Saturday, November 27, 2004

BALTIMORE (AP) — Grape growers and other farmers are fighting a guerrilla war with insurgent wild turkey populations in Maryland.

They have deployed falcons, shotguns, dogs, tape-recorded turkey distress calls, flashing lights and balloons shaped to look like hawks.

Paul Roberts, co-owner of Deep Creek Cellars in Western Maryland, blares AM talk-radio programs from speakers set up among his vines to scare away the birds.

Once nearly extinct, at least 30,000 wild turkeys now thrive in Maryland, and like other animals that have benefited from hunting limits, the turkeys are irritating farmers.

“All day long, you hear a cacophony of them, calling in the woods,” Mr. Roberts said of the turkeys that menace his grapes. “They fly right in front of cars, almost causing tragic accidents. It’s a very dangerous situation. They are very large animals, related to the dinosaurs, after all.”

Wild turkeys were common in Maryland when settlers arrived from Europe in the 1600s, but hunting reduced their numbers to near-extinction levels by the 1920s, said state officials.

Maryland turkey populations have more than doubled during the past decade, with a 26 percent rise in the number of birds, 207, killed during hunting season this fall, from Oct. 30 to Nov. 6, compared with the number killed last fall, state officials said.

Brian McGowan, a biologist at Purdue University, is working with state game officials to redeem the bird’s reputation. After hearing complaints about turkeys, he spent hundreds of hours prowling fields at night with video cameras with night-vision technology. He also strapped tiny backpacks to turkeys and used radio transmitters with global positioning systems to monitor their movements.

His time-lapse videotapes show that most of the crop damage blamed on wild turkeys is caused by raccoons and deer, which sneak in and nibble under cover of darkness. The turkeys arrive in the morning to peck insects and get blamed by the farmers, Mr. McGowan said.

“The turkeys are kind of guilty by association. They are large animals, and they are out there in the daytime, so the farmers see them and think they did the damage,” Mr. McGowan said. “It’s like seeing teenagers on the corner and assuming they’re up to no good.”

Bob Long, turkey biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said he tells complaining grape growers about the videotaped evidence.

“The turkeys aren’t really a problem; it’s a perception thing,” Mr. Long said.

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