Prior to moving to Australia, I’d never had a great interest in birds. Sure, they’re pleasant enough and I like to hear them sing, aside from a 4am dawn chorus, but I’d never really noticed them much.
With all their colourful feathers, a cacophony of noisy calls and a myriad of bizarre beaks, it’s almost impossible not to notice Australia’s avian inhabitants and we’ve become veritable twitchers since we’ve arrived!
When it comes to birds, like with many of its other features, Australia is a country of extremes and is home to the world’s smallest penguin, two of the largest birds on the planet, the place where you can find the most dangerous bird in the world (naturally!), and also boasts the bird with the world’s largest beak amongst its 830 or so feathered fowl.
It has taken me a while to get to grips with who belongs here and who doesn’t which has seen me very surprised when the unusual lorikeet I was trying to photograph from a balcony landed on my shoulder and gave me a kiss (it was an escaped pet South American Sun Conure), and also had me trying to ‘rescue’ an escaped cockatiel which the locals managed to tell me (between fits of hysterical laughter), was actually a native Pale Headed Rosella!
From the big and the beautiful to the bad and the ugly, these are our most – and least – favourite winged wonders and where to find them (or avoid them!).
Famed for sitting in the Old Gum Tree in the Children’s song familiar to Australians and Brits alike, the Kookaburra is one of Australia’s most iconic birds.
The loud cackling cry of the Kookaburra, likened to the sound of human laughter by many, is a sound you are unlikely to forget once you’ve heard it, and one which always makes me feel joyous.
Although the Kookaburra’s laughter sounds like he’s just heard the funniest joke ever told, his mirthful melody is in fact used to mark territory. The call tends to be especially raucous around dawn and dusk, and as such the Kookaburra has gained himself a reputation as the bushman’s alarm clock.
Kookaburra’s are the largest members of the Kingfisher family, although unlike the remainder of the family, they seldom eat fish. Their menu choices include insects, frogs, lizards, small birds and they’ll tackle snakes up to around 1 metre in length, including the venomous ones, by grabbing them behind the head to avoid the fangs. It is not uncommon for Kookaburras to use small snakes to teach their chicks how to kill their meal.
Kookaburras in more urban areas and where human contact is common have developed a taste for processed foods, and will brazenly swoop down to grab items from picnic tables, peoples hands and even straight off the barbie; you should be aware that if you are tending to the outdoor grill, you’re not the only one keeping an eye on those snags! (sausages for those unfamiliar with Aussie slang)
Kookaburras will sit on a branch keeping watch for a passing meal and once they’ve spotted something tasty, they will swoop down and land next to it, taking it with their powerful beaks which can grow up to 10cm in length. They will bash the unfortunate catch against a rock or tree to kill it before eating it whole. Interestingly, the same ‘bash to kill’ behaviour exists even for those stolen sausages; try not to take it personally!
In the case of larger snakes, they have been observed to drop them from height to make the kill.
Although Kookaburras are, the world over, recognised as Australian birds, of the 4 members of the species, only 2 call Australia home. The laughing kookaburra is found in Eastern Australia and Tasmania, with introduced populations also found in the south of Western Australia and New-Zealand. The smaller blue winged kookaburra occupies northern Australia. Both the Roufus bellied and Spangled members of the family live in Papa New Guinea and surrounding islands. A further bird, the Shovel Billed Kookaburra is in fact a member of a different Kingfisher family.
Kookaburras mate for life and will always use the same spot to nest in, either a tree hole or an arboreal termite mound. Both parents will take care of the eggs and hatchlings, and after fledging, offspring usually stick around to help rear their siblings and maintain the family’s territory.
Kookaburras generally live in wooded areas where there are plenty of nesting trees available. If you don’t want to share your sausages, you now know it’s best not to pick that public barbecue with the lovely shady tree!
The ibis was one of the first birds we encountered when we arrived in Australia; not much of a looker, it has predominantly white plumage (often somewhat discoloured and grubby looking), a bald black head, long neck and a long narrow curved beak.
The ibis is a wading bird, its beak allowing it to dig for crayfish and shell fish.
Since the 1970’s, however, the Ibis has migrated into urban areas where it prefers to scavenge for food and is disparagingly referred to by many Australians as a ‘bin chicken’ or ‘tip turkey’ due to its rather unsavoury tendency to rifle through bins in search of food, or as a ‘picnic pirate’ for brazen attempts to steal snacks from those dining outside.
