Wild turkeys turn into grape gobblers
WILD TURKEYS can make short work out of grapes.
If you’ve ever seen the short work a flock of turkeys can make of a row of grapes, you’d have no question why their “gobble-gobble” noises have become onomatopoetically synonymous with gluttony. Unlike, say, songbirds, which swoop in and peck a few berries here and there, turkeys can be merciless, picking rows clean down to each cluster’s skeletal rachis.
Ramona Nicholson has experienced this heartbreak firsthand. She always sees some turkeys around the vineyards she owns at Nicholson Ranch; a few birds poking around are unavoidable anywhere in the area. She usually relies on her dogs to guard the grapes, or she chases the birds away in a cart, but, she said, “This year they were quite bold.” She says up to 14 at once came down from the hills, where the coyotes could usually be relied upon to keep the feathered population in check in past years. “Whole flocks came down in the middle of the day and fattened themselves up on my grapes,” she said, adding, “They seemed to like the pinot best.”
Sure, a pessimist might look at this as a loss of some very fine pinot noir, but the optimist sees the roaster as fully stuffed. Some lucky Sonomans might just be dining on pinot-fed wild turkeys this Thanksgiving.
For area grape growers, revenge may be a dish best served piping hot and, according to Oakville winemaker and grower Graeme MacDonald, “slathered in butter” (this may have to do with the wild birds’ notorious toughness).
“The turkey population in Sonoma County has gone up steadily over the past decade,” said Scott Gardner, an environmental scientist who is the program lead for sage grouse and wild turkey for the California Department if Fish and Game. Fish and Game does not monitor the exact number of wild turkeys but bases its estimates of increases on “harvest” data – the number killed by hunters (and, legally, by unhappy farmers). “Sonoma County,” said Gardner, “has the sixth highest turkey harvest in the state.”
Our landscape ensures a stable and entrenched wild turkey population. The beautiful oaks mixed with soaring pines, generous open spaces, abundant food sources and readily available water combine to create a near perfect wild turkey habitat. And, anecdotally anyway, any grape grower will tell you that you might as include their grapes in inventory of abundant food sources. There are no reliable statistics kept on the impact so-called “turkey blight” has on harvest numbers; in fact, most growers would tell you its probably statistically insignificant – tonnages naturally vary year to year. However, it doesn’t feel insignificant to winemakers looking at vines that have been pecked clean. And there’s not very much that can be done about it.
“The number 1 control is to train your vines high enough that turkeys can’t reach the grapes,” said Sophie Drucker, assistant viticulturist at Boisset Family Estates. Having dogs around, as does Nicholson, is another way to keep the skittish birds at bay.
But one of the most reliably successful methods of dealing with wild turkeys that gobble grapes is a shotgun. This is not a method that Fish and Game discourages, though they require afflicted farmers to obtain a “depredation” permit. “Turkeys are considered a depredation animal,” said Gardner – meaning one that negatively affects agriculture. And though they are plentiful in the county, they are still protected, though Gardner stresses, “We are very open about issuing permits.” The process is straightforward according to him and can take as little as a day (which may seem like an eternity to growers watching clusters disappear). “They get a permit and they can shoot them,” said Gardner.
While the state does not keep statistics on the number of depredation permits for wild turkeys issued in regions such as Sonoma Valley – thousands are issued statewide – there is much anecdotal evidence that there have been increasing incidences of turkeys in “urban” and “residential” areas in the county. Some of this may be the result of people feeding wild turkeys and the birds staying in the area instead of moving on. “If there’s one animal that doesn’t need to be fed it’s the wild turkey,” said Gardner, who implores people not to feed them. “They can eat anything.” All too often around the Valley this means grapes. This in turn gives some farmers a fitting centerpiece for their Thanksgiving tables.
While a wild turkey has a gamier flavor than its heritage-bred cousins – these are both birds that run, jump and fly – and bears almost no similarity on the plate to its more distant Butterball relatives, to a grape grower the taste can be sublime. And maybe only part of that is hubris. As McDonald said, “If it’s been eating our grapes then it should taste extra sweet.”