Scrub Turkey Trouble?

Australian Scrub Turkey, (Alectura lathami)

Australian Scrub Turkey, (Alectura lathami)

Question

Hi Jerry,

I have just moved to Byron Bay and have a Scrub Turkey (aka Australian Bush Turkey) problem. Do you have any clues as to what I should do to get my veggie garden going?

Me and my veggie-head friend in Sydney love your work,
Vicki

Answer

Dear Vicki,

As cities get leafier and new suburbs infiltrate surrounding bushland, some natives, like the koala, are losers. Others are winners. Scrub turkeys are thriving along the east coast.

In the past twenty years, Brisbane’s population of Scrub Turkeys, a former game bird, has risen 700%. The ABC reports that turkey numbers are rising all along eastern Australia, spreading south from the subtropics into the warm temperate Sydney Basin. This is partly because suburban gardens offer good soil and mulch for nest mound-building and plentiful food all year round, whatever the weather. Populations have bounced back since they were protected from hunting in the 1970’s. Gardeners all along the coast are contending with these birds in places – and denser turkey populations – than ever before.

It is the male Scrub Turkey that builds the mounds. Up to twenty or so female will lay their eggs in the mound. Mounds are built in shade, not in sunshine. Have a look at this Gardening Australia segment. This was recorded to give gardeners an idea how to deal with a resident population of Scrub Turkeys.

What can be done to protect gardens and plants from digging Scrub Turkeys?

For a start, watch the segment I recorded on Gardening Australia with Darryl Jones of Griffith University, the world’s number one Scrub Turkey Whisperer.

The NSW Dept of Environment says “Once a male brush turkey has started to build its mound, it is extremely difficult to prevent it from continuing its efforts. No single method of deterrence has proved effective in all situations, but you can try:

* growing plants in raised beds. The bed must be higher than a scrub turkey, which stands about 85cm high. If they can’t see into the bed, then it doesn’t exist;

* installing fencing. This only has to be a metre high to exclude scrub turkeys. They rarely, if ever, fly to gain access;

* spreading a heavy tarpaulin over the mound and weighing it down, to prevent the bird from working;

* diverting the bird’s attention to a shaded area of your garden. Provide mound-building materials, like mulch, soil, lawn clippings and leaves. Ideally, this sacrificial area should be sited next to at least one large tree providing 80 to 95 per cent shade. The brush turkey may be attracted towards the area, and may eventually take over the compost mound as its nesting mound. Scrub turkeys nest during the warm seasons, so you will have ready made compost to spread in your garden during the cool seasons.

Other strategies include using tent pegs and pegs for mulch matting to pin down palm fronds laid in between valuable plants. By doing this it seems possible to keep topsoil in place and to protect roots. The bigger and heavier the frond, the better.

Fruit cages effectively exclude them. You can buy modular ‘vegepods’ on line. These netted enclosures can be fitted over raised beds.

Troughs can be placed on balconies, and  you can grow herbs, flowers and potted collections on a first floor deck where they are unlikely to be raided.

A landscaper in Brisbane’s Stafford Heights famously had great success using tall model pink flamingoes as scarecrows (‘scare turkeys?’). After installing them in commanding positions, his mulch stayed put!

It is a myth that mirrors scare Scrub turkeys away. Mirrors make them grumpy.

Scrub Turkeys benefit from revegetation, a diversely planted environment provides shelter and forage, yet they thrive under the protection of lantana thickets.

Since gardeners use fewer pesticides, there’s more insect food for Turkeys. They’re efficient gatherers of caterpillars, but unfortunately, their broad diet doesn’t stop there. They like their greens too, and they like a varied diet. A vegie garden is Turkey paradise.

