Brush turkeys are booming in urban areas and researchers are scratching to understand why
Brush turkeys have become somewhat ubiquitous in many urban areas along Australia’s east coast, scratching their way around bushland and parks and invading backyards.
- The bird has made a resurgence since being hunted to near-extinction during the Great Depression
- Over the years, brush turkeys have found a way to adapt and thrive in suburban environments
- A new study has been launched to discover how the bird has managed to survive so well in urban areas
Once rare due to over-hunting during the Great Depression, the large, native birds, also called bush turkeys and scrub turkeys, have made a robust comeback.
Griffith University professor of ecology Darryl Jones said it was fascinating to see rainforest birds adapt so well to suburbia.
“We are in the vicinity of a huge evolutionary experiment here, where this bird that normally lives in the rainforest has decided it can cope with the suburban environment that we have invented,” he said.
“They’re saying ‘We’ll give this a shot, we reckon we can survive’, and they’re doing a very good job of it.”
Brush turkeys dig in the ground for food and build large mounds in which they lay their eggs. This one was spotted in the D’Aguilar National Park, Queensland. (Supplied: Joshua Prieto)
Brush turkeys range along eastern Australia from Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, south to the Illawarra region of New South Wales.
In the past decade there has been an increase in the number of urban turkeys colonising south-east Queensland and parts of NSW, and it has created a human-wildlife conflict situation.
While some residents are pleased to see native wildlife close to home, not all are happy about sharing their space with such large, invasive birds that can wreak havoc in a carefully tended garden.
“The population of brush turkeys is booming extraordinarily,” Mr Jones said.
“In NSW, Sydney and the vicinity is experiencing what happened in Brisbane probably 20 years ago, where they’ve moved out of the forest into people’s backyards and parks and things, and are making themselves really well-known.
“It’s urban ecology right now, this is happening, it’s going to be exasperating and exhausting and terrifying, but also extremely interesting.
“There’s going to be big birds moving into people’s yards and initially they will be intrigued and then probably horrified by the damage they can do.”
Australians encouraged to talk turkey
Researchers hope to determine how brush turkeys have adapted so well to urban environments.
(Supplied: Taronga Conservation Society)
To find out more about how brush turkeys are surviving so well in urban areas, and also how they are faring in their natural habitat, a new research project has been launched.
Brush Turkeys: birds in suburbia app has been developed for Australians to record their observations of brush turkeys, including whether there are chicks present.
The data is contributing to a collaborative research project run by Taronga Conservation Society, The Sydney University and The Royal Botanic Gardens.
Matt Hall, the PhD student leading the project, said researchers had been tagging turkeys at Taronga Zoo and other areas in Sydney, observing their behaviour and tracking the birds with GPS in an effort to understand their population dynamics, movement patterns and social behaviour.
“Brush turkeys have been really spreading in urban and suburban areas over the last 30 years,” he said.
“But we really don’t know anything about how they are surviving and thriving in these areas, and because they are in such close contact with people all the time, it was really timely to start research into them.
“While it looks like brush turkeys are becoming more common in suburban areas, it’s highly likely the population has actually declined in some of their natural habitat due to habitat destruction or introduced species.
“They were commonly found across eastern Australia until the 1930s when they started being hunted for food during the Depression, and they almost disappeared and were heading for extinction.
“It was only after native species were protected in the 1970s that the population started coming back.”
Brush turkey is no mother hen
After hatching, brush turkey chicks burrow out of the mound where the eggs were laid and are left to completely fend for themselves, with no parental care. They are fully feathered and are able to walk immediately. (Supplied: Kylie Randall)
There is a behavioural feature about brush turkeys that makes their growth in urban areas even more intriguing.
Once they lay their eggs in huge incubator nest mounds made of soil and leaf litter, their parenting duties are done.
“They don’t have anybody to look after their chicks,” Mr Jones said.
“Those little baby chicks hatch out of an egg at the bottom of a metre of dirt and sticks, they dig their way to the surface and when they get out there is nobody to look after them or tell them what a predator looks like or anything.
“The adults that produce them don’t even recognise them as members of their own species.
“So when they encounter dad as they emerge from the mound, he treats them exactly as he would a snake or a lizard or a frog, and just sort of tosses them off into the bush, saying ‘Well done, see you later, good luck’, so it’s a pretty rough world out there.
“Lots of chicks don’t survive in the city beyond their first week because they are cat food basically.”
Mr Jones said brush turkeys laid about 20 eggs every year, which was one of the keys to their survival.
“I think it comes down to sheer weight of numbers. If you are going to abandon your chicks for good, you have to have lots of offspring so at least some survive,” he said.
“It’s really fascinating seeing them survive and do so well in the suburbs.”
Once rare due to over-hunting during the Great Depression, brush turkeys have made a dramatic comeback. (Supplied: Taronga Conservation Society)