Brisbane Rainforest Action & Information Network


The Australian Bush-turkey loses favour with Urban Cultivators

In the suburbs, Alex Hajkowicz is finding that living with our native fauna can be a mixed blessing

Australian Bush-turkey
Australian Bush-turkey
The Australian Brush-turkey (scrub turkey, brush-turkey, wild turkey) Alectura lathami is a large indigenous megapode which inhabits rainforest, including dry scrubs, from Cape York Peninsula south along the coast to about the Hawkesbury River in NSW. It is uncommon westwards of the Great Dividing Range. Despite losing a colossal amount of habitat since European settlement began, this interesting bird persists in the Brisbane region. It has also become prominent amongst the fauna of certain National Parks in the vicinity of eating areas. It has always been an issue for gardeners, plant propagators and regenerators, but recent observations by the current author suggest that it can pose a serious problem, deserving of closer attention.

I guess I was just lucky that the scrub-turkeys which live in my area (west Taringa) did not savage my earlier plantings of local natives from 1994 to 1997. A neighbour over the road, who was trying to plant Australian native rainforest plants in her backyard (mostly under an established canopy), had problems with them right from the beginning. Everything she planted was dug up, and not even a ring of standard bricks placed around the new seedlings was enough to prevent the birds from frustrating her efforts.

At the time I was renting a house in Indooroopilly, adjacent to "Ferny Gully". Our household gave up trying to control a resident male turkey, which determinedly raked up all the leaves from underneath two mango trees, and assembled them into a big pile underneath a guava tree. The resulting mound was so large that it eventually over-topped the dividing fence and spread into the yard next door. We affectionately called that turkey "Trevor" (after the builder who helped us out).

Recently, however, I'm not as charitable towards this creature as I have been. This is because one of the three brush-turkeys which frequent the block of land I am trying to restore had a go at the side of one of my unprotected foam boxes (leaving bits of foam everywhere), and then somehow turfed out a score of plants, scattering tubes and pots on their sides. If this wasn't enough to cause an outrage then this particular bird pulled a number of plants out of their pots, freed the roots of potting mix, and literally left the unfortunate seedlings to die. By the time I discovered all this it was too late for several plants, which were desiccated.

When I had a more thorough look around the garden I realised that virtually everything I had planted in the last two years had been uprooted. There were conspicuous holes next to stakes and usually no trace of the missing plant. Seeing a lot of hard work undone I went to consult my friend over the road.

Having talked to more people about it I am sorry to conclude that there is no simple solution at this stage. Brush-turkeys have powerful legs and use them to rake and dig quite often. An effective method of denying brush-turkeys access to plants would be to enclose vulnerable plant(s) in strong chicken wire. Obviously this may not constitute a practical solution where large numbers of plants are involved. I intend to try out heavier concrete bricks, but do not know how successful these will be. People have suggested "dummy" predators, such as large rubber snakes (a long carpet python would be interesting), but I suspect that brush-turkeys, like crows, would not be fooled for too long.

It appears to me that this bird is a relatively intelligent animal. My friend commented that she had never seen any sign of a brush-turkey being hit on the roads. I haven't either (though it may occur) and have to say that they seem to have more traffic sense than local mammals and reptiles. I recall observing one crossing Finney Road in Indooroopilly a couple of years ago. It walked out of a thicket in front of the scout den there, paused, checked, and then sprinted across what is a busy road, head down low. Once safely in the park on the other side it slowed down and resumed its normal pace and posture, descending nonchalantly into Ferny Gully.

Even more of a nuisance than its intelligence, though, is the brush-turkey's boldness. A number of people have surprised birds (usually males) in their own homes, usually in kitchens and laundries. One got cornered underneath our house once and became very agitated as we tried to usher it out. Even in the process of typing up this article, I was distracted by a male bird pecking at the foam boxes in which I keep my pots. I left the computer and chased it off, but I have no doubt it will return. I am hoping to "de-condition" it so it will leave my boxes alone.

What motivates brush-turkeys is difficult to be sure of, but food seems to be a theme common to much of their activity. Perhaps they dig up plants in search of nutritional bulbs or roots. Maybe they are searching for insect larvae, pupae or other animal prey. One person with whom I spoke commented that she thought they "nipped" thin stems in order to taste test the plant in question. Whatever the impetus, their behaviour with respect to young plant seedlings frequently leads to damage if not mortality. Established plants seem a lot less vulnerable.

Like almost all native Australian birds the brush-turkey is a protected species. Their ecological niche is not fully understood at this time, so eradication is inadvisable. If brush-turkeys are causing a lot of trouble which cannot be controlled then you can contact the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service at Moggill (3202 0200) for advice regarding a Damage Mitigation Permit. The current author was sent a useful wildlife information leaflet by the QPWS but did not find the staff there very sympathetic to the notion that wildlife could compromise the welfare of human beings.

Upon looking up this species in the Queensland Museum's Wildlife of Greater Brisbane (p. 220), I was alerted to Dr Darryl Jones of Griffith University. He kindly sent me copies of some of his papers, which I will list here for anyone who's really interested. Like many of us he may be very busy with his work so should you want them please try to find these articles in a library which should hold them (eg. The State Library of Queensland or a university biological sciences library). The QPWS has produced an A4 leaflet containing information on brush-turkeys, called "Talking Turkey: Australian Brush Turkey".

Perhaps my digressions will start a discussion. If anyone has useful observations or suggestions, then please feel free to share them

References

Jones, D.N. (1994) Reproduction without parenthood: Male tactics and female choice in a promiscuous bird. Animal Societies 29: 135-46.
Jones, D.N. (1990) Male mating tactics in a promiscuous megapode: patterns of incubation mound ownership. Behavioral Ecology 1: 107-15.
Jones, D.N. (1990) Social organization and sexual interactions in Australian Brush-turkeys (Alectura lathami): Implications of promiscuity in a mound building megapode. Ethology 89-104.
Jones, D.N. (1988) Hatching success of the Australian Brush-turkey Alectura lathami in South-east Queensland. Emu 88:260-2. [short communications]
Jones, D.N. (1987) Selection of incubation mound sites by the Australian Brush-turkey Alectura lathami. Ibis 130:
251-60.
Jones, D.N. and Birks, S. (1992) Megapodes: Recent ideas on origins, adaptations and reproduction. TREE 7(3):
88-91.
Jones, D.N. and Everding, S.E. (1991) Australian Brush-turkeys in a suburban environment: Implications for conflict and conservation. Wildlife Research 18: 285-97.
Jones, D., Everding, S. and Nattras, R. (1993) Suburban brush-turkeys. Managing conflict with recalcitrant mound-builders. Wingspan 11(3): 20-21.