Brighton Supervisor Bill Moehle was tending to town business on Runnymede Road a few months ago when he spied turkeys in a nearby yard.
Turkeys are a pretty common sight in the neighborhoods between Elmwood Avenue and Westfall Road, he says. In fact, the birds are well-represented in Brighton as a whole, though nonresidents most often see them along Interstate 590 between the Winton Road exit and the Interstate 390 interchange.
Brighton may seem an unlikely sanctuary for the bird, which is native to New York but at one time had been nearly driven out of the state. Brighton is, after all, dense and developed — more commonly associated with Democratic politics and compact neighborhoods than wildlife.
But there's a reason why turkeys have trotted over to Brighton: habitat. Over the past decade or so, Brighton has bought several parcels of undeveloped land clustered in the center of town, much of it idle farm fields. The most recent addition is a 72-acre wooded area between Elmwood and Westfall; there's a sense among residents that some of the turkeys live in the woods, Moehle says.
"There must be pretty good food sources for them to be there, with little predators," says June Summers, president of the Genesee Valley Audubon Society.
Essentially, Brighton established a network of wooded and grassy areas, and the mix is appealing to turkeys, says Mike Wasilco, regional wildlife manager for the Department of Environmental Conservation. At night, the turkeys roost in large trees for protection from ground predators, he says. They look for food in the grassy areas, Wasilco says, and may also get seed from nearby neighborhoods.
While it may seem silly to get excited over flocks of turkeys, the birds illustrate an important and evolving conservation approach.
Nature groups, land trusts, and governments have long focused on protecting farmland, sensitive natural areas, and large tracts in developing suburbs. The county's big parks and preserves — places such as Mendon Ponds, Durand-Eastman, Black Creek, and Braddock Bay — are known for supporting wildlife.
But preserving smaller green spaces in dense communities and cities supports wildlife, too. Many species can find abundant food in urban areas, Wasilco says, but they also need secure places to nest and make dens. Habitat islands often provide that sort of protection.
"It gives them areas where they can get away and have some peace and quiet even with humans rather close by," Wasilco says.
Rochester and its suburbs have other examples of habitat islands that support important species.
Last year, the Nature Conservancy of Central and Western New York released a report showing that migratory birds are big users of urban-suburban habitat islands in the Rochester region. Washington Grove, a city park adjoining Cobbs Hill Park, is heavily used by the birds, it says, as is Island Cottage Woods, a Greece preserve adjacent to Braddock Bay.
And Summers, of the Audubon Society, singles out the Genesee River corridor as one of Rochester's most important urban habitats.
The area under the Pont de Rennes bridge, for example, provides refuge for deer, fox, woodchucks, and turkeys, Summers says. Rough-winged swallows live in the rocks under the Broad Street bridge, she says, darting around the area and eating insects.
And a group of black-capped night-herons, a bird that normally lives in wetlands near Lake Ontario, is nesting near the Rundel library building, Summers says. They're feeding off a population of fish in a shallow part of the river, she says.
"There's so much that lives in that river and migrates through that river, it's just incredible," Summers says. "And every little green space that's along it and through the city is used by animals."
But one of the big success stories for the Genesee River is its lake sturgeon population. Last month, the DEC, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Geological Survey released more than 1,000 sturgeon fingerlings into the river.
The release was part of a long-term effort to restore the native sturgeon; by the early 1900's the fish had basically been wiped out of Lake Ontario by overfishing and habitat degradation.
In 2003 and 2004, close to 2,000 sturgeon fingerlings were released into the river. Many of the sturgeon survived and are now approaching reproduction age, the DEC says.
But urban-suburban habitats face challenges and pressures, too.
Invasive Norway maple trees were beginning to crowd out some native vegetation in Washington Grove, so the city and volunteers removed them. Now the native plants and trees, which migrating birds depend on, have a chance to thrive.
And federal and state officials wouldn't have been able to reintroduce sturgeon into the Genesee if past pollution hadn't been cleaned up. Officials and researchers are continuing efforts to remediate industrial pollution and to locate and address sources of nutrient pollution.
In Brighton, some new construction is happening around the town's parkland cluster, and the potential for additional development remains. Town officials have worked with developers to incorporate buffers around the parks, Supervisor Moehle says, and would likely do the same on any new projects.
Officials are sensitive to the fact that animals use the parks and protected green spaces as habitat, he says. And they're aware that protecting land often benefits several species, he says. The same grassy areas that provide food for Brighton's turkeys also provide habitat for grassland birds — a group that includes bobolinks and meadowlarks — which have lost considerable habitat nationwide.
Preserving green space also gives Brighton an opportunity to add to its parks. Faith Temple Church is selling the 70-acre parcel it owns along South Winton Road, for example, and many town residents and officials see the property as a logical acquisition since it's next to Buckland Park.
The town is interested, Moehle says, but the asking price is too high right now.
Brighton officials have also heard from residents who want the land developed in order to increase the tax base. But parkland and wildlife add to the town's character, Moehle says. "Tax base is not the be-all and end-all," he says. "It's important, but it's only one factor to be considered."