Forget the panicked flood forecasts, oatmeal-coloured lawns, and gutters filled with fossilized Slurpee cups. The true harbingers of spring in Winnipeg are the hungry, horny turkeys.
Over the past few days, flocks of them have been spotted in several residential neighbourhoods. Over the weekend, a particularly well-photographed gang of gobblers was seen making themselves home in River Heights, strutting down Academy Road after chilling in a Starbucks parking lot, cruising for hens (and snacks).
The River Heights turkeys are not plucky escapees from the Assiniboine Park Zoo, as has been theorized in community Facebook groups. In an email to the Free Press, a spokeswoman confirmed the zoo's free-ranging turkeys — seven of them, to be exact — are accounted for.
So what's up with the influx of wild turkeys?
"It's probably not super common to see them in the city, but they do move through the city along the waterways for sure," says Heather Hinam, naturalist, educator, and owner of Second Nature: Adventures in Discovery. "Especially with winter being what it was this year. They're on the hunt for food."
And because it's spring, they are also likely on the hunt for a mate.
"They're definitely more active at this time of year," says Hinam, who holds a PhD in ecology and conservation biology.
"Males tend to protect a harem of females. They'll do that, or they'll get together and you'll find a bunch of males competing in what's called a lek, so you'll find two or three males gathered together having a dance-off while the females sit around and watch.
"They gather in larger numbers this year for sure."
If you run into one of these 10-kilogram birds on the street, Hinam advises to keep your distance.
"Give them a wide berth," she says. "Maybe cross the street, just to be on the safe side. The chances of being in real danger is highly unlikely. They are aggressive, but it's like running into a flock of Canada geese; (they) can be just as intimidating as turkeys."
And if you don't love the idea of happening upon a flock of turkeys in, say, your backyard, Hinam recommends cleaning up potential food sources.
"If you've accumulated a lot of acorns or berries over the winter, it might be time to clean up the yard," she says. "Although, turkeys are great clean-up crews, so really truly I would be quite happy to have a flock of turkeys taking care of the mess in my yard."
"Give them a wide berth. Maybe cross the street, just to be on the safe side." -Heather Hinam
Wild turkeys are one of Manitoba's biggest conservation success stories. They are an introduced species. In 1958, a committee of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation (called Wild Gobblers Unlimited) brought in turkeys from North Dakota and released them near Miami, 80 kilometres south of Portage la Prairie.
"Right around the turn of the last century, turkeys in North America, period, had been declining badly due to over-hunting," Hinam says. "They originate from the New England area and eastern Canada, so there were a bunch reintroduction programs across the U.S. and Canada. And they've been building their populations ever since."
Allison Krause-Danielsen, a Brandon-based regional wildlife biologist with Manitoba Sustainable Development, says the summer of 2018 was a productive one for turkeys across southern Manitoba.
"They had a good hatch, and the dry weather last summer made for good survival rates for the young ones from last year," she says.
"We have an active program of taking wild turkeys out of areas where they are plentiful, there are large populations in the hundreds in any given area, or if they are causing problems, we'll trap them in January/February, and then release them somewhere else where they are trying to establish a population.
"I think we've released about 200 in the southwest part of Manitoba (this winter)," she says. "Turkeys are doing very well, so it doesn't surprise me that there have been more turkeys in the city."
"Birds are dinosaurs, so when you take a look at a turkey, it's not hard to see the resemblance." -Heather Hinam
Because turkeys roost in trees (a somewhat disconcerting fact), she's not surprised turkeys are attracted to Winnipeg's more densely forested areas.
It's not hard to understand why city folk have seemed charmed by the sightings of these large — and, let's be honest, hilarious-looking — birds, posting photos and videos on social media.
"They're fascinating birds, really," Hinam says. "I mean, birds are dinosaurs, so when you take a look at a turkey, it's not hard to see the resemblance."
Spotting a turkey on the street also serves as a positive reminder of the city's wild side.
"We're very lucky in Winnipeg," Hinam says. "We have quite a lot of urban nature.
"I have a screech owl living down the street from me and I live in old St. Boniface. There's all sorts of amazing things. We really need to protect it."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.