A Conversation with Beth Fife | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Beth Fife

When Beth Fife finished studying to be a state Wildlife Conservation Officer, she stayed close to home by choosing eastern Allegheny County as her territory. "My classmates said, 'You'll never see any wildlife,'" Fife recalls. Wrong: "I have more wildlife than they'll ever see because of how wildlife has adapted." From her office in South Park, Fife spends most of her workday enforcing hunting laws and patrolling the porous borders between human habitats and the world of deer, raccoon, coyote -- and, increasingly, turkey. Half the year, as part of her wildlife talk for kids, the Altoona native also visits schools with George, a 2-year-old male gobbler who lives in a pen behind the Peters Township home Fife shares with her husband and three sons.

Where did you find George?

There was a turkey harassing [people], in Baldwin-Whitehall. I go over, and there's this white turkey, with black accents, just gobbling away in the front yard. I said, "What is it?" No one knows what it is. It's a domestic type, somehow.

I walked up to him, I scooped him up, I put him in my front seat. He just stood on his seat and when I started driving he sat down. You've got to be kidding me. When I stopped for the stoplight he'd stand up, and when I'd start he'd sit back down.

How does he do in school?

He loves people. [In classrooms,] I'll hold him, and when I put him down, he fluffs right up, and every time you say his name he gobbles. It's perfect. He lets [kids] pet him. They get to feel how thick the wing-feather quill is, and his beard.

He's hilarious. I can't explain him. I tell everybody, "He dropped from heaven."

Increasingly, wild turkeys are seen as pests.

I have right now a couple hot spots. There's a place on the other side of South Park that when I went to see [a complainant], there was literally turkeys everywhere. Hundreds of turkeys. What they're doing is, they're going yard to yard and eating the bird seed.

Why the population boom?

Our springtimes have been very mild, so [a turkey will] lay, say, 24 eggs, and 24 poults are hatching. In nature, she lays 24, and maybe 9 of them live and hatch. They do have the predators of the fox, the domestic cat, coyote, that kinda stuff. But there's really not enough predators in neighborhood areas to take the numbers down.

Why sweat the turkey census?

You start to worry about disease. Especially with the feeding you're bringing all these animals that normally don't eat together. The feed and the corn lays there, [and] you're creating parasites, because of mold and all that stuff. Turkeys, their disease that can kill them is called blackhead. It's a fungus. They can actually get it from these feeding sites. It kills them very slowly. It's a terrible, suffering death.

You responded to the turkey attack in Panther Hollow.

When I got down there, there's that street they call Little Italy, and there's bird seed. And I'm like, Oh my god. And these people actually got irate with me, because they thought I was going to take their turkey, that they feed every day.

Can a turkey hurt a person?

They'll flog you with their wings. They have such big feathers in their wings that yeah, that'll hurt. The males have the spurs on their legs. They can open you up pretty good.

How big do wild turkeys get?

They can weigh up to 30, 40 pounds. I have one over in South Park that I would just die to get. I call him Godzilla. He came around the side of this house and he was as big as their air-conditioning unit. His beard's dragging between his legs, his spurs are 3 to 4 inches long.

Does hunting help?

I know people sometimes don't want to hear that that's a way of controlling the population, but it is. When I have these population explosions in areas where they can't be hunted, then I have to [start] netting them, relocating them onto game lands, into areas that don't have a turkey population.

Are there turkey poachers?

I've had a couple calls, especially in the city, where a turkey's running around with a crossbow arrow through it. I have to put them down.

What don't people understand about wild turkeys?

They don't know that they roost in trees. They don't know that really they're only out in the daytime. They always ask me why they dig up their yards. I say, "Because you have bugs, or grubs, and they'll come in for the bird seed." They'll say, "The turkeys won't leave my backyard." And I'll say, "How many bird feeders do you have up?"

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