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Garden City man fights ticket for turkey who moved into his backyard

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Garden City resident Mark Johnston, 45, says this wild turkey showed up in his backyard about eight months ago and has refused to leave.

Garden City — Mark Johnston’s wife had just left him in March when he was visited by a stranger who refused to leave. Stranger still, the guest was a gargantuan turkey.

The 30-pound butterball, who moved into the backyard, was unbidden but not unwelcomed. Johnston, who had been married nine years, liked the company. And he may not have been the only one with a tender heart.

Before moving in, the turkey was seen around the neighborhood with a hen. Now he was flying solo.

“I have no kids. I’m in the middle of a divorce. I have no one at home,” said Johnston, 45, a tow truck driver. “He kinda keeps me company. It gives me something to come home to.”

That might have been the end of the tale, a sweet-but-strange saga of two lonely hearts finding each other.

Alas, Garden City, like most municipalities, doesn’t allow residents to keep wild animals as pets. It fined Johnston $100 for harboring a gobbler. Adding insult to injury, it charged him another $100 for having a messy yard.

But Johnston said the turkey wasn’t a pet. He doesn't let it in the house. Even if he wanted to get rid of it, a state agency prohibits the moving of a wild animal unless it poses a problem.

The city eventually dropped the turkey ticket but still made Johnston pay $100 for dumping brush at his curb, which he wouldn’t have done if the city hadn’t warned him about having an overgrown lot, which the city had done to get rid of the turkey.

But why quibble?

With the poultry offense dismissed, the lovebirds got to stay together. Love triumphed over City Hall. Who knew the state had a thing for romance?

The dalliance may not rise to the level of Bogart and Bacall, or even a hill of beans, but it’s a love story nonetheless, an ornithological one at that.

“It’s crazy. (But) if the turkey likes it and the guy likes it, leave them alone,” said neighbor Sandi Canning.

The squatter first came a-squawking in January.

Johnston saw strange footprints in his snow-covered yard. He’s a hunter but didn’t recognize the tracks. Hearing a noise behind the garage, he walked back to spy a hulking turkey and smaller hen under the wooden deck of his pool.

The couple continued visiting several times a week, hopping over the chain link fence, staying a spell and then jumping back over.

The turkey apparently liked what he saw. He returned in March, sans the hen, and turned Johnston’s back yard into his own Airbnb domicile.

“He just said I’m staying here,” Johnston said.

Maybe he liked the yard’s overgrowth, said wildlife biologists.

Maybe he was looking for food and love, not necessarily in that order. Turkeys begin to court in early spring, the biologists said.

Maybe he was attracted to the first syllable of Johnston’s street, Hennepin.

“They’re looking for safe places to be in the summer,” said William Porter, a wildlife conservation professor at Michigan State University. “They’re used to seeing people. They recognize humans as just another piece of the landscape."

Turkeys are highly adaptable, said Porter, who has studied the animal for 46 years. All they need is a tree to sleep in and enough space to strut about.

They’re also social creatures. They aren’t scared of people and, in fact, may try to intimidate them. They follow a pecking order where the fearful are relegated to the bottom — and that includes humans.

"Turkey" hangs out in the side yard.

Drawing a crowd

If any of this sounds familiar, “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, described a man who, mourning the loss of his wife, is visited in the winter by a bird that refuses to leave. But, instead of croaking “nevermore,” the turkey just gobbles.

He isn’t as famous as the talking bird but may be getting there.

Motorists stop their cars and take pictures. Kids walk up to the fence and cluck at him. One dad said his son makes gobbling noises all day long.

During the school year, a bus stopped by every morning to let passengers watch him.

“You would think my backyard was a petting zoo,” Johnston said.

The mottled brown turkey mostly ignores his fans. He waddles through the yard, foraging for nuts or bugs. He nibbles on grass and shrubs. Sometimes he sits in the shade or hides in weeds, his lumpy head poking above the leaves.

He ate all the goldfish in a backyard pond. Johnston also noticed he hasn’t seen any mice since his tenant’s arrival.

Lucy and Sammy, Johnston’s cat and Westiepoo, steer clear of their bigger roommate, who hasn't been given a name.

Johnston said he doesn’t feed his ungainly guest, but city officials said he told them in April he fed the turkey and opened his garage to him.

Wild turkeys can be a nuisance but Johnston’s neighbors don’t have a problem with the interloper. He might clatter at a passing car but isn’t too noisy, they said.

Manda Williams said her children have taken photos of the celebrity.

“He doesn’t bother anyone,” Williams said. “You don’t even know it’s there unless you drive by and happen to see it.”

The residential neighborhood, which is a mile from several patches of woods, attracts a variety of wild animals, including ducks and hawks. A resident saw a deer walking down the sidewalk in the middle of the night, like a straggler from a late-night party.

When Kim Billington visits her parents in the neighborhood, she’s awakened most mornings by the cry of a peacock.

“It makes its little peacock sounds at sunrise,” she said. “No one complains. They just enjoy all its sweet little splendor.”

'It doesn't make sense'

The city was doing a blight crackdown in April when the code enforcement officer visited Johnston.

He issued a warning that said the backyard had debris, a dilapidated pool and was completely covered with brush.

Something else caught his eye.

“I noticed you have a turkey,” said the officer, Angelo DiMichele.

“It’s not my turkey,” Johnston said.

The officer took photos and video of the offending fowl.

City officials weren’t trying to be hurtful in criticizing Johnston’s yard. They said the overgrowth encouraged the turkey to stay because it looked like his natural habitat.

The city also wanted the homeowner to stop feeding the bird and letting him stay in his garage during inclement weather.

“This is not the city being a mean guy,” said City Manager Doc Dougherty. “If there’s no food or nesting area, it would probably leave. Turkeys don’t stay in the middle of a city neighborhood. It doesn’t make sense.”

After three warnings in three months, the city ticketed Johnston for the turkey and brush in June. It later dropped the first citation after talking to the state Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR told The Detroit News a wild animal can be moved only if it’s a nuisance or a threat.

The city is talking to the DNR about removing the bird. But because he’s not posing a problem, there’s little the state can do, said Holly Vaughn, a spokeswoman for DNR’s wildlife division.

“He’s not holding it captive,” Vaughn said. “Technically, it’s a wild turkey and is free to go where he wants.”

After Johnston received the citations, he announced what was happening on his Facebook page.

Respondents were not pleased with the city.

“Petty petty petty!” wrote Kim Kean of Kalamazoo. “Go do some real police work!”

And, social media being social media, some offered helpful suggestions.

“Give me till Thanksgiving,” said Nathan Pickert of Plymouth. “I’ll give him a new home.”

"Turkey" hangs out in the side yard.

No longer a hunter

With his wife’s departure, Johnston’s house was empty for the first time in nine years. He avoided going there, preferring to hang out at a friend’s home.

After the turkey moved in, however, Johnston said he looked forward to coming home.
Even if he has just a few minutes between his job and technical school, he’ll go home, grab a cup of coffee and sit in the backyard with the animal.

“I’ll say, 'Hi, Mr. Turkey,' ” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, he can stay here as long as he wants.”

The bird is apparently unaware his landlord is an avid turkey hunter. But that’s in the past, said Johnston. Now that he has gotten to know his former prey, he will no longer hunt him and his cousins.

As the homeowner sits in his yard, the turkey sometimes approaches and slowly circles him, staying a foot or two away.

Once, when Johnston got too close, the bird pecked him on the forearm.
Maybe he knew about the hunting, after all.


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell