Community & Business

10 November, 2023

Why you shouldn't keep feeding the local turkey

THE Australian brush turkey doesn’t belong on a sandwich, as it is illegal to hunt these spectacularly ugly birds. Although supposedly tasting delicious, the Australian brush turkey has won out with its protected status.

By By Carter Anderson, Tristan Moss, and Peter Merz

Why you shouldn't keep feeding the local turkey - feature photo

Its megapode relative, the orange-footed scrub fowl, is also not eaten due its protected status and strange defence mechanism - its meat tasting like rotting flesh.

In our relatively brief study, we looked into the growing population of brush turkeys potentially pushing out scrub fowl populations at two tourism hotspots in Australia’s Crater Lakes National Park. 

Both species are part of the Megapode family and are mound builders, meaning their nests are created by kicking up large piles of leaves, sticks, and forest debris. 

Due to their method of kicking up leaf litter in search of insects, seeds, and fruit, these birds help to shape and mould the surrounding environment.

The Australian brush turkey, the opportunistic bird of the bunch, can be found at nearly every picnic table or tourist area in the wet tropics, circling groups of people eating or brazenly walking up to tourists begging for food.

It's this comfort in interacting with people that has allowed the bush turkey to recover and spread as fast as they have. We set out to discover if this new availability of food from humans has caused their numbers to increase and how that is affecting the orange-footed scrub fowls.

As brush turkeys and orange-footed scrub fowl are ecosystem engineers, an influx of brush turkeys may have a lasting effect on the environment. 

Male brush turkeys will engage in a literal “King of the Hill” situation over mounds with the king presiding over the eggs and maintaining the mound. Females would approach the mound, lay their eggs and leave; they may not even be the king's offspring but he will maintain the mound.

Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham are both rainforest remnants that surround a lake made by a volcanic crater and together make up Crater Lakes National Park.  Nineteen students walked a total of 34km in the forest remnant around Lake Eacham and 45km around Lake Barrine to observe the two megapode species. 

Students also spent 60 total minutes listening for scrub fowl calls at both lake Eacham and Barrine in three different park locations. These listening periods occurred between 7am-8am, as this is when orange-footed scrub fowl are most vocal.

Australian brush turkeys were not included in the listening portion since they hardly ever call.

The number of birds was counted conservatively, only counting an individual if we were confident we had not heard or seen it already.

During the 20-minute listening periods, students heard 13 orange-footed scrub fowls at Lake Eacham and eight at Lake Barrine. On their walks students found the following: At Lake Barrine, there was a likelihood of encountering one scrub fowl for every 2km walked, and a likelihood of seeing one brush turkey for every 1km walked. 

This means at Lake Barrine, a brush turkey sighting was slightly over twice as likely as an orange-footed scrub fowl sighting. At Lake Eacham, a scrub fowl sighting was about every 2km. The major difference at Lake Eacham was that it was probable to see over three brush turkeys per 1km, meaning seeing an Australian brush turkey was over six times as likely as an orange-footed scrub fowl.

So, what do these numbers mean? Brush turkeys are known to display scavenger behaviour which makes their numbers grow in places where they can get food from humans. Lake Eacham has no trash cans to dispose of waste, so oftentimes Australian brush turkeys can be seen feeding on scraps left by people or being directly fed by park goers. 

The male brush turkeys also mate with multiple females and females can share a mound with others. The orange-footed scrub fowl displays quite different behaviour since they do not scavenge human food due to their intense fear.

Orange-footed scrub fowl also mate for life in pairs, according to a 1998 study conducted by Mochamad Indrawan. 

Brush turkeys reproduce more efficiently than orange-footed scrub fowl, as female brush turkeys are known to lay one egg every 2-5 days according to the New South Wales Government.  On the other hand, the female scrub fowl only lays one egg every 2-3 weeks as stated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

Brush turkeys have plenty of resources provided by humans in both of these forest remnants which is further proven by Lake Eacham being the more popular of the two sites having a larger gap in the difference between brush turkey and scrub fowl sightings per kilometre.

There are more opportunities for the brush turkeys to get food from people and therefore their numbers increase since the humans cannot legally harm them and only serve as a food source. 

In our experience at the two parks, scrub fowls and brush turkeys showed much different behaviours towards us as we approached them. 

Brush turkeys almost always approached us, one even running out of the brush towards us, seemingly expecting to be fed. Scrub fowls always quickly moved out of sight when we got near with no interest in us, but instead fear.

As human influence in natural areas increases, it is important to minimize our impact on species and their natural habitats. This holds true with species such as the brush turkey and their population influx to the Crater Lakes National Park. 

Humans come and feed the brush turkeys or leave scraps behind for them to eat. This brings an imbalance to the population of megapodes in the area without most humans even realising it. This is shown through the significantly larger brush turkey population per kilometre at Lake Eacham and the higher number of visitors at this site. 

Visiting these parks is a privilege and anything we do to the environment there is unnatural. This can sometimes have larger consequences than ever imaginable, such as the scrub fowl being driven to low numbers while brush turkey numbers skyrocket. Don’t feed the birds!


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