A rare, elusive wild turkey is traveling through Chicago and people are excited
The big news in recent days among Chicago birdwatchers is that a wild turkey has shown up near Chicago’s lakefront for the first time in, oh, 150 or so years.
In the realm of wild turkey news, this sighting was not nearly as big as the recent story about the the pack of turkeys that pecked at a pregnant woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In fact, Chicago’s wild turkey made no official news at all.
But among people like Greg Neise, the turkey’s appearance near the lakefront has been almost as exciting as a photo of a black hole.
“For one to show up, as this one has, along the lakefront, is stunning,” said Neise, a former photographer for Lincoln Park Zoo who now works for the American Birding Association. “It’s mind-blowing that this bird has been able to successfully navigate the heavy traffic and other dangers of the inner city, essentially walking and running along streets, alleys, and through parks.”
To fully appreciate the recent turkey sightings, you have to understand that by the early 1900s wild turkeys had vanished from Illinois.
“The story of wild turkeys in the eastern United States is kind of similar to the story of the bison in the Great Plains,” Neise said. “When the European settlers got here they found wild turkey an abundant food source. They hunted it almost to extinction.”
But in recent years, turkeys have returned, proliferating in forested areas and along riverbanks, in small towns and suburbs.
“The city proper is surrounded,” Neise said. “They have adapted to suburban and town situations rapidly, but the city proper is essentially a dead zone.”
The sojourn of the turkey in question began attracting attention on April 7 when a teenage boy snapped its photo in Evanston, just north of the Chicago border. The turkey was outside a plateglass storefront.
“One thing I have noticed is that it is drawn to its reflection in windows,” Neise said. “It’s looking for other turkeys to flock with, which is kind of sad.”
Two days later, the same turkey — or so it is believed — was sighted half a block from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.
Tom Tabatowski was sitting down to dinner with his daughter Mary when she looked out the window and saw something strange strutting down the alley.
“I moved here from Appalachia, where I used to see turkeys all the time,” said Tabatowski. “But not in Chicago.”
An experienced birder, he knew he needed to act fast, so he grabbed his phone, ran outside in his socks and snapped a photo of the big bird, which by then had crossed the street, toward a big window, and was being followed by other awestruck city dwellers.
More reports followed, including one of the turkey landing in a Rogers Park playlot.
“They do fly,” said Neise. “They’re powerful flyers. They can really get up there and move. They live on the ground but they sleep in the trees.”
By Thursday, via foot or air, the turkey in question had traveled south, where it made another photographed appearance on a first-floor balcony rail not far from Montrose Beach.
“I was walking back from the Red Line stop at Wilson when I saw it,” said Steven Glasker, a research scientist who lives nearby. “I walked over and thought: definitely a turkey. It was just sitting there watching the cars go by.”
He posted a photo on Nextdoor, a neighborhood app more commonly used to report things like shootings and broken water mains.
“Just saw this wild turkey hanging out at Sunnyside and Sheridan,” he wrote. “Just excited because I hadn’t seen any city turkeys in Chicago before.”
His girlfriend named the turkey Persephone.
In the name of accurate reporting, I should note that while Persephone’s sojourn is remarkable, it may not be as recordbreaking as it appears. In the bowels of social media I found a rumor — though no photo — of a Rogers Park turkey sighting in 2012. The occasional turkey has also been reported on the Far South Side.
But there is no doubt that a wild turkey in this big city is a sight to see, to photograph, to remark upon. As of Friday, the bird was assumed to be still roaming around, eluding birders and photographers eager to spot it and be amazed.
“That this one turkey has made her way through the city is inspirational,” said Neise. “If ever there was a bird to cheer and root for, this is it.”
A wild turkey perches recently on a balcony near Sunnyside Avenue and Sheridan Road in Uptown.