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Males behaving very badly

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Darryl Jones takes a closer look at the behaviour of brush turkeys, successful invaders of environments where people live.    
Brush turkeys are mound builders, the mound being egg incubation making it the world’s largest nest. For the male it has one purpose - to attract females with whom he can mate - and the more the merrier. However for females it is the only place where she can safely deposit her egg - and mating with the male is an almost unavoidable entry fee (although very occasionally a female manages to bury her egg in a mound while the male is not present).

Male brush turkeys spend a huge amount of energy getting four tons of material to create the mound. They must then stabilise the temperature inside to between 33-34° to make sure the mound is a suitable incubator. Since it is the female brush turkey who chooses a mound, the male brush turkey needs to maintain the mound in tip top condition. Females inspect each available mound in the area for days before an egg is due to be laid. In an area where there may be 10 to 15 mounds, this might take her about an hour and Darryl contends, makes the female brush turkey the most careful chooser of a mate of any bird.
Since almost all eggs are laid first thing in the morning, males know that in the first hour or so after dawn many females will be looking for mounds, so they do not venture far from theirs. When a female has selected a mound, she must first mate with the male before he permits her to bury her egg. Since the egg being laid had obviously been fertilized several days previously, and brush turkeys are far from monogamous, it may well have been fertilized by a different male. However, research has found that a female typically remains 'faithful' to the one mound (and therefore male) long enough to lay around ten eggs. She then moves on to other mounds and males, laying 30 or so eggs in a season.
In order to lay her egg, the female brush turkey needs to dig deeply into the mound to where the temperature is appropriate. But in a bizarre twist of behaviour, she has to fend off the male who starts to peck and beat her with his wings. This very aggressive behaviour means it can take up to 40 minutes for the female to lay an egg, a task which would only take 15 minutes without any aggressive interruptions.


Left: Entry fee for the female to gain access to the mound is mating with the mound's resident male.

The female Brush Turkey spreads her wings widely during egg laying on the mound to fend off the attacks by the male.

While this behaviour remains a mystery, the female will eventually leave this mate and mound and go elsewhere - which would have advantages for the increased survival rates of her offspring - by not putting all her eggs in one basket! 
Many male brush turkeys build two mounds close to each other, helping to attract more partners. In some cases a male brush turkey will let a junior male build a mound remarkably close to his own, before taking it over for his own use.
With the invasion of so many suburban backyards by these fascinating birds, all of this unique behaviour can be readily observed in the comfort of one's own home and there is no need for special bird hides.

Text: V.B. April 2009  Images from Ann Goeth

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