The brush turkey is 1 of 3 Australian species of mound-building birds, or megapodes. The other 2 species are the malleefowl and the orange-footed scrubfowl.
A large bird, the brush turkey grows to 60–75cm long and has a wingspan of 85cm. 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 flap of skin that hangs from its neck, while the female has a smaller and paler wattle. 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 to south Wollongong in NSW, having extended its habitat south in the last few decades. They live in rainforests near the coast and in drier scrub further inland. They spend most of their time on the ground but roost in trees at night.
While naturally shy in the bush and most of its time alone, in the suburbs, the species has become used to people and is regularly seen in groups. For brush turkeys to survive in urban areas, people must respect their natural behaviour. With a little planning, brush turkeys and people can happily coexist.
Life 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 °C. A mound is usually about 2–4m across and 1m 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 has highly accurate heat sensors inside their upper bill. They will take a large mouthful of the mound to check whether it's at the right temperature. 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 people living in the suburbs 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 is as little as one in 200.
While brush turkeys may look slow when 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 pre-dawn light and in twilight to avoid predators.
Generally a quiet bird, the brush turkey sometimes makes soft grunts. Males have a deep 3-noted booming call.
Threats to brush turkeys
Brush turkeys are threatened by habitat destruction. Their preferred habitat of rainforest has largely disappeared from many areas in Queensland, and is under continuing threat. The bird is locally extinct in some areas where it used to live before Europeans settled in Australia.
While brush turkeys are prominent in some urban areas, breeding success is very low there compared to their natural habitat. Brush turkeys living in urban areas may not contribute to the long-term survival of the species.
Introduced predators such as domestic cats and dogs, and foxes have an impact, especially on younger birds.
Protecting the species
The brush turkey is fully protected in Queensland. Management of its natural habitat and respect for the bird is important if it is to survive.
How can you help?
The brush turkey is now accepted by most people as a part of the backyard birdlife.
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 trees nearby
- use heavy coverings such as rocks and large gravel instead of standard garden mulch
- don't try to destroy a mound or chase a brush turkey away. This will be ineffective—the male brush turkey's drive to build a mound is irrepressible
- don't feed brush turkeys. Let them find their own food.
Relocating brush turkeys
If a mound becomes threatening to human health and wellbeing, or is causing financial loss, a licensed bird relocator can capture and relocate male brush turkeys. The relocator will usually charge a fee for their service. They will also consider the welfare of any eggs in the mound before relocating the bird.
Before you call a bird relocator consider that:
- your neighbours may enjoy having a brush turkey nearby
- if a male is removed, the resulting ‘vacancy’ may be quickly filled by another male.