Nature conservation

Native animals

Australian brush turkey

What do they look like?

The brush turkey is easily recognised by its:

  • deep blue-black plumage
  • bright head colours
  • broad, flat tail
  • general turkey-like appearance.

The bird's wattle (a fleshy lobe hanging down from the base of its neck) varies in colour with its age, gender 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. Females and younger birds have dull yellow wattles.

Brush turkey chicks look much like quails, with plain rich brown feathers over their entire bodies. As they mature they lose the feathers on their heads and necks, where the bare skin turns a deep pink colour.

What do they sound like?

The Australian brush turkey, while generally a quiet bird, will sometimes be heard making soft grunts. Males have a deep three-noted booming call.

Where do they live?

The Australian brush turkey can be found in NSW and Queensland. It lives in humid forests along the eastern seaboard and inland to the wetter ranges, though it is most often seen in rainforest and neighbouring eucalypt forest areas. It remains in a particular locality throughout the year, where it breeds and forages in the forest leaf litter for fruits, seeds and small animals.

This fascinating bird is abundant in favourable habitats. However, since European colonisation its numbers have declined, particularly near cities. In places where it shares its breeding and foraging grounds with humans, the survival of the species depends largely on the goodwill of householders.

Breeding

The Australian brush turkey belongs to the family of birds known as megapodes. Megapodes are found in the East Indies, Australasia and Polynesia. They construct mounds of vegetation to incubate their eggs in.

Using vegetation gathered from the forest floor around them, male brush turkeys build a large and distinctive incubation mound, which can be up to 4 m wide and up to 2 m high. A female will then lay 18-24 white eggs in the mound, with intervals of two to three days between the laying of each egg.

Female brush turkeys will 'shop around' before adopting a mound to lay their eggs in. They do this by assessing the quality of the mound, which reflects the quality (attentiveness and experience) of the male who made it. A good quality mound will have several females laying in it, while poorer quality mounds may have only one or no females laying. Females may also lay in more than one mound each season to spread the risk.

As the vegetation in the mound decomposes, it gives off heat which warms the eggs. The optimum incubation temperature is 33-35°C which the male brush turkey maintains by removing and adding layers to the mound. Temperature regulation is the only assistance the parents provide to their offspring.

The young brush turkeys hatch after about seven weeks, fully feathered and able to run. They dig their way through the layers of the mound and into the open air.

Brush turkeys in the garden

Brush turkeys are generally wary of humans. However, they can become very tame around picnic grounds and homes, particularly if they are fed. We don't recommend that you feed brush turkeys.

Many people consider brush turkeys to be destructive in carefully planned gardens, since they remove vegetation, earth and mulch to create their incubation mounds. In a few hours, the birds can strip away closely-planted natives and light, moist mulch, used frequently in landscaped gardens. Heavier ground coverings (such as river gravel) and tree guards can reduce the impact on valuable and vulnerable plants.

Once a male brush turkey has started to build its mound, it is extremely difficult to prevent it from continuing its efforts. No single method of deterrence has proved effective in all situations, but you can try:

  • spreading a heavy tarpaulin over the mound and weighing it down, to prevent the bird from working
  • diverting the bird's attention to a less attractive or valuable area of your garden, by building a household compost mound. Ideally, this compost mound should be sited next to at least one large tree providing 80 to 95 per cent shade. The brush turkey may be attracted towards the area, and may eventually take over the compost mound as its nesting mound.

If these methods fail and you cannot adapt to the situation, you can contact your nearest NPWS office for further detailed advice. Brush turkeys are part of Australia's natural heritage, and many householders now accept these birds as a fascinating part of their backyard environment.

 

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Page last updated: 06 January 2016