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Outrageously creative gardeners

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This Native’s No Turkey 
Dr Ann Goeth co-authored a book with Professor Darryl Jones from Griffith University called Mound Builders. Published by the CSIRO in 2008, Ann Goethe revisits a favourite native bird – the brush turkey. Brush turkeys are unique birds but few Australians know much about them, unlike our other native creatures. Brush turkeys belong to the group megapodes, a term that literally means big feet. There are 22 species of megapodes in the world and three in Australia. 

Unlike other birds megapodes do not sit on their eggs to incubate them. The Australian megapodes build incubation mounds from organic material. The microorganisms within that material decompose it, producing the heat that the eggs need. It is the males that build the mounds in the breeding season, which lasts from May to August. For the first few weeks the males rake up the moist soil, leaves and twigs, forming a trail that may be some 150m away from the eventual mound destination.

It is very difficult to dissuade a male brush turkey about the location he has chosen for his mound. Here, beside and over a fence was no obstacle as the name says, a mound built against a fence in Pearl Beach. But patience may be rewarded - the mound is usually only used for one season and then there is a neatly (!) stacked well matured compost heap to help the human gardener establish a more traditional planting. 
Adult male standing in tree above his mound, ever ready for possible prospective females.

The males then tend to the mounds, regulating their temperature by first using a sensor in their palates. They place their beaks into the mounds and if the temperature is too low they put more material on the top. If it’s too hot they dig vertical holes into the mound.It is a delicate regulation designed to keep the temperature constant for the eggs, which can develop at temperatures between 27-37°C, but ideally at 33-34°C. At the higher temperatures more male embryos die, so that more females hatch and the opposite happens at lower temperatures. Crocodiles use temperature regulation to determine the sex ratio of their offspring but this is unusual in birds. Brush turkeys share another feature with reptiles, with babies spending a long time in the eggs (some 42 days). The eggs have a very high proportion of yolk which is the food package for chicks after hatching.

Cross section of a mound that had been temporarily opened for research purposes with two eggs visible.
After hatching the chicks use their feet to dig themselves out of the mound. This takes almost two days but they then live independently. They are able to fly straight away which makes them the most precocious of all birds.
Brush turkeys are very skinny, an adaptation to living in dense rainforests. This vertical thin shape, including their tails, helps them when they head for the thickets to escape predators like dingoes. They can fan their tails which is most likely a social signal. 

They have striking colours like the sports car red on their head and the yellow wattle. These aren’t warning colours but seem to signify that a male has a really strong immune system from eating the right food. WIth these colours, a male is likely to signals to females that he is strong and healthy and a good parent for their chicks.  
Brush turkeys have four types of calls. The males have a special way of producing a loud booming sound. They fill up the wattle around their neck with air and squeeze it out through their nostrils. The other sounds are softer. There is a soft, deep, low-pitched contact sound, a disturbance call which is similar but more frequent, and a very loud distress call, much like a crowing sound. 

One week old chick banded by Ann   
They mainly feed on the ground but can also go up into trees, so they are not popular with banana farmers in Queensland. They have been known to eat the fruit from prickly pear as they fly past. They eat seeds whole and because they can eat quite big seeds they are important distributors of rainforest fruit and thus seeds.
Brush turkeys are not picky in what they eat and people have been known to fence off their vegie gardens, especially when they have seedlings. These birds have made themselves at home in suburban gardens, especially when there are inadvertent food sources like bird feeders, pet food containers and even uncovered compost heaps.

A dead male brush turkey that had been translocated to a new location and while trying to return home was crossing busy roads. Translating the birds does mean they are at risk of becoming road kill. 
It is not easy to make a garden brush turkey resistant, and it is illegal to remove mounds that contain the eggs of this protected species. But Brisbane's longer brush turkey experience has produced some effective adaptations that work!

They do suffer from foxes, and the chick mortality from cats is high. Indeed in rainforests some 80% of chicks are killed by cats. In the Depression people used to hunt them, and there are lots of recipes in cookbooks devoted to them, but as they are no longer hunted they have become quite tame. 

They really are an unusual bird but this native’s no turkey.

Dr Ann Goeth was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. All images from Dr Goeth.  Summary text by Victor Barry, June 2016.

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A hand to mouth existence? Courtin' action male brush turkey style

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