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Australian brush turkey: a national treasure

Article and images by Julie O'Connor, senior conservation partnerships officer, Sunshine Coast Council

I love brush turkeys and I’m not the only one. A writer in the Australian Town and Country Journal 13 Aug 1881 enthused:

“The Australian scrub turkey, though far smaller than the noble American bird is still well worth careful stalking, for it is the best flavoured bird in Australia, and weighs from 4 to 5 pounds.”

OK, so that’s a different type of love, but I actually do love these industrious little megapodes and I’ve always wished that one of the occasional visitors to my garden would stay and construct one of their magnificent nest mounds. Sure, I get it that their lack of respect for garden edge boundaries and recent plantings might be slightly annoying, but the trade-off is the miraculous emergence of multiple baby turkeys that can go forth (if fate favours them) to form part of the fascinating ecological network of urban wildlife.

The brush turkey (Alectura lathami) is one of only 3 Australian birds that builds a nesting mound to incubate its eggs. The male not only constructs the mound but also maintains it at a suitable temperature and vigorously defends it against intruders.

The mound is made up of leaf litter and other organic matter scraped into a pile around 4m in diameter and 1-1.5m high. Litter is usually gathered from within a 20-30m radius but in urban areas brush turkeys have been known to gather garden mulch from several backyards in the vicinity of the mound. During incubation the male regularly tests the temperature of the nest by sticking its head into the mound in several ‘test’ sites before removing or adding organic material as needed.

Several females in the family group can lay their eggs in the mound when the temperature has reached around 33ºC. Usually around 18 eggs, but sometimes as many as 50, can be laid in a single mound. The eggs that survive predation by goannas and other predators will hatch after 50 days and the newly emerged chicks dig their way out of the nest unaided. Although they look like defenceless little fluff balls, as you can see in the video, the chicks can run immediately after emergence and fly within a few hours.

Many people have stories about the unshakable site fidelity of brush turkeys once they have decided on the perfect position for their nest mound. One of the best I have heard relates to a former work colleague who lived in the leafy Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly. It’s not an understatement to say that Derek hated brush turkeys almost as much as I love them. Over a number of years, despite deploying a disturbing arsenal of weapons and deterrents to dislodge one persistent turkey from his garden, the determined bird failed to take the hint that he wasn’t welcome. It soon became well known in his neighbourhood that the turkey was such a major source of consternation to Derek that it was a likely factor in his reliance on blood pressure medication. As congenial as Derek was with his work colleagues, the cranky streak that put him at odds with the turkey also led him into an ongoing minor feud over various issues with his neighbour, Bob, across the road. Eventually the frustrated, and perhaps equally cranky, Bob, hit on the perfect revenge. After Derek left for work one morning Bob started spring cleaning. He gathered every piece of waste and debris that a turkey would be capable of moving and created a pile on his nature strip that rivalled the height of his low front fence. As Derek reached the top of his street that afternoon he was greeted by a glorious trail of bottle caps, pen lids, dog poo, lolly wrappings, and you name it…stretching right across the road from Bob’s nature strip to Derek’s front garden, where the turkey was enthusiastically incorporating the treasures into a magnificent new nest mound.

The moral of the story? Just relax and embrace the precious urban wildlife we are sharing space with… and think twice before starting a feud with an ingenious neighbour.

Further reading:

  • Jones, D. and Goth, A., 2008, Mound-Builders, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.