The Brush Turkey (Alectura lathami) seems a topical subject for a blog post in the light of the present Federal Liberal party shenanigans.
Although it’s only a few years since brush turkeys began to colonise, or rather recolonise, Sydney’s Lower North Shore, my experience with them goes back to the last century.
It began in the 1980s, when we bought a tiny weekender at Pearl Beach on the Central Coast. One of its loveliest features was the huge turpentine tree at the back of the block. Its trunk was too wide for two people to span their arms around.
Another feature of the village was the congregation of brush turkeys at the south end of the Pearl Beach village – somebody was feeding them there – and increasingly they began appearing around all the other streets. We thought little of it, until in the mid-1990s a male turkey began to build a nest under our turpentine tree.
A brush turkey’s nest is an impressive, if rather untidy, construction. The male turkey uses his king-size feet to brush organic debris into a platform 2-4 metres across, and a metre high. For a suburban turkey’s nest, this means stripping quantities of plant debris, mulch and some topsoil from a fair number of the surrounding gardens. As female brush turkeys are firm believers in “bigger is better”, the males are obsessive about building the biggest possible nest, and do little else for many weeks. This nest-building really drives home why they are called brush turkeys – it sounds like someone is using a yard broom continuously during the daylight hours.
As I’m not a keen gardener, the nest didn’t greatly worry me. In fact, I was quite pleased to have it in our back-yard. We only had lawn and a few shrubs, so there wasn’t much garden to damage. Better still, the nest meant I had a few less square metres to mow! But I was also happy to encourage wild life; having it around increases the feeling of getting away from it all. However “getting away from it all” means different things to different people. Many actually prefer to bring a lot of “it” with them, including neat suburban plots. Our neighbours began to complain about the damage to their gardens and eventually we agreed that after any turkey eggs hatched, we would break up the nest.
Weeks later the eggs hatched and poults appeared in and around our street.
I even saw one being chased under our car by a kookaburra, though not when I had a camera with me. With hatching out of the way, next came the demolition of the nest.
Job done, we thought. But never underestimate a brush turkey! Next year, the nest-building started again. So we built a rough fence around the nest. That didn’t work for long either. The lowest section of the fence was the 800mm cyclone fence with our neighbour, so in the two weeks before we returned the turkey swept his debris along a path through our neighbours' yard, to make an access ramp over the fence. We made a couple of attempts to flatten the nest, but the turkey merely surveyed the damage and resumed sweeping as soon as we went away.
We then tried a different and much taller type of barrier, using spare materials. The turkey, of course, was completely unfazed by such a light structure. He used his ramp technique to collapse part of the barrier, and just kept right on building.
Clearly, word of the turkey’s prowess was getting around the bird world by this time. We even had three neighbours’ chooks round to inspect his achievement.
There was a respite when we started taking our cat up with us. Simba loved stalking turkeys. This was enough to disrupt the nest-building for a while.
But Simba was no fool – he was always careful to never actually catch such a big bird, just doing enough to make it retreat to the nearest tree.
Nest-building in our garden finally ended when the house next door was let to a tenant who was a dog-sledding enthusiast. He kept his team of Malamutes in a pen on the other side of the fence from the nest, which was too scary for the turkey. He chose another shaded garden a few hundred metres up the road, and so became someone else’s problem.
We heaved a sigh of relief.
Footnote – if you’re not familiar with brush turkeys, that huge compost heap of a nest is actually quite a neat adaptation. After mating, one or more females lay their eggs in shallow pits in the nest, after which their job is done. The male then buries each egg beneath soil and plant debris, which then decomposes. The heat generated by this decomposition is enough to incubate the eggs. The male checks the egg's temperature from time to time, adding or removing debris to keep the temperature of each one at the right level. After hatching, the poults dig their way out and go their own way – there is no further parental care.