Let’s start with a little controversy
I love brush turkeys.
Ask about brush turkeys here and you’ll get an eye-rolling response. Like raccoons in Toronto or foxes in London, brush turkeys are called pests but these natives are reclaiming the city.
Many Australians think this big rainforest bird is ugly, stupid and a scavenging nuisance who removes flower beds and strips vegetable gardens.
Not me. And not Associate Professor Darryl Jones, an urban ecologist at Griffith University. Jones has been been studying the Australian brush turkey (Alectura lathami), also known as the scrub or bush turkey, for three decades. We’re wandering around the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mount Coot-tha, looking for these megapodes.
This big bird with a featherless red head is admired overseas by scientific types yet it’s belittled here.
Wait a minute. This is the only bird that can fly on the first day of life; it has flourished in cities despite the odds; it has figured out how to use nature to incubate its eggs like reptiles do; and it’s probably got the longest breeding season of any bird on the planet, according to Jones.
And people call them pests?
Brush turkeys live on the east coast of New South Wales and Queensland. They belong to the megapode family which has been in Australia for 50 million years. They’re protected by law and called megapodes because they use nature to incubate their eggs. In Australia, they build mounds, not nests.
The Australian male is the mound champion. Using his feet, he rakes about 4 tonnes of leaves, moist earth and forest debris into one place. That’s the equivalent of a small car. By the time the male is ready to entice females to inspect the mound, it’s about a metre high and up to 5 metres across.
Not only that, but the male brush turkey looks after his mound, testing the temperature by taking a mouthful with his beak, then removing or adding debris to make sure it stays at 33 degrees celsius. If the female is happy with his work she has her way with him. Then she abandons her large egg at the bottom of the compost heap, leaving the male in charge and goes off to find the next male. I’m impressed.
Don’t worry. The male still gets to have fun. Males and females are promiscuous.
I feel sorry for the fluffy chicks. Unlike raccoon cubs in Toronto and fox pups in London, brush turkey chicks have lots of predators and no parental protection. The quail-sized hatchlings spend about two days digging their way to the surface of the mound, only to be frightened off by their father who doesn’t recognize them. Now you see why the chicks need to be able to fly from day one. Still, only 1 out of 200 eggs survive to adulthood.
Despite the odds, brush turkeys are moving into new urban post codes and baffling the experts. Jones, whose research focuses on how wildlife adapts to urban environments, says brush turkeys don’t fit the normal characteristics of successful urban birds.
”They’re too big. They’re too vulnerable. All their chicks should be eaten by cats. There are too many reasons why they shouldn’t be successful and yet they are,’’ Jones says.In the last 30 years, turkeys have moved from the outskirts of Brisbane into the suburbs and gardens. They have been seen, in increasing numbers, in northern Sydney.
At Mount Coot-tha there are 30 or 40 brush turkeys so I’m going to come back later to watch for new chicks. If there’s enough rain, the breeding season could go from May to February.
I’m also going to keep an eye on the three brush turkeys that hang out on our street and in my garden. They’re moulting now but sometime in May they should start tending their mounds.
I understand why people don’t want this ancient bird building car-sized mounds in small city lots, but let’s face it, they were here first.
Megapodes have been here 50 million years. When will they belong?