When we asked a local the identity of these irksome characters, he offered us some sound advice about cooking one; first, you must find a large cooking pot into which you place the ibis with a brick on top to prevent escape. You add water and bring to the boil. Once you are confident that the Ibis is cooked, you drain the water, discard the Ibis and attempt to eat the brick instead!
Sadly though, such murderous thoughts cannot be actioned as the Ibis is a protected species with heavy penalties facing those who take action against picnic pilage. Fortunately for us, Sam enjoys little more than to chase these big beaked baddies allowing the rest of us to dine in peace.
Interestingly, its African cousin is the sacred ibis, proclaimed to be one of the first birds to be released from the arc by Noah as a sign of fertility.
Whilst it may be considered as a lovable rogue to many Australians, it is doubtful it will ever be cherished. That said, it was only narrowly pipped to the post as Australias most popular bird in the 2017 Australian bird of the year contest, second only to the magpie who won the crown! I guess that just goes to show that everybody loves a villan.
As for where to find them, just lay out a feast and you’ll wish you’d never asked!
Rainbow Lorikeets and friends
A firm favourite of mine amongst Australian birdlife dating back to our first visit to Australia, rainbow lorikeets are Australia’s answer to sparrows in English gardens, being the most commonly seen bird in back yards here. They are widely distributed across the east coast of Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, with an introduced population now calling Perth home.
These noisy parrots would certainly stand a good chance of winning an avian beauty pageant with their striking feathers; they are predominantly a very bright shade of green with royal blue heads and abdomens, gold and crimson chests and orange beaks with males and females rocking the same colourway. Younger birds are distinguishable by their black beaks which turn orange as they mature.
Lorikeets are nectar feeders, using their special brush like tongues to collect pollen from native flowers such as the flowering Eucalyptus, grevilleas and bottle brush trees. They also enjoy fruit and berries.
Many residents and visitors to Australia will experience a close encounter with Lorikeets who are inclined to fly low and whistle past your ear, usually remembering to emit a loud squawk as they do so.
We’ve had a closer encounter still when Stu found one apparently drowned in our pool; closer inspection however revealed that ‘Laurie’ was still alive although rather waterlogged. He was carefully towel dried and finished off with a hair dryer, seemingly too grateful to his rescuers to be frightened.
Fully dried and energised with a helping of Lorikeet food, we attempted to send him on his way, much to Sam’s distress, but the little bird seemed unable to fly.
Darkness and a storm were setting in, and with no apparent injuries hampering his farewell, we opted to
roost him in the garage overnight. When morning came, he was still on his roosting perch and hadn’t uttered a note of complaint. We could hear a number of Lorikeets coming and going outside, then suddenly, as another shriek was heard from the garden, our colourful visitor went absolutely bezerk! We opened the garage door to find 2 lorikeets perched on our fence and realised that Laurie was their fledgling. After several false starts, Laurie was airborne and reunited with mum and dad.
As our happy story demonstrates, rainbow lorikeets are very loyal birds; they are monogamous and both parents take care of their eggs and hatchlings for 8 weeks in the nest (usually a tree hollow), and then another 2 weeks after fledging.
Lorikeets tend to travel in sizable flocks and will look out for their fellow parrot, warning the flock if they sense danger; it is not unusual to see (and hear!) enormous flocks of green flying at high speed together if the alarm is raised.
You will have no trouble spotting lorikeets throughout their distribution, especially if you seek out flowering trees. If you’re keen to get a little closer and to feed them, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary on the Gold Coast and Thunderbird Park on Tamborine Mountain are both excellent places to visit. At Currumbin, feeding time is attended by hundreds of Lorikeets who will happily land all over you, but be prepared for their parting gift of ‘something they ate earlier’!
Look out also for the Scaly Breasted Lorikeet, a fellow inhabitant of Eastern Australia.
Although lacking the rainbow spectrum of plumage beloved of the Rainbow Lorikeet, the Scaly Breasted Lorikeet is similarly striking sharing the bright green feathers of its cousin, whilst its yellow belly feathers tipped with green give it a somewhat scaly appearance.
Their beaks, eyes and the under feathers of their wings are bright red/orange. Scaly Breasted Lorikeets are often seen flying in flocks with Rainbow Lorikeets, sharing the same taste in flowering plants.
Next time you see Rainbow Lorikeets, see if you can spot the odd one out.
Another Lorikeet species we’ve been lucky enough to spot whilst we were visiting Tasmania is the Musk Lorikeet which are found only in South Eastern parts of Australia. I had stopped to photograph a beautiful flowering gum tree only to find an even more beautiful parrot!
Another nectar eater, Musk Lorikeets will follow the flowering and fruiting of their favourite feed trees and will travel long distances over the course of the season seeking out sugar.
With the word ‘Emu’ coming from a Portuguese or Arabic word meaning ‘big bird’, these giants are aptly named given that they are the second largest birds in the world with only their cousin, the Ostrich overtaking them on the size front. They can reach heights of up to 2 meters tall and weigh in at up to 60Kg.
Females are larger than males and might well ask if their bum looks big since they are considerably wider across the rear than their male counterparts (although I hope he has the sense not to tell her as much!).
Their Latin name, ‘Dromaius’ meaning ‘racer’ is no less fitting with these monstrous movers being able to reach speeds of up to 30Kmph on land and sustaining this speed over long distances when necessary.
Emu’s have three forward facing toes which help them to grip the ground and achieve their Olympic standard sprints, something they share with their dinosaur ancestors and making them akin to a living fossil.
Although flightless, an Emu’s wings are not altogether redundant, serving as steering and stabilizing aids during sprints and also acting as an inbuilt fan.
With their size on their side, they have few predators although Dingoes and crocodiles will take them on. Wedge tailed eagles are capable of launching an aerial assault, during which an Emu will run in a zigzag path to avoid such an attack. They will also use their powerful legs to kick would be predators.
Emu eggs make a hearty meal for nest raiders such as snakes and goannas.
Humans also have a taste for both Emu meat and eggs although the majority of both are now derived through farming of the birds rather than hunting. Emu eggs are vey large and an Emu egg omlette will feed up to six adults!
Emu’s store plenty of fat and an adult Emu will yield around 3 gallons of oil which is used in cosmetics and toiletries.
Emu’s play an important role in Aboriginal culture both as a food source and spiritually; the Yuwaalaraay people of New South Wales tell a Dreamtime (creation) story of how the sun was formed by the throwing of an Emu egg into the sky.
Emu feathers are used decoratively during ceremonies for some Aboriginal groups.
In modern Australian culture, the Emu stands opposite the Kangaroo on the Australian coat of arms, both representing progress since neither can move backwards, only forwards.
Emu’s are foragers and whilst most of their dietary choices such as seeds and insects seem usual enough, they will also dine on other animal’s poop and will swallow stones into their gizzard to aid with grinding up their meal.
Emu’s will walk vast distances to seek out new foraging grounds, and with swimming ranking amongst their talents, they will even cross rivers to reach new dung devouring territories.
Emu feathers are quite special with each follicle giving rise to two feathers. Whilst the individual hairs (vanes) of most bird feathers are tethered together with barbs, those of the Emu are not, giving them a much softer, fluffier quality.
The only downside to their peculiar plumage is that it is not waterproof, leaving the Emu looking rather bedraggled after a swim or heavy rain.
Males are the more subservient of a mating pair in the Emu world (perhaps he let slip that ‘big bum’ comment after all?!) with dad being solely in charge of nest building, incubating of the eggs and raising of the chicks.
After laying up to 10 Emerald green eggs over the course of several days, mum will wander off, frequently seeing another mate whist dad is left sitting on the eggs for around 7-8 weeks, during which time he doesn’t eat or drink himself.
He will then remain with his hatchlings until they are 4-6 months old and can forage independently. Feisty females will fight over an unpaired male.
Emu’s are distributed throughout Australia but tend to favour woodland and grassland areas with good access to water.
The Emu epicenter of Australia is Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve in Victoria where there is an abundant population and therefore a good chance of spotting a wild one.
Cassowaries are right up there with the Emu in the large bird stakes, being the third largest bird in the world and although shorter in stature then the Emu, it is actually heavier.
They are, however, much rarer. There are three species of Cassowaries; Whilst Northern and Dwarf Cassowaries are found only in Papau New Guinea and surrounding islands, the Southern Cassowary which is the largest of the three is found only in the wet tropics of North East Queensland.
The name Cassowary is derived from the Papaun words ‘kasu’ meaning ‘horned’ and ‘weri’ meaning ‘head’, referring to the hollow keratinized helmet or ‘casque’ on the tops of their heads.
These peculiar protrusions can actually help to identify one bird from another as they often differ considerably in appearance between individuals, some being taller and others sloping at a quirky angle.
Stu and I were lucky enough to spot a pair of Southern Cassowaries crossing the road
just outside of Kuranda near Cairns after much searching, resulting in the sort of rapid halt Stu is becoming used to being married to a wildlife lover!
