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The Australian Brush-turkey: A Fascinating Mound-Building Bird

Brush turkey

Explore the Habitats and Distribution of the Brush Turkey

The Australian brush-turkey (Alectura lathami), also known as the scrub turkey or bush turkey, is a captivating bird species native to eastern Australia. As a member of the Megapodiidae family, this large bird is known for its unique nesting behavior and distinctive appearance.

THE MOUND-BUILDING BIRDS ARE ORNITHOLOGICAL WONDERS OF THE WORLD, NOT JUST AUSTRALIA. THERE ARE THREE TYPES: MALLEE FOWL (LIPOA OCELLATA), BRUSH-TURKEY (CATHETURUS LATHAMI), AND SCRUB FOWL (MEGAPODIUS DUPERREYI).

Description and Appearance

The Australian brush-turkey is a sizable bird, measuring up to 75 cm in length and weighing approximately 2.5 kg. It has primarily black plumage, with a striking bare red head and a yellow or pale blue throat wattle, depending on the subspecies. The bird’s tail is laterally flattened, and its powerful legs and feet are well-adapted for scratching and digging in the leaf litter.

This bird is slightly larger than the Mallee Fowl and has a blackish brown bill, eyes, and feet. The skin on the head is pinkish and dotted with short, hair-like feathers, and the neck is adorned with yellow and red wattle. Turkeys go by many names including Wattled Talegallus, Australian brush-turkey, gweela and frequently called just bush turkey.

One of the most notable physical characteristics of the brush turkey is its size. These birds can grow up to two feet in length and can weigh up to four pounds, making them one of the largest birds in Australia. In addition to their size, brush turkeys are also known for their dark, iridescent feathers, which shimmer in the sunlight.

Unique Nesting Behavior

One of the coolest aspects of the Australian brush-turkey is its mound-building behavior. The male constructs a large mound of organic matter, typically measuring 4 meters in diameter and 1 meter in height. This mound serves as an incubation chamber for the eggs, which are laid by several females. The decomposing organic matter generates heat, maintaining a constant temperature between 33-38°C. The male diligently tends to the mound, adding or removing vegetation to regulate the temperature, ensuring optimal conditions for egg development.

The rotund mound is usually made mostly of black earthy mould mixed with decaying vegetable matter. The male birds do the majority of the mound-building, with the debris scraped up or gathered in the claws and thrown backwards.

The brush turkey is a social species, and they are known for their complex mating and reproductive habits. These birds reach sexual maturity at around two years of age, and they mate during the spring and summer months. The male brush turkey is responsible for building a large mound, known as a “brush nest,” which serves as a incubator for the eggs. The female will lay her eggs in the nest, and the male will incubate them until they hatch. The gestational period for brush turkeys is around 50 days.

One mound is frequented by one to three mated pairs. The females lay about twelve eggs, which are placed in circular tiers at a depth of about an arm’s length, small ends downward, a few inches apart. The eggs are elliptical in shape, slightly rough, without glossiness, and pure white if not stained with mound dirt. They are roughly the same size as Mallee Fowls.

A female was once observed laying her egg. She scratched a ten-inch-deep hole near the top of the mound and entered to lay, her head and neck visible above ground. The male persecuted her throughout her time in the mound, apparently in an attempt to drive her away. The male immediately scraped a few leaves, etc., into the hole and, once inside, trampled them well down around the egg, which he fixed in a perpendicular position. The scraping in of debris process was repeated several times until the hole was filled.

Hatchlings and Parental Care

After an incubation period of approximately 50 days, the chicks hatch and burrow their way out of the mound. Remarkably, these precocial hatchlings are able to walk and fend for themselves immediately upon emerging. Within a few hours, they are capable of short flights, showcasing their rapid development and independence. Unlike many other bird species, Australian brush-turkey chicks do not receive parental care after hatching.

The young brush turkey chicks grow quickly and are barely distinguishable from their parents at nine months.

Habitat and Distribution

The Australian brush-turkey inhabits a variety of habitats, including rainforests, wet sclerophyll forests, and drier scrubs. Its range extends along the eastern coast of Australia, from Far North Queensland to the South Coast of New South Wales. The species has also been introduced to Kangaroo Island in South Australia. In the northern part of its range, brush-turkeys are more common at higher altitudes, while in the south, they can be found in both mountain and lowland regions.

Australian Brush Turkey Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0
Australian Brush Turkey Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0

Diet and Foraging Behavior

As an omnivore, the Australian brush-turkey feeds on a diverse range of food items, including insects, seeds, and fallen fruits. Using its powerful feet, the bird rakes through leaf litter and breaks open rotten logs to expose its prey. This foraging behavior plays a central role in the ecosystem, as it helps to disperse seeds and maintain the health of the forest floor.

Behavior

Brush turkeys are known for their vocalizations and display behaviors. They use a variety of calls to communicate with one another, including deep, throaty calls. They are also known for their elaborate courtship displays, which involve the male spreading his wings and puffing out his chest to impress females.

Interaction with Humans

In urban areas, Australian brush-turkeys have adapted to human presence and can often be found in backyards and gardens. While their foraging habits may cause some damage to landscaping, these birds are protected by law, and it is illegal to harm them. Some individuals view brush-turkeys as a nuisance, while others appreciate their unique presence and ecological value. Efforts are being made to educate the public about coexisting with these fascinating birds and minimizing potential conflicts.

Conservation Status

Despite the challenges posed by habitat loss and urbanization, the Australian brush-turkey population remains relatively stable. The species is listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, indicating that it is not currently threatened but in the 1930s, the bird was said to be approaching extinction as it was used as a source of food at the height of the Great Depression. However, ongoing conservation efforts and public awareness are essential to ensure the long-term survival of this remarkable bird.

The Australian brush-turkey is a fantastic and ecologically significant species, renowned for its unique mound-building behavior and adaptability to various habitats. From its striking appearance to its fascinating reproductive strategies, this bird offers a glimpse into the incredible diversity of Australia’s avian fauna. By understanding and appreciating the ecological role of the Australian brush-turkey, we can work towards fostering a harmonious coexistence between these birds and the human communities that share their habitat.

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