Gary Bogue and his wife were having a quiet breakfast when a loud thump on the roof startled them.
“I go out and look up, and two turkeys are looking down on me,” Gary says, remembering the 2005 morning.
It was his first spotting of the wild birds at his Benicia home. As a pet/wildlife columnist for several Bay Area newspapers at the time, his readers had alerted him to flocks in Contra Costa County.
“About 15 years ago, I got an email from one of my readers in Danville saying there were four turkeys in their backyard. A little while later, 20 or more were on a cul de sac near John Muir Hospital,” he says.
Gary, who retired in 2012, knows a lot about wild turkeys and other critters that live in our backyards and open spaces: rats, squirrels, snakes, lizards, skunks, raccoons, possums, coyotes, birds, spiders and more. One of his seven books, “The Raccoon Next Door,” offers advice on getting along with wildlife. He is working on his eighth book, a children’s book about skunks.
His career with wildlife began after a stint as a milkman and selling life insurance. He was set to start a job in advertising when he was offered a post as curator at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, known then as the Alexander Lindsay Junior Museum. Working at the museum from 1967 to 1978 provided on-the-job training in wildlife. He started a wildlife rehabilitation program, among the first in the country, while there.
He began writing his column in the Contra Costa Times in 1970 as a way to promote the museum and became a full-time columnist in 1982. Readers asked him questions about their cats and dogs and what to do about wild animals often found in suburban settings. A 2004 profile in the New York Times referred to him as “the Ann Landers of California wildlife.”
Gary, 76, and his wife, Lois Kazakoff, have lived in Benicia for 26 years. They have three adult children and six grandchildren.
When did your interest in wildlife begin? When I was growing up, I collected reptiles. I had rattlesnakes and I hid them under the bed. My mom found them one day when she was cleaning, and she hit the roof.
I found a crow with a broken wing and brought it home. I kept it for many years. It learned to say “Hi.” Crows are very smart birds.
One year for Christmas, my mom gave me a five-foot boa constrictor. She knew me.
So I started learning about animals from that. The rest I learned by caring for animals at the museum, the hard way.
What animals did you work with during your years at the museum? We raised everything from mountain lions and bears to birds — every songbird you can imagine. I raised hummingbirds from hatchlings. They would fly to my finger and I’d feed them with an eyedropper. It was neat. It sends chills down your back when that happens.
Let’s talk turkey since Thanksgiving is coming up. Are turkeys native to California? They’re not natives. They were brought into California in the late 1870s by some people in the Channel Islands, I think to the Santa Cruz area. They all got blown away (making a shotgun motion with arms). Fish and Game, now Fish and Wildlife, began introducing them again early in the 20th century.
What did your readers think about finding wild turkeys in their neighborhoods? About half the people wanted to feed them and half wanted them gone. They leave a pile like a dog and eat everything from blades of grass to flowers, so they aren’t always welcome.
In the wild, they are sleek birds and fly. But in your backyard, they have plenty to eat and they get plump. Still, even the big ones can fly. They usually sleep on low branches of trees.
And the males are cuckoo. They are not the brightest birds in the bunch.
Where can wild turkeys be found locally? They move around so you can’t always find them. I used to see them in the open space behind my house, but I haven’t seen any recently. Maybe they are down at the state park.
Skunks are pretty common in Benicia. How can people avoid getting sprayed? As long as you don’t move too fast, you should be OK. I’ve had them come up and sniff my ankles when I’m watering in the evening.
They have some benefits. They eat snails, they eat slugs. If you’re a gardener, they’re helpful.
How can you prevent pets from being sprayed? Taking your dog out on a leash is a good way. Most repellants work – the sprays and powders. You can go down to Ace in the pest control area and find them there.
How do you suggest coping with squirrels in your yard? Don’t feed them. You can get bird feeders that are squirrel-resistant.
I have garden boxes in my yard that we usually plant – not this year because of the water situation. But on the opposite corners, I plant 10-foot sunflowers, Mammoth Greys, two in each box. They have big stalks and big flowers, full of seeds. Squirrels come in and feed on that and leave the rest of the garden alone.
What do you recommend for dealing with rats? Roof rats are common here and they eat fruit. They’ll eat the inside of an orange and leave the skin and eat the skin of lemons. So you can usually tell when you have roof rats if you have citrus trees.
I don’t recommend poisoning because other animals, including pets, can eat the carcasses and that poisons them. If you need to get rid of rats, trapping is best.
Raccoons are often seen locally as well. Any advice about raccoons? Don’t feed them. There’s plenty of natural food for them. They’re not starving to death.
They catch rodents and can get into your garbage cans. They can figure out how to use cat doors faster than any cat can. They’ll come in and they’ll go through your cabinets. They like Cheerios. They’re very smart.
A normal raccoon in the wild weighs about 17-18 pounds. In town, where they’re eating the same food as well do, I’ve seen them up to 50 pounds.
What can people do to attract more wildlife? Plant trees to attract birds. Build rock piles for birds and lizards, and make sure your bird feeders are not near a spot where cats can hide and pounce.
How much time do you spend out in the wild these days? As much as I can. I like to go for walks. I like to go down to the state park, and on weekends, Lois and I like to walk through the old parts of town.