But it’s the male Turkey’s habit of mound building – and constant adjusting of them – that causes heartbreak to most gardeners. In Scrub Turkey society it’s the guys who raise the kids. And that starts by building a cutting edge compost heap. One that can sustain a core temperature for incubating their eggs. Adding more green, leafy material helps to turn up the heat, while pulling the heap back cools things down. This is precise work. Could you sustain a compost heap at between 33-35C? Their beaks are accurate thermometers.

Gardeners make hot compost which, by achieving a temperature of 60C, cooks weed seeds, perennial roots and bulbs, plus any diseases. Around one cubic metre of green waste is required for bacteria to generate enough heat to kill these problems.

But if a prospective father turkey mismanages his heap it has serious consequences. Too cool, and they’re all boys. Too hot, and those gals may not carry the family name into the next turkey generation…As more gardeners start growing food, deep, friable garden soils are making nesting and incubating easier. Another win for Scrub Turkeys.

It’s a dilemma. They’re pesky, disruptive and while there’s a need to cull, it’s important to maintain a balance. The first Australians ate Scrub Turkey and maintained sustainable bird populations within their native rainforest habitat. Maybe we can learn from them. One Scrub Turkey recipe I found recommends slow roasting them in foil, stuffing them with chopped apple and bacon, saying the “breast meat is white, tender and really tasty, the legs taste like duck, but are a bit stringy, and very enjoyable if crisped”.

I’d struggle maintaining a compost heap as efficiently as they do. So these first fauna earn my respect – where it’s due.

Jerry Coleby-Williams

9th July 2012
updated, 26th December 2014

Feedback from Facebook, 26.12.14:

Kirstie B. “yes well one crossed the road (on the pedestrian crossing) out the front of Featherdale Wildlife Park in Sydney in front of our car yesterday….one of those “did I see what I just saw” moments”
Like · 4 · 12 hours ago

Barb S. “I have 9!”
Like · 2· 10 hours ago

Suzie B. “We have 5 bush turkeys (Mr Tom, Tilly, Thomas, Terry and Tammy) living on our acreage at Samsonvale…we have encouraged them to ‘scratch around’ the property and through the gardens near the house…they ‘hang out’ with our chooks and have successfully cleared several areas of weeds…we have lost a few plants here and there but, for the first time in over 30 years, we have not had any snakes on our property…obviously their consistent ‘tractoring’ has kept them away…”

Mavis M. “Plenty at Lennox Head”.

Gemma S. “They have even made their way over the bridge that goes out to the Port of Brisbane!”

Janis C. “In Atherton, the locals are complaining that their chooks & ducks are being raped by scrub turkeys. They often use the pedestrian crossing to cross the road”.

Julie B. “We have soooo many of them here in Sydney. They are a nuisance.”

Michele C. “They are such characters, getting a bit of publicity too now as they appear to be becoming more urbanised. Are they the new Ibis? I would love to see them in Hyde Park too.”

Steven O. “They’re everywhere no need to be a protected species”.

Tanya van R. “Well the one in my garden destroys everything I plant!
It’ll scratch relentlessly until everything is out and then for a few days take it around from one side of the bedding to the other….and then leave it like that until I try to replant….then it starts again I’m actually quite discouraged . I live in The Gap Brisbane. How old do these birds grow? Does anyone know?”

Carolyn B. “I live in Buderim … never see them!”

Merilyn H. “Jerry, we also have a lot here in Coffs Harbour, and they make a great garbage disposal and keep our indoor cats entertained”.

Sylvia F. A. H. “They are in Geebung and Wavell Heights. There is scrub and underbrush along the creek lines – cover and mulch for making nest mounds”.

Ian W. “Thank goodness none in our area”. (Cleveland, QLD)

Kay A. S. “Not if you have a Rottweiler that also thrives in the yard”.

Marilyn O. “I did not think they would live side by side each other in those numbers. If you remove them, another lot will arrive to fill the gap.”

John A. “One man’s plague is another man’s business opportunity…..KFT?”

Suzy M. “I am tired of them destroying my vege patch…go to Sydney on a one way ticket please…”