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The Australian Brush-turkey – a diligent bird

Bird Photography with marysejansenart

It’s not all about the looks!

Australian Brush-turkey by Maryse Jansen
Australian Brush-turkey

Australian Brush-turkey habitat and looks

You may have noticed in my ‘Come for a walk in the Australian Bush’ videos, that I come across Australian Brush-turkeys quite regularly on my explorations of the local bushlands here in south east Queensland. But they are definitely not so common everywhere in Australia. The Brush-turkeys range along the east coast of Australia. They are common in upland rainforests and wet sclerophyll forests. In the northern part of their range they are uncommon in lowland forests, in the southern part they are more common there as well. They also have adapted to living in urban environments.

Interestingly, there are two forms of this bird: the eastern from and the northern Cape York form. The eastern form you can see in the featured image and it is the one you will recognise from my videos. It is mainly black, with some white feathers on its underparts, and has a naked red head and yellow wattles. The Cape York form has lilac coloured wattles, which are quite pretty! You may not think of a Brush-turkey as a pretty creature, but they surely are fascinating!

Australian Brush-turkey Cape York Form by Maryse Jansen
Australian Brush-turkey Cape York Form

Why do Brush-turkeys brush the forest floor?

The Brush-turkey is often called Bush-turkey, because it is mostly seen in the bush. But it’s actually called Brush-turkey for it’s behaviour of raking the forest floor with its feet. It does so for two reasons.

The first reason is that it’s looking for food. The turkeys find most of their food on the ground. Their diet consists of insects, seeds and fallen fruits. By scraping through the leaf litter, they find these favored snacks. (this behaviour can be observed in Episode #5 of ‘Come for a walk in the Australian Bush‘)

The other reason is their nest building habit. Male turkeys build mounds of leaf litter and other organic waste. They rake the forest floor with their feet to collect this material and move it backwards into a huge pile. On a local bush walking track that I regularly walk, there is a turkey busy doing this. Every week when I pass, the mound is growing. Generally these mounds are built 4m in diameter and 1.5m high. It is really impressive!

Working on the ideal temperature

I find the bird always working really hard to build, maintain and protect his mound. The pile of rotting vegetation begins to generate heat and this heat is going to be used to incubate the eggs. It is thus of the utmost importance that the temperature in the mound is just right. When the temperature is too low, the eggs won’t develop and when it’s too high … well, the eggs will be cooked! That is not what the female Australian Brush-turkey is looking for of course!

The temperature needs to be between 33 and 35 degrees Celsius. Since temperature also affects the sexes of the chicks, more fine-tuning is necessary. (This is also the case for reptiles, like the water dragon). A higher temperature in this range produces more females and a lower temperature more males. 34 Degrees is the best to get an equal ratio of male and female chicks. It is the male’s job to make sure it is optimal at all times. So he digs holes in the mound and sticks his beak in them to check the temperature. To correct it he adds or removes the organic matter.

When the ladies come around

So, every time I walk past, I catch the bird walking around on his mound, checking the temperature, raking material away from the top, or scraping around on the forest floor to collect more material to add to his pile. In the meantime he is keeping an eye out for competitors and interested ladies. I see this week after week, the process seems to be going on for many months!

The ladies will judge the male on his mound, but also on his looks. Yes, even though you may not find his looks attractive, to his female counterparts it matters after all! Especially in breeding season, when the red colour of his skin intensifies, as well as the yellow colour of his wattles. The wattles also grow substantially larger. It gives them a funny look when they run, as the wattles sway from side to side.

Several females can lay eggs in a single mound, there is plenty of room! One mound may contain a total of up to 24 eggs! A lot of the eggs will be taken by burrowing predators, such as goannas or snakes. But if they make it to hatching, the chicks will dig themselves out of the mound. They are fully feathered and can walk immediately, so are able to fend for themselves.

Within a few hours they are even able to fly, although flying is not the strongest point of the Brush-turkeys. Their flight is clumsy and only takes them over short distances, but it is good enough to escape a predator and fly up into a tree. In contrast, they are good runners. Their fan-shaped tail is flattened sideways, which makes them more aerodynamic.

Australian Brush-turkeys and people

In urban environments, the turkeys can run into conflict with people when they use their backyard to build their mound and wreck the garden in the process. They are extremely difficult to discourage once they’ve started building and they are also protected, so it is better to prevent it if it worries you. Think about their ideal habitat: a place with a lot of shade and a lot of mulch and organic litter on the ground. When your garden is sunny, has little mulch and dense ground cover which makes it hard to rake, then the turkey will probably favour another spot!

It is also best not to feed them. Not in your garden for obvious reasons as it will attract them, but also not anywhere else. They are naturally quite shy of people, but when they get used to being fed they can become quite aggressive. I have seen this sometimes at picnic spots, where they were impossible to chase away while there was food out. It doesn’t contribute to a nice picnic, so think about the people that come after you before you decide to feed your scraps to the Brush-turkeys! They will be grateful!

In my new video in the ‘Come for a walk in the Australian Bush’-series, which you can view below, we get a good close-up look at the Australian Brush-turkey. And of course we will encounter lots of other interesting things!

If you are interested in purchasing ‘Australian Brush-turkey’ or would like to see what the image looks like on the various products, please head to my shop.

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