Growing up in Sydney, I have memories of seeing brush turkeys regularly on bushwalks in my local area. I have fond memories of my grandfathers being frustrated every time one would build a mound in their immaculate gardens! Brush turkeys are, in my mind, a dime a dozen, and definitely not something I want in my backyard.
So imagine my bafflement when I was writing a report recently and noted an endangered population of brush turkeys in my new local area of Tamworth! That can’t be right!
That sent me down an internet rabbit hole, I don’t mind telling you. The Australian brush turkey, Alectura lathami, is widespread along the east coast of Australia from as far north as Cape York to as far south as Eurobodalla. Brush turkeys are in the megapode family, because of their mega-sized feet. They favour rainforests and wet sclerophyll forests but are still found in drier scrubs. They are large birds with a wingspan of up to 85cm. They are largely black, with scalloping on the chest feathers, a bald red head, and yellow wattles (the dangly bits under their necks). They can fly, but – not very well. They are predominantly ground-dwelling. The main food source is insects, seeds and fallen fruit.
Brush turkeys don’t sit on their nest to incubate their eggs. Instead, they build large mound nests on the ground (aka, the bane of my grandfather’s immaculate gardens). These are made up of leaf litter and other compostable material and can be quite large – a metre high and up to 4m wide. For context, that’s as big as my first car. The mound is in use from August to February.
The composting mound generates heat, and this incubates the eggs. The male will add or remove material to make it warmer or cooler for the eggs. Too cool, and the eggs won’t hatch. Too warm, and they would cook! Females lay about 20 eggs a year. The chicks look similar to a quail and hatch fully-fledged. They can fly as soon as their feathers dry, and are independent from day dot – the dad will chase them away from the nest in the same way he would a goanna trying to steal his eggs. This makes the discovery of a popular albino brush turkey in Noosa all the more remarkable because the chick had no camouflage!
Speaking of cooking, in the 1930s during the Great Depression brush turkeys were used for meat and eggs, drastically reducing populations. Indigenous Australians have eaten the bird, and more commonly their eggs, for centuries (without harming populations). Populations have recovered well since the 1930s, and in New South Wales shooting a brush turkey has resulted in fines of up to A$22,000 under the Biodiversity Conservation Act.
In fact, in some areas, the population has recovered a little too well. The rainforest birds have adapted amazingly well to suburban life, with numbers in both Sydney and Brisbane booming. This is the subject of research being conducted by Taronga Zoo in conjunction with the University of Sydney, and you can help by reporting sightings through the Big City Birds app (or website if that is more your jam). Even if you are seeing the same tagged bird in the same place each day, they still want to know about it. This information helps researchers to understand population dynamics, movement patterns and social behaviour.
“But Bon, I thought you said they were endangered” I hear you say (I’m sure you weren’t but let me have this small win please). Overall, brush turkeys are not endangered. But the local (Nandewarand Brigalow Belt) population is! An endangered population is a group of native animals (or plants) that is likely to become extinct locally in the near future. There are 50 threatened populations of varying species in NSW, under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016. A population is only listed as threatened or endangered if the species itself is not already listed.
Now I know that many people, including my grandfathers, view brush turkeys as a nuisance. So, why should you care if a population is endangered? Beyond the obvious concerns with loss of biodiversity, of course. Brush turkeys are great! In the areas that they scratch up looking for insects and worms, they also help to break up larger pieces of organic matter and mix them into the soil, increasing soil organic content and thus soil health. This also assists with reducing the fuel load for hot ground fires, a really essential service in Australia.
On top of this fantastic service, once the chicks have left the nest the leftover mound gives you perfectly mature compost to spread back over your garden (I know I KNOW you already mulched and they scratched it up, I KNOW). Most mounds will be abandoned by the end of February, but you can be sure it is abandoned when you see seedlings popping up on the top. As a bonus, who doesn’t love seeing nature and wildlife in their backyard?
However, if you find yourself chasing them off with a broom, like my beloved grandfathers did, there are a few things you can do to help protect your gardens. First and foremost, don’t leave food out and aim to reduce food sources. Suburban brush turkeys are quite the scavengers given half an opportunity, so this includes food scraps for chooks and bowls of food for dogs and cats. Tree guards can be used to protect valuable or vulnerable plants during mound-building season, and if needed you can try to encourage your new resident to put their mound out of the way by providing a mulched area of heavy shade, ideally with large trees nearby. Cover your compost heaps, and piles of leaf litter or spare mulch with a tarp to discourage access. Low growing native ground covers can be a great alternative to mulch, which won’t encourage the brush turkeys as much. Alternatively, rocks and gravel can be used. Once a mound is established, it is better to embrace your new tenant and look forward to watching the chicks pop out. You can discourage them from returning next year by removing shade from the area, making it harder for them to keep the nest at a steady temperature.