This article was written in 2009 however in Petrie Terrace, especially in Clifton Street, we daily encounter a family of Brush Turkeys, ever growing larger, who collectively terrorise family cats, gardens and backyard chooks.

  • FEBRUARY 04, 2009 11:00PM

THEY’RE moving into suburban backyards, raping chooks and trashing the lovingly landscaped native gardens of well-heeled householders.

Experts say the once rare native brush turkey could go the way of the ibis and become a permanent fixture of the suburban environment.

“Brush turkeys … are really making a success of their move into the suburbs,” says Associate Professor Darryl Jones, a wildlife biologist at Queensland’s Griffith University.

“In the last five to six years they’ve gone from no one even knew what they are to everywhere – especially places like Brisbane, Gosford and the northern Sydney suburbs.”

Jones, the co-author of Mound Builders, a new book on brush turkeys and their relations, says the birds probably originated in New Guinea millions of years ago. They are now found in Australia, New Guinea and some Pacific islands.

Food chain

Brush turkeys were never good eating but were valued by indigenous Australians for their large, yolky eggs.

“Indigenous people had lots of rules and customs about not touching the adults,” Jones says.

“But the Europeans came here and called them turkeys, they looked like game birds and many of them got hunted.

“That’s what led to their first real demise. By about the 1960s they were extremely hard to find because every time they showed their heads some bushman knocked them off and had them for dinner.”

But that changed in the 1970s with federal legislation protecting them.

Coming back

Since then, brush turkeys have “sprung back dramatically,” Jones says.

“By about the 80s they started to be seen again … and during the 90s they have absolutely taken off.”

But their return has taken an unexpected tack.

Jones says the natural range of brush turkeys, from Queensland’s Cape York to Wollongong south of Sydney, hasn’t changed.

“But what’s really interesting, it’s not in the wild country where they’re doing well, it’s in the towns and the suburbs – that’s where they’re exploding.

“In Brisbane and a whole range of other suburban places like Gosford and northern Sydney they’re doing fantastically well.”

While this is good news for brush turkeys, it isn’t so good for residents, many of whom are finding themselves hosts to an unwelcome, and often inconsiderate, guest.

Huge problems

Their move into suburbia is causing “huge problems,” says Jones, because of “the incredible damage” they are capable of doing to people’s gardens.

Male turkeys build what are basically huge compost piles – these can consist of up to 4 tonnes of garden material and be the size of a small car – in which eggs are incubated.

In the process of building these unique mounds, they rake up grass clippings, bark and leaf litter, strip trees and shrubs and smother delicate plants.

“If they didn’t do what they do to people’s gardens people would be much happier to have them around,” says Michelle Greenfield, the bushcare co-ordinator of Lane Cove Council in Sydney, which over the past year has started to receive complaints from householders.

Rosemary Lancaster, communications officer for the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, says the birds are simply taking advantage of fashionably sustainable gardening trends, such as planting water-efficient native gardens.

“We’re replicating their natural habitat, and they’re taking advantage of it,” she says. “We’re creating brush turkey heaven.”

Jones says the brush turkeys’ fondness of leafy native gardens means residents of the more upmarket suburbs are the main targets.

“There’s a kind of perfect relationship between higher socio-economic scale and presence of brush turkeys,” he says.

“Poor people don’t have brush turkeys and rich people are arriving home in their BMW to find a huge mound where their landscape garden has been destroyed.”

Mounds of hassles

The mounds themselves can be a concern.

Andrew Daff is the manager of Sydney’s Lane Cove River tourist park, which became home to a male brush turkey named Hef, and two females named Bambi and Tash, last October.

The park is now populated by 14 chicks – for the first time in 15 years.

Daff says a mound recently had to be relocated from the park because it had been built right next to a swimming pool fence, providing easy access to the pool for children.

But he says he’s thrilled to see the area repopulated by the birds, which hold a key place in the local ecosystem.

Not everyone shares his enthusiasm.

“Over the past few weeks some of my hens have been quite brutally attacked by a male brush turkey … he is pecking at and tearing off their combs,” wrote “eggy” in a recent post to an online backyard poultry forum.

Violence most fowl

Jones acknowledges that brush turkeys can attack other birds.

“Bluntly, that’s a form of rape,” he says.

“Especially black chickens – they seem to think ‘oh well these look close enough’ and they’ll mate with them.”

Jones says there are no definite figures on Australia’s current brush turkey population but he says his own research found an 800 per cent increase in population across a range of Brisbane suburbs including The Gap, Brookfield, Kenmore, Indooroopilly between 1991 and 2000.

A survey carried out by Birds Queensland between 2002 and 2003 found 242 reports from 73 Brisbane suburbs.

A spokesman for Brisbane City Council said council dealt with seven brush turkey complaints in 2007. In 2008 there were 15 complaints.

But he said there was no evidence of an increase in the brush turkey population, attributing their presence in the suburbs to the drought.

Safer in the suburbs

Jones says brush turkeys are actually safer in a suburban backyard than in the wild, where they face threats from foxes and feral animals.

In other words, they could be here to stay.

“It’s not an impossibility that they’ll end up being an urban bird only,” he says.

That’s why the approach being taken by many local authorities is to encourage peaceful co-existence.

“Some people have issues with the way brush turkeys behave” but many are happy to share their gardens with local native wildlife, says Greenfield.

Lancaster has her own resident brush turkey, Brenda, who has the run of five New Farm, Brisbane, backyards as well the local school.

She says Brenda helps out by keeping the bugs down and apart from that does nothing more destructive than sunbaking and roosting in her trees.

Jones says we may just have to learn to live with them.

“I would suggest that there is not the wholesale negativity that the poor old ibis attract,” he says.

“Plenty of people really are fascinated by the mound building concept and have learned to tolerate the buggers.”

BRUSH TURKEY FACTS The brush turkey belongs to the family of megapodes (big feet) along with the orange-footed scrubfowl and the malleefowl. Brush turkes are the only birds that don’t build nests. Instead, they build mounds that produce heat from the decaying plant materials. Mounds weigh up to 4 tonnes and are the biggest constructions by an animal in the world. Brush turkeys maintain the temperature of their mounds at a steady 33 degrees. They “taste” the temperature with their mouth. Male brush turkeys mate with up to a dozen females, all of which lay their eggs in his mound. Females can lay eggs in the mounds of several males. Female brush turkeys lay three times their weight in eggs every season. Brush turkey chicks get no parental care at all and survive mainly by hiding in scrub after hatching. More than 90 per cent die in the first week. Chicks are extremely advanced and hatch with full feathers. They can fly on the first day of life. Brush turkey eggs weigh around 300 grams and are 86 per cent yolk. They are still actively harvested by indigenous people in northern Queensland.

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