Spring has sprung, the grass is riz,
I wonder where the birdies is?
So goes the poem, and Spring has certainly sprung in my part of the world. The jacarandas are starting to bloom, the sound of chirruping geckos floats on warm evening air, and the days are getting longer.
But I have no need to wonder where the birdies is…because I know exactly where some of them are. At the bottom of my garden in Brisbane, busily building a nest. And these are not just any birds. They are Australian brush turkeys, large ugly birds that live as happily in suburbia as they do in the bush. Sometimes they are called bush turkeys or scrub turkeys.
For people who value a manicured garden, brush turkeys are loathsome pests who will destroy a well-tended garden by building their large nesting mounds, refusing to budge and returning every year. But my garden is a bit of a jungle, so I don’t mind. I like the fact that they are part of the landscape just 7km from the centre of a major city and I’m hoping that later on there will be plump little brown chicks pecking around too.
Brush turkeys have dull brown feathers, an upright fanned tail, and a feather-less red head. The male has a large, bright yellow wattle hanging from its neck. As is so often the case in nature, the female is smaller and paler. They strut a little, usually alone.
“My” turkeys are fairly bold, but keep their distance if I venture too close, taking short clumsy flights to the top of the fence or up a tree to get away. But sometimes I look up from my desk, and there’s one scratching around outside my office window, almost close enough to reach out and touch. Once I went outside to find a large male pecking around in the backyard, seemingly oblivious to the fixed attention of a small black cat. I had never seen the cat before, but it wisely scarpered. I laughed; I don’t think it would have been a match for the turkey!
I’ve never lived in such close proximity to brush turkeys before, but I’ve decided I like them. And I learned a bit about them a couple of years ago, when I was lucky enough to spot a rare albino specimen when holidaying at Noosa, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
Alerted by locals to its existence, I went walking in the Noosa Woods to see if I could get a peek at it. And to my surprise it was relatively easy to find the unusual bird pecking contentedly around the walking tracks that lead to the beach.
I talked to urban ecologist Associate Professor Darryl Jones, of the Centre for Innovative Conservation Strategies and School of Environment at Griffith University, and found out brush turkey chicks have a survival rate of less than 10 per cent.
This fact makes the survival of a brilliant white specimen even more more remarkable. Professor Jones said the bird’s plumage made it an easier target for predators such as hawks, snakes and cats. He had heard of no other recorded sightings other than in the Noosa Woods, and was surprised the adult female albino had found a mate because it looked so different to other brush turkeys.
It’s the male brush turkey who builds the nesting mound of plant litter and soil (plenty of that at the bottom of my garden). It is usually about two to four metres across and a metre high, and he adds or removes material to keep it at a constant temperature of 33 degrees. The number of different females and the number of times they visit depends on his skill in keeping the mound at the right temperature. If the mound is the right temperature, females will return many times to mate and lay eggs.
But after hatching the chicks are on their own; they are the only bird in the world able to fly within their first day of life. “They hatch alone and run away, and never have anything to do with the parents,” Professor Jones told me. “It is a truly weird social system, which is what makes them so fascinating.”
I’ve read a bit about brush turkeys and find that there can be up to about 150 eggs in a nest, from several females. Now I’m patiently waiting for the appearance of at least some chicks in the next few months.