Mission beach is also a great place for a spot of Cassowary catching, with the Dreaming Trail located on the El Arish to Mission Beach Road being a prime location for sightings and cassowaries frequently being spotted wondering along the beach. Cassowaries are rather shy and elusive however, so patience is a must if you want to see one in the flesh.
Given their shy nature, it may come as somewhat of a surprise to learn that cassowaries are considered to be the most dangerous bird in the world!
They owe this title to their formidable feet. Each of their three toes is armed with a sharp dagger like claw and these can grow up to 12cm in length. Combine these with the powerful kick that their muscular legs can inflict and you have yourself a bonafide feathered killing machine. An attacking Cassowary will often launch itself into the air to deliver the harmful blow.
In reality, there have only been 2 recorded human deaths caused by cassowaries and of the recorded cassowary attacks on humans, many were provoked by the birds trying to defend either themselves or their chicks and eggs. Canine deaths have also been attributed to cassowaries in similar circumstances.
Interestingly, the provocation for most attacks on humans by cassowaries have involved food; in many cases, the cassowary was protecting its own natural food source, and in others cassowaries who have grown accustomed to handouts have caused injuries by snatching food from human hands.
This is a striking demonstration of how dangerous it can be for wildlife to become dependent upon humans for nutrition. It is in fact illegal to feed cassowaries in Australia.
The good news however is that you’re unlikely to come under feathered fire from these curious birds provided you leave them alone. Nevertheless, it’s best to take note of the warning signs to be ‘cass-o-wary’.
As is frequently the case with wildlife, humans pose a far greater threat to them than they to us.
Habitat destruction as a result of housing developments has had a devastating blow to the species with many birds also being killed by cars on the roads, which goes hand in hand with human habitation. Dog attacks also pose a threat to the species.
Cassowaries play a very important role in the health of rainforests on account of their poop! Their diet comprises mainly of fruit and in dense rainforest habitats, they are the only inhabitant large enough to transport the large seeds of some fruit trees to other parts of the forest in their faeces. Most seeds pass through their digestive tracts intact and ready to germinate in the natural compost within which they are deposited.
With poop facts being a Cooper family favourite (something to do with being a primarily male household I suspect), it seems a shame to stop at just the one … Cassowary poop is often purple in colour and fruity fragranced on account of their dietary
preferences. This perfumed pile which frequently contains undigested fruit is often back on the menu for both the producer and any other passing cassowaries. Yummy!
Much of the behavior of cassowaries is similar to that of their larger cousin the Emu in respect of their breeding behavior, with dad being the egg sitter. They also share the Emu’s running and swimming abilities.
The Tawny Frogmouth
First appearances are deceptive with this character who strongly resembles an owl, but with relatively weak feet and no sharp talons to catch and dismember his pray, that is where the similarity ends.
The Tawny Frogmouth is a master of disguise, his mottled brown and beige feathers camouflaging him perfectly against his treetop roost making him very difficult to spot. He will additionally stretch himself out to resemble a dead tree branch in a further bid to remain undetected.
It was by pure chance that myself and the boys caught sight of one whilst returning to our car one day, looking up just as he decided to open his beautiful amber eyes and stare right back at us!
He sat absolutely still and almost appeared to be in denial about having been spotted; it is known that these birds favoured defense mechanism is to simply pretend they are not there at all.
They do have one or two other tricks up their sleeve if feigned absence fails however; staring contests are followed by pecking at an intruder and if all else fails, they will resort to showering the persistent persecutor in poop! (see, I told you we like poop facts…)
Natures quintessential lovebirds, Tawny Frogmouths mate for life and will even evict their offspring once they’ve out-stayed their welcome so that they can snuggle up close and groom one another. On occasions when one of the pair falls off their mortal coil, the remaining frogmouth will adopt a whimpering call and will reject potential new suitors in what has been described as a period of mourning. Newly orphaned chicks will produce a similar cry.
Tawny Frogmouths will pounce on small mammals, reptiles, birds and insects and catch nocturnal insects in flight, a behaviour which has sadly led to them being killed on occasions by chasing insects illuminated by a car’s headlights.
These birds are found throughout Australia with the exception of treeless deserts and very dense rainforests, but you will have to look very hard to spot one.
Another of my favourite bird characters here in Australia are sulphur crested cockatoos.
My first encounter with these beautiful and intelligent birds was when we visited the botanical gardens in Sydney in the days before children. We saw several tourists with bags of feed which they were using to lure the birds down from the trees and have them sit of their heads and shoulders.
