Brush-turkey: Rainforest Rake

Skyrail Nature Diary: October 2005

The Australian Brush-turkey (Alectura lathami) is the product of 130 million years of rainforest history and evolution, a descendant of birds from the ancient super-continent Gondwana.

The Brush-turkey is a member of the Megapodidae family, of which only three species now exist in Australia. The family name derives from these birds’ large feet and powerful legs, which they use to ‘rake’ leaf litter when foraging and building nests.

Brush-turkeys inhabit rainforests, dry scrubland and most of suburbia along Australia’s east coast, from Cape York Peninsula to the northern outreaches of Sydney. They are a protected species in Queensland and feeding by humans is discouraged, as it encourages dependence.

The largest of Australia’s Megapode species, Brush-turkeys grow up to 75cm in length with a wingspan of 85cm. Blue-black plumage, a bright yellow wattle and a red neck and head make this bird easy to recognise, as does its unique fan-shaped tail, which grows on a vertical axis to stay clear of leaf litter kicked backwards by the bird.

It is this ‘raking’ that causes grief to many gardeners, as one Brush-turkey can completely strip a garden of mulch and small plants in a few hours. Male Brush-turkeys are tireless workers, raking leaf litter and ground cover into nesting mounds that can reach two metres high and four metres wide.

Brush-turkey nesting mounds can be found at any time during the year, both in local gardens and the rainforest, but the breeding season generally occurs from September to December. These mounds serve as incubating nests for up to 50 eggs, often from several females.

Just how many different females use the nest is determined by the male’s success at keeping the nest’s temperature between the optimal incubation range of 33-38 degrees Celsius.

The birds carefully monitor the nest’s temperature with heat sensors located in their beak; the male adds and removes leaf litter from the nest to keep the temperature constant, in accordance with fluctuations in outside temperature.

Further showcasing their affinity with all things meteorological, Brush-turkeys can predict storms long before the weather man, and subsequently build a conical cover atop the nest to keep their eggs dry.

Eggs often fall prey to burrowing animals such as goannas, but the male Brush-turkey will attempt to defend its nest with a classic dirty trick, kicking dirt into the eyes of would-be predators!

Brush-turkeys are solitary birds from the moment they hatch. Left to fend for themselves, chicks hatch fully-feathered and active, and can fly within one hour. Unfortunately, chicks often fall prey to foxes and domestic cats and dogs and the survival rate to adulthood can be as little as one in two hundred.

50% of Australia’s bird species are found in Australia’s Tropical Rainforests. The best way to see the rainforest and its unique bird species is on Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, which allows guests to travel just metres above the rainforest canopy in six person gondola cabins, before alighting at Skyrail’s mid-stations to explore and learn more from the forest floor.