SOURIS -- When people say Souris has a bunch of turkeys living there, that shouldn't be viewed as a reflection on the denizens of this pretty southwestern Manitoba town.
It's meant literally. Wild turkeys moved in about 10 years ago. At first it was just a dozen or so and no one minded. This fall, their numbers grew to about 60. They started to turn into a menace.
They walk around town like street gangs. There are turkeys in the straw, no doubt, but also in the park, in yards, on fences, on rooftop peaks, crossing main street, and crossing and stopping traffic on the highway, likely just for the power rush it gives them. "You talkin' to me?" they say with jaded looks if you politely toot your horn. "I've heard better honks from a day-old gosling."
They also seem to know about the amnesty against shooting within town limits, working the justice system better than some juveniles with rap sheets longer than an wing span of raffle tickets at a Manitoba social.
Then there's the "turkey tree," as Mary Petersen calls it.
Alfred and Mary Petersen only moved to Souris from Brandon about a year ago. They'd heard about the wild turkeys in Souris and thought it would be cute to see one -- not 13 of them in their yard every day since last October. At dusk, the birds perch in a tree in the Petersen's backyard like some Hitchcock movie: The Gobblers. Run for your lives.
The "turkey tree" turned into a local tourist attraction this winter. (You'll have to use your imagination. Mary has tried to take pictures in the dark but they don't do it justice.)
"I wasn't expecting this," she said.
During daylight hours, the turkeys sit on the Petersens' fence "or they just stomp around." Mary went to great effort planting perennials last year. The turkeys have turned them into soil microbes. "They don't care where they walk," she said. Which is another common complaint about lawless turkey behaviour: they don't observe footpaths.
The Petersens take the bird problem in good humour. "They leave a lot of fertilizer," Mary said laughing.
Naturally, when the Free Press visited, turkeys were nowhere to be seen. Local naturalist Jim Ludlam said an eagle had been staking out Souris and we soon found the crime scene: a massacre of turkey feathers that had everything but yellow police tape cordoning it off.
We finally came across a flock of turkeys on the west side. It's an impressive bird with its red head and wattles, and strange blend of black and brown feathers, and tail fan bigger than a nine-card rummy hand.
But there's also something world-weary in a tom's eyes. Toms (males) seem to have that "I know what you're thinking you rotten son-of-a..." look, and they're probably right. It's hard not to have visions of them naked and golden brown in the centre of a dining room table.
Wild turkeys never existed this far north until 16 were captured in North Dakota in 1958 and released in the Pembina Valley by the Manitoba Wildlife Federation. The turkeys liked Manitoba and have spread far and wide. "They have a pretty healthy population," said Frank Baldwin, Manitoba Conservation's game-bird manager.
They're called Eastern Wild Turkey. They're leaner than store-bought birds, weighing about 10 kg, with less breast meat but very dark meat "because they're a very active bird," said Baldwin. About 1,200 licences are taken out every year for hunting the birds in spring and fall.
Baldwin said the increased numbers in Souris is a product of the harsh winter. Turkeys aren't well adapted to dealing with deep snow and long stretches of cold, so look for supplemental food sources.
Souris isn't the only community to attract turkeys. They have flocked into parts of Winnipeg in the past, such as St. Norbert, Omand's Creek and Assiniboine Park. Wildwood had 60 or 70 birds call it home a number of years ago, Baldwin said.
Turkey doo-doo is the biggest complaint but they also break tree branches, perch on cars and scratch the paint, damage roof shingles, and cause problems for traffic. They can get aggressive in spring and chase people, or jump up and flap. Turkeys can be intimidating but aren't dangerous, Baldwin said.
A woman sitting in the Souris Motor Inn said the wild turkeys make a terrible mess. "They're worse than the deer," she said. "I just let my dog out and they take off."
The complaints have reached the desk of Souris Mayor Darryl Jackson. "If you've got four or five dozen turkeys wandering around town, they make quite a mess," he said.
Jackson summoned Manitoba Conservation, which came in March and moved about a dozen to north of Brandon. But the birds are smart and soon caught on, said Baldwin. He expects the birds will disperse with spring-like weather arriving but his department may have to return again in the fall, he said.