As an animal lover, I of course wanted my own feathered hair accessory and trotted off to acquire the necessary bait.
What followed was a desperate hour of me trying to coax one of the many crested critters down from the trees but to no avail.
In the end, I reluctantly had to admit defeat as Stu’s thoughts turned to food; we sprinkled the feed on the ground for the waiting geese. Naturally, this was when one of my marks decided he was hungry and came swooping down for his fill. Clearly annoyed that I hadn’t saved him any, he started attacking my feet!
Quite apart from the beautiful picture I’d intended, once Stu had composed himself to get snap happy, he managed to capture me reeling backwards with a mass of feathered fury hanging off my toe! Nevertheless, they still have a special place in my heart.
Australia is home to 14 species of cockatoo, of which the sulphur crested cockatoo is but one. Sulphur crested cockatoos are distributed all along Eastern Australia as well as across the Northern Territory, Victoria and Tasmania and have been introduced to Western Australia. They are usually found in wooded and built up areas.
They are amongst the largest of cockatoo species and usually live between 20 – 40 years in the wild although they can live up to around 80 years in captivity.
They have a very distinctive loud, screechy cry and are often heard before they are seen!
Sulpher crested cockatoos are intelligent birds who adapt well to new situations and can learn to mimic human speech and even use it in the correct context.
They use their distinctive crest to express their emotions, and will flare this when excited or alarmed and always when Sam is in the vicinity!
They tend to live in flocks and take turns as ‘lookout’ whilst their friends are foraging for food on the ground; they eat mostly seeds.
They are monogamous birds, choosing one mate for life and both with incubate the eggs and feed their young.
Another of my favourite birds in the cockatoo family is the pink Galah.
With everything in Australia being so new to us when we first arrived, I was careful never to leave my camera at home but one morning I got caught out. Leaving in a hurry for the school run, I didn’t think to pick it up. Of course, that’s the day we saw several pink Galah’s sitting on a low branch asking to be photographed.
Alas, having dropped the kids and scooted back for the camera, they had moved to a much higher branch.
Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I decided to take a few snaps anyway, cursing my earlier lack of preparation.
When I got home and uploaded the pictures to the computer, however, I couldn’t believe my eyes; there, above my preening lovebirds, formed by the light and leaves, was a perfect heart!
It’s fair to say I have plagued Stu with my lucky capture ever since and I’ve even framed a copy for his office wall so he can be reminded of my triumph on a daily basis!
We’ve still got plenty of cockatoo spotting to do ourselves having only seen red tailed black cockatoos
and Major Mitchell’s cockatoo in captivity to date and only fleeting glimpses of a yellow tailed black Cockatoo, with many other species still to discover.
If you are visiting Sydney, try your own luck with enticing a Sulpher crested cockatoo down from the trees, but don’t expect any gratitude!
Masked Plover / Masked Lapwing
This bird certainly does nothing to help reassure visitors to Australia that the wildlife isn’t out to get them!
Whilst reasonably harmless during the summer and Autumn months, they appear to become possessed during the Spring whilst nesting, making them somewhat unpopular with the locals and certainly not ranking on our favourites list!.
I say ‘nesting’ in the very loosest sense of the word; plovers will choose a flat place to lay their eggs and will defend it to the death. Too bad if that ‘place’ happens to be your front lawn, the school playing field or the runway at the airport! Standoffs between the mighty plover and the silver bird have resulted in bird strikes by planes on more than one occasion.
Anyone felt to be encroaching on the spot they’ve laid claim to will first receive an ear-piercing continuous warning call which rapidly escalates to a display of fanned wings. If this fails, they will attack the perpetrator with their feet and a spur on their wings.
Hatchlings, which are born with a fluffy brown coat, are able to start foraging themselves after just a few hours. Parent birds are equally diligent in their protection of a new chick and will even ‘protect’ a non-existent nest as a diversion tactic to keep would be predators away from their offspring.
One defiant and obtuse pair of pesky Plovers have chosen the high transit area of grass separating the front entrance of the boy’s school from the car park as their regular nesting spot. As such, they spend either end of the school day squawking at the poor kids and parents who pass by on their way in and out of the building leading me to wonder how a Plover egg would taste scrambled!
New Zealand and Papau New Guinea are lucky enough to share this territorial tyrant amongst their native birdlife, with the Australian contingent favouring the North East of the country.
They are ground dwelling birds although capable of flight, and feed on insects and worms they find just below the ground. Lacking the relative protection of a roosting tree, plovers must remain on high alert making them virtual insomniacