselves," said Duff Bevill, who manages 1,000 acres of Sonoma Vineyards. "I've stood out there in the middle of the day and watched them do it."

Darker Suspicions

Naturalists suspect the turkey also eats native California plants such as the rare wild lily and rare animals such as the endangered red-legged frog, which lives in declining numbers in the marshes of Annadel State Park outside Santa Rosa.

"You take 10,000 years of evolution to produce a full ecosystem," said frustrated Annadel State Park biologist Marla Hastings, "and then all of a sudden turkeys are slammed in there with unknown consequences to everything else. The state Fish and Game code prevents us from managing them."

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