Other names: scrub turkey, bush turkey
Scientific name: Alectura lathami
Family: Megapodiidae (megapodes, mound-builders)
Conservation status: The Australian brush-turkey is listed as Least Concern in Queensland (Nature Conservation Act 1992) and is ranked as a low priority for conservation action under the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) Back on Track species prioritisation framework.
The brush-turkey is one of three Australian species of mound-building birds, or megapodes. The other two species are the malleefowl and the orange-footed scrubfowl.
A large bird, the brush-turkey grows to 60–75 cm long and has a wingspan of 85 cm. Males and females are a similar size. Coloured blue-black, the brush-turkey has an upright fanlike tail and grey-edged breast feathers. It has strong legs and a featherless deep red head and neck.
The male brush-turkey has a large, bright yellow wattle that hangs from its neck, while the female's is smaller and paler. Chicks don't look much like their parents, as they're small, plump birds with rich brown feathers. They grow fast, and within a few months a chick will have the dull blue-black plumage and the characteristic upright tail. Its head and neck will have become a featherless rich pink.
Habitat and distribution
The Australian brush-turkey can be found from Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland south to Wollongong in NSW, having extended its southern distribution in the last few decades. It lives in rainforests near the coast and in drier scrubs further inland. They spend most of their time on the ground but roost in trees at night.
While naturally shy in the bush and spending most of its time alone, in the suburbs the species has become used to people and is regularly seen in groups. For the brush-turkey to survive in urban areas, people must respect its natural behaviour. With proper precaution, brush-turkeys can live in urban areas while people maintain a backyard garden.
Life history and behaviour
The brush-turkey will breed at any time of the year, but most breeding occurs from September to December.
The male brush-turkey builds a mound of plant litter and soil, adding or removing material to keep it at a constant temperature of 33 degrees Celsius. A mound is usually about 2–4 m across and 1 m high.
The male spends many hours each day building and maintaining his mound. He will defend his mound and will only allow a female onto it when he thinks it's the right temperature.
The number of females that lay eggs in the mound and the number of times they visit depends on his skill in keeping the mound at the right temperature. If the mound is the right temperature, females will return many times to mate and lay eggs.
A brush-turkey will take a large mouthful of the mound to check whether it's at the right temperature. They have highly accurate heat sensors inside their upper bill. When the temperature is too high, the male will rake material off the top layer to allow heat to escape. If the temperature is too low, the male will heap more material onto the mound to build its insulation. Watching a brush-turkey build and take care of its mound is fascinating and gives suburban dwellers an insight into the life of a unique Australian animal.
Up to 24 eggs are put into holes about half a metre deep in the mound and then covered. The male brush-turkey keeps watch while the eggs incubate, making sure the temperature is just right and keeping any predators at bay. After approximately 50 days the chicks hatch and are immediately independent.
Introduced predators, goannas, snakes and in-ground swimming pools all make life hard for young brush-turkeys and the mortality rate is high. The chance of an egg becoming an adult brush-turkey is as little as one in 200!
While brush-turkeys may look slow while scratching among leaves looking for food, they can move fast when disturbed. They eat insects, native fruits and seeds. Adult birds feed throughout the day, while young birds forage in the pre-dawn light and in the twilight to avoid predators.
While generally a quiet bird, the brush-turkey sometimes makes soft grunts. Males have a deep three-noted booming call.
The Australian brush-turkey is threatened by habitat destruction. Its preferred habitat of rainforest has largely disappeared from many areas in Queensland, and is under continuing threat. In some areas of its pre-European settlement range, the bird is locally extinct.
While brush-turkeys are prominent in some urban areas, it appears that breeding success is very poor in suburbia compared to natural habitat. Brush-turkeys living in urban areas may not contribute to the species’ long-term survival.
Introduced predators such as domestic cats and dogs, and foxes have an impact, especially on younger birds.
The Australian brush-turkey is fully protected in Queensland. Management of its natural habitat and respect for the bird is important if the brush-turkey is to continue to have a secure future.
How can you help?
The brush-turkey is now accepted by most people as a part of the backyard birdlife.
As gardening styles have moved away from having large areas of lawn, many people have created a backyard environment similar to the brush-turkey's preferred natural habitat - dense trees and plants, mulched garden beds, and plenty of moisture. However brush-turkeys can be fairly destructive to a garden and a landscaped garden can be stripped of small plants and mulch by a male brush-turkey in less than a day!
Follow these simple steps to make your garden brush-turkey-proof:
- Plan new gardens with brush-turkeys in mind.
- Avoid doing any planting near an existing mound.
- Put new plants in the ground in late summer after the main mound-building period (August–December) has finished for the year.
- Use tree guards on newly planted, valuable or vulnerable plants.
- Lay chicken wire over mulched beds and secure it well with stakes and rocks.
- Try to encourage a mound site away from valued gardens, by providing mulch in an area of heavy shade where there is one or more large tree nearby.
- Use heavy coverings such as rocks and large gravel over standard garden mulch.
- Don't try to destroy a mound or chase a brush-turkey away. This will be totally ineffective. The male brush-turkey's drive to build a mound is irrepressible.
- Don't feed brush-turkeys. Let them find their own food.
EHP licenses bird relocators who can capture and relocate male brush-turkeys in circumstances where it can be shown that the presence of the mound is a threat to human health and wellbeing or is causing financial loss. A fee will usually be charged, and the welfare of any eggs in the mound will need to be considered by the relocator. Please consider that neighbours may enjoy having a brush-turkey nearby, and it must be remembered that if a male is removed, the resulting ‘vacancy’ may be quickly filled by another male. To contact a bird relocator please refer to the Yellow Pages.