April 19, 2016
With more than 321 million people living in the United States, it is inevitable that populations would spill outside the lines of urban boundaries. It was not too long ago the differences between those that lived in rural areas and urban areas were quite distinct.
But suburbia is creating a new grey area, with its own set of rules, including when it comes to hunting and recreation.
Many animals, such as deer, geese, squirrels, coyotes and even turkeys, are flourishing in gated communities, subdivisions, golf courses, municipal parks and soccer fields.
While early suburban dwellers marveled at the antics of deer browsing in yards that wonder soon turned to contempt when those same deer uprooted gardens, ate thousands of dollars of landscaping and ended up putting a nice dent in the family minivan!
Turkeys are slowly losing their welcome in suburbia as well, as those cute poults grow into flocks of aggressive jakes that pick fights with the family dog, peck at mail carriers and bully children waiting for the bus. Flocks of turkeys are roosting in backyard trees, leaving piles of scat and staking claims near bird feeders.
Slowly, suburban deer hunting rules and regulations were approved in a number of communities across the Midwest and Northeast to control the exploding urban/suburban deer population.
With turkey flocks adapting and growing in the margins of commuter soccer-mom heaven, hunters need to learn the rules both written and unwritten when pursuing a lawn-loving gobbler.
Suburban Turkey Hunting
To start, you need to understand that even being outside the city limits doesn't necessarily mean that you can discharge a firearm. Similar to cities, many suburban areas have adopted regulations that may limit the ability to hunt with a firearm, so hunters may be restricted to archery options.
Always check with local authorities before assuming a shotgun, bow or another item is okay and pay special attention to the wording of the local ordinances as to the discharge of a firearm. These regulations typically apply to guns, but may mean anything that shoots a projectile, including bows, bb-guns, blowguns and even slingshots.
Even if a shotgun is legal in the area, local authorities may still charge you with creating a public nuisance or violating noise ordinances. It pays to do your homework by meeting with the local homeowner associations, law enforcement and maybe the neighborhood watch to ask/answer questions, assure them you are a legal and ethical hunter and openly communicate your presence in their neighborhood.
If all parties involved acknowledge your presence, you are not a nuisance. Some communities will welcome you with open arms if turkeys have become a nuisance, while others may require simple assurance and explanation to alleviate concerns.
Additionally, you will likely be hunting near occupied structures, so understanding the minimum legal distance to discharge a bow or firearm is important. Minimum distances vary widely among states and may be as close as 50 yards with a bow in Pennsylvania to more than 200 yards in Iowa for any firearm.
Exceptions are typically allowed if you have permission from the landowner. A laser range finder will help with distance issues, especially if hunting near a neighbor's barn, shed or home.
At the same time, turkeys do not recognize boundaries, and are likely to cross a lot of properties in a compact neighborhood. If a wounded bird lands on the other side of the line, ask permission of the landowner to retrieve it. In some states, a conservation officer may retrieve game if you are refused permission.
Communication and permission are keys to a successful hunt. Be professional in conduct, appearance and actions. One good experience and endorsement from a homeowner may open many future opportunities. Represent hunters in a good way and you may change a lot of people's minds about the role of hunting in urban/suburban areas.
Now having permission to hunt one property in a neighborhood does not allow you to enter, cut across or trespass on other properties. Since suburban hunting is typically on smaller properties (10 acres or less), be sure to clearly identify the boundaries with the landowner.
Also consider obtaining written permission, in case he or she is out the day a misunderstanding neighbor calls the police.
Conducting courtesy visits could prevent that from happening and provide valuable insight about the area and the wildlife. Bring the landowner if possible to provide an endorsement and communicate about your hunting schedule, so they are not alarmed when a mysterious vehicle pulls in before dawn and an armed person sneaks into the woods.
It will also alleviate any law enforcement issues when your shotgun blast wakes up the rest of the neighborhood. While the sound of an early morning shotgun blast to you may mean your neighbor or buddy just bagged a bird, not everyone in suburbia interprets it that way and may call the police out of fear that something is amiss.
Another possible hurdle are suburbanites that consider turkeys to be pets and are watching them like a TV show. Often they are the reason turkeys have become a nuisance because they are feeding the birds, and are likely the ones to cause you trouble, particularly if you are loose with the rules. Social media has given people great power, often in defiance of the truth, in the court of public opinion. Remember Cecil the lion?
Proceed with caution under these circumstances, as many suburbanites did not grow up around firearms and hunting. They may not allow you to hunt their land and even voice a negative opinion about hunting, which is their right. There is no convincing a hard-core animal rights follower that what you are doing is good for conservation and wildlife; the best you can do is keep activities professional and conversations courteous and non-confrontational.
Most folks approve of hunting by others but choose to not participate themselves. However, one bad interaction could push them to believe the false stereotypes portrayed by media. At the same time, a discussion with a polite and informed hunter could provide opportunities down the road.
Know what is legal and always take the high moral ground. If a neighbor crosses the line and actually interferes with a legal hunt, know that all states have hunter harassment laws. Keep calm, call a wildlife officer and document as much as possible.
A phone's video capability may be the best evidence when a neighbor intentionally honks a horn while you are working a bird, turns dogs loose to chase away your gobbler, walks around yelling or screaming, or tosses out birdseed, trying to get you in trouble for hunting near bait.
Never confront a neighbor trying to interfere with a hunt, that's the job of a conservation police officer (CPO). Stay on your side of the property and let the CPO handle the issue. It is annoying, but the last thing you need to do is lose your cool and get yourself arrested for trespassing and end your hunt, and any opportunity to hunt in the future.
Speaking of birdseed, always check with the local wildlife officer before hunting anywhere a bird feeder is present, whether on the property you hunt or a neighboring property. Most states prohibit the use of bait to attract game animals for hunting.
Some states require a minimum distance away from bait before you are legal, while others may prohibit you from hunting the flock at all if bait is present.
If turkeys are a nuisance, law enforcement may enforce an existing regulation on feeding wildlife and ask the landowner to stop feeding birds for a period of time. In those cases there may be a minimum time period of no feed on the ground, anywhere from 10 days up to four weeks, before you are clear to hunt.
One of the last things to know is while suburban turkey hunting often involves a lot more homework, time and sometimes expense than your average rural hunt, once you have the trust and approval of a neighborhood, you pretty much have unfettered access to great hunting.
Remember to always keep lines of communication open, your conduct professional and enjoy the many benefits of suburban turkey hunting — lots of gobblers and no competition from other hunters.