The brush turkey (Alectura lathami)

Australian Brush Turkey

Australian Brush Turkey Friend or Foe?

Like most passionate gardeners I love native Australian wildlife and I share my piece of paradise with a visitor who’s as passionate about raking up the soil and eating veggies as I am.

The Australian Brush Turkey (also called the ‘scrub turkey’ or ‘bush turkey’ has a well-known reputation as the bad boy of gardening in Australia. Gardeners are constantly kept on their toes trying inventive ways to protect their plants and veggies from this prehistoric beast. I’d like to think I can outsmart a turkey, as such it feels like living in a healthy, natural environment if there’s a resident turkey or two hanging around. A local turkey with its yellow piercing eyes and scaly powerful legs – is a living dinosaur roaming about the back yard. As a former chicken keeper, they remind me of the pleasures of having chooks in but without the upkeep and eggs (I never had many of those from my old girls anyway). If you’re prepared to put a little effort in to keep your prized plants protected then this insect-eating bad boy could soon become a gardeners friend.

The Australian brush turkey (Alectura Lathami), is a native and protected Australian bird. Long-term conservation of this species is needed to sustain and conserve diverse Australian native plant and animal species and rainforest habitats.

Brush turkeys are a member of a 30 million-year old family that includes chickens, quails, peacocks and pheasants. Their method of incubation of their eggs into a mound — is a very primitive nesting action, more like crocodiles than a normal bird. The brush turkey plays an important role in natural pest management. They prey on insects and grubs in woodland habitats and suburban gardens. They also help disperse native vegetation seeds through their droppings.

The Australian Brush-turkey is not easily confused with other Australian birds and is easily spotted by these distinctive features:

How to spot a Brush turkey

  • turkey-like appearance and bright bare redhead
  • a broad, flat tail
  • dark brownish-black to deep blue-black feathers
  • about 60-70 centimeters long
  • the male’s head and neck is redder and a yellow wattle hangs from its neck which becomes bigger and more impressive during the breeding season
  • female brush turkeys and young birds are less distinct with no wattle

It’s interesting that a male turkey’s wattle changes in colour with its age and location. In the southern parts of its range, the male brush turkey has a bright yellow wattle, while on Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland its wattle is light blue.

Brush turkey chicks look a lot like quails, with plain brown feathers over their entire bodies which are excellent camouflage. As they grow up they lose the feathers on their heads and necks to look like the regular turkeys you see in park lands.

Where Brush turkeys Live

You’ll find native turkeys along eastern Australia, from Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, south to the northern suburbs of Sydney and the Illawarra region of New South Wales. As Brush turkeys were intensively hunted for food for a century they were pushed out of much of their habitat by human settlement. Since the protection of native animals in 1972 the turkeys have been growing in number and returning to gardens and parks in city areas.

The brush turkey is happiest in a closed canopy environment such as rainforest but can also be found in drier scrubs. They also live in dense woodland and creek gullies, parks and suburban backyards. They’ve managed to survive living with dogs, cats, introduced foxes and cars. They tend to roost in the tree canopy at night.

Turkey Food

Brush-turkeys naturally feed on insects, seeds and fallen fruits, but today smart urban birds can be found raiding picnics and rubbish bins. They use their powerful legs to rake the leaf litter or even claw open chip packets. The majority of their food comes from the ground, but they’ll also feed on fruits, seeds and leaves in tree branches. Like all good gardeners, avoid using chemicals or pesticides in your garden, as a Brush Turkey that eats a contaminated insect could get sick and die.

Brush Turkey Breeding Season

Brush turkeys are diligent mound builders. The male Australian brush turkey builds a nesting mound of soil and plant litter mostly between August and December. The heap may be huge at around two to four metres wide and more than one metre high or even the size of a car! Mounds are built by the males to attract a mate, they’re essentially large compost heaps. So large, in fact, that they take the industrious male about a month to craft. Just like a good compost heap, these mounds generate heat that incubates the eggs — once the eggs are laid the mother is off, and the father only sticks around to defend the mound. Up to 50 eggs are laid by several females in a single mound. The male maintains a constant temperature of 33 – 38°C by digging holes in the mound and inserting his bill to check the temperature, then adding and removing vegetable matter as needed.

Brush Turkey Chicks

Many turkey eggs are eaten by snakes or burrowing predators such as goannas. The eggs hatch after approximately seven weeks, the turkey chicks have a pretty tough start to life and are really Aussie Battlers. After hatching they spend the first two days of their life struggling up vertically through a metre of dirt and compost to reach the surface, at which point they are left to fend for themselves. These hatchlings are fully feathered and are able to walk and fly just a few hours after hatching. Although they have no parents to protect them, the chicks tend to stick together, have their instincts to quickly learn how to forage and stay safe from predators.

Eating Brush Turkey

BrushTurkeys are protected – do not capture, cook or eat turkeys, but according to Mrs Maclurcan’s Cookery book published in 1898, they make for good eating. The brush turkey was served with a traditional bread sauce normally used with poultry. I guess our turkeys were considered small in comparison to domesticated turkeys found in England and America.

The Scrub Turkey
The scrub turkey is a very small bird, not much larger than a wild duck, with a breast like a pheasant and flesh as white; in fact I have often served it as pheasant and people have not known the difference, It is a most delicious bird, one of Australia’s finest.

Roast Scrub Turkey
1 turkey
a little flour
piece of bacon fat
dripping
Mode- pluck and clean the turkey nicely, rub it over with a little flour, put it in a baking tin with the dripping, place pieces of bacon fat over the breast, keep basting it well all the time, and bake for an hour. Serve with bread sauce.
Mrs Maclurcan’s Cookery Book 1903.

Another ‘Scrub Turkey‘ Recipe by Mrs. Lance Rawson’s cookery book and household hints 1890

Pick and clean the bird. Make a stuffing of half pint mashed potatoes (either sweet or English), half pint bread crumbs, two tablespoonfuls of butter, pepper, salt, and two eggs. Fill the crop and body as you would an ordinary turkey, and bake in a quick oven ; basting often with either butter or good dripping ; serve with bread sauce. Time to cook according to size. The above is also very good boiled.

The bird populations were nearly decimated during the 1930s, during the Great Depression when jobs and food were scarce the brush turkey became a sought after source of meat for roasting, boiling in stocks, soups and for eggs. The eggs were preferable being bigger than a goose egg with more yolk.
Unlike many other native animals, the scrub turkey was not as sought after as food by the Indigenous people ‘when you cook a bush turkey in a pot, throw away the bush turkey and eat the pot’.

Living with turkeys

The Australian Brush-turkey can damage gardens when raking up the ground looking for food. A focused mound-building male can strip a standard garden in less than a day. If you disturb or move the mound, the male will probably rebuild the next day. They will persist with the same location until the end of the breeding season. Spring is mound-building season, so be prepared.

If you have turkeys in your garden remember they are protected under state wildlife legislation (Nature Conservation Act 1992). It is a serious offence to harm brush turkeys.

do not chase, kill or injure the birds
do not destroy active mounds or their eggs
do not disturb the birds when chicks are around the nest

A few ideas to discourage brush turkeys:

  • add a motion sensor sprinkler system to frighten the birds (and as a bonus local cats too)
  • dismantle any sign of a new nest before it gets established.
  • Chop back any vegetation above a turkey mound which requires over 85% cent shade (reduced shade will encourage them to move on)
  • do not feed them and clean up food scraps or rubbish
  • don’t leave food out for other native species or pets
  • cover compost heaps or remove/contain open compost heaps or use lidded compost bins
  • remove unnecessary sources of water from the backyard

To protect your garden you could:

  • use heavy coverings to prevent raking (river rocks, coarse gravel and logs over standard mulch)
  • use tree protection guards, fencing or small rocks around the base of plants to protect roots, young plants and trees being dug up
  • add a large safety mirror to your garden (they will think it is a territory challenger and after days of fighting its reflection, it may move on)
  • cover empty mounds with heavy duty tarpaulin, black plastic or shade cloth
  • Time new plantings outside of the breeding season
  • place chicken wire below the surface making it difficult for turkeys to rake the ground
  • build a scarecrow or place cat, snake or bird of prey animal models
  • diverting the bird’s attention to a less important area of your garden by building a compost mound in a shady location and offering him compost or bark chippings

While they may be annoying to have in your veggie patch, they’re a really amazing animal to have with us in Australia. Brush turkeys are part of of natural heritage, and many householders now accept these birds as a fascinating and important part of our backyard environment.

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