Australian Brush Turkey

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The Australian brush turkey is one of three species in Australia known as the Megapodes, or ‘mound builders.’ All three species build mounds to incubate their eggs. The Australian brush turkey is now a familiar sight right into the inner suburbs of Brisbane. However, the bird was hunted by the early settlers and during the 1930s Depression for food.

Quick facts

COMMON NAME:
Australian brush turkey

ALSO KNOWN AS:
scrub turkey, wild turkey or wee-lah (Indigenous, Hunter Region)

SCIENTIFIC NAME:
Alectura lathamis

 

FAMILY:
Megapodiidae (megapodes, mound-builders)

NATIONAL CONSERVATION STATUS:
Least Concern

QLD CONSERVATION STATUS:
Least Concern

Did you know?

Male Australian brush turkeys use their mound as an incubator, often for more than one female’s eggs.

Australian brush turkey© Canva NFP

Threats to Australian brush turkeys

  • Loss of their habitat due to land clearing.
  • Urban areas encroaching into native vegetation brings turkeys into conflict with people.
  • Introduced predators, especially cats, kill many vulnerable brush turkey chicks.

Home range

  • Prefer to remain in local areas but capable of moving long distances.
  • Males are very territorial around the mound, particularly during the breeding season.

Distribution

  • The east coast of Australia, from Cape York to south of Sydney.
  • Mainly occur along the coastal fringe, east of the Great Dividing Range, but with some populations in the drier areas west of the divide.
  • There are two races of the Australian brush turkey, race purpureicollis that only occurs on Cape York and race lathami in the rest of its range.

Description

  • Unmistakable bird with a featherless red head, yellow wattle (loose skin around the base of the neck) and black body.
  • The northern race purpureicollis has a blue wattle.
  • Males and females look similar but during the breeding season, the male’s wattle is larger.
  • Adult birds are 60–75 cm long with an 80 cm wingspan.
  • The average weight is 2274 g.
  • Chicks have all-brown feathers for camouflage.

Signs

  • The most obvious sign is the large mound of mulch and leaf litter.
  • Bush or garden beds surrounding the mound scraped clean.

Habitat

  • Mainly tropical and subtropical rainforest but also occur in drier forest and suburban backyards.
  • Main habitat requirements are plenty of leaf litter to build their mounds, a variety of fruits and seeds, and good undergrowth where the chicks can hide.

Ecology

Breeding

All Megapodes, including the brush turkey, incubate their eggs in a large mound built and maintained by the male.

  • Mound generally 4m in diameter and 1–1.5 m high.
  • Females dig a hole in the mound to deposit eggs that the male then covers over.
  • About 18–24 eggs are laid in a single mound by a variety of females.
  • Mound temperature affects the sex of the unhatched chicks. A normal temperature of 34 degrees produces an equal ratio of sexes: lower temperatures produce more male chicks; higher temperatures more females.
  • The male uses heat sensors in his beak and test digs to check the temperature of the mound and maintain the temperature at 34 degrees.
  • The chicks hatch deep in the mound and take 40 hours to dig themselves out before they quickly find cover in the undergrowth.
  • Chicks fend for themselves and many are eaten by predators including raptors, kookaburras, goannas and cats.
  • Chicks hatch with well-developed flight feathers and roost at night high in trees for safety.

Food

  • A variety of fruits, seeds, insects and other invertebrates.
  • Scavenged bread and seeds attract birds to human habitats.
  • Adults feed throughout the day.

Behaviour

  • Scratch among leaves looking for food and run fast when disturbed.
  • Can sometimes be heard making soft grunts. Males have a deep three-noted booming call.
  • Roost in trees at night.

More information

Publications & papers

  • Goth. A. and Vogel. U. (2002) Chick survival in the megapode Alecturea lathami, (Australian Brush turkey) Wildlife Research. 29(5) 503 – 511
  • Goth. A. and Booth D. T. (2005) Temperature dependent sex ratio in a bird. Biology Letters. 1 (1) 31 -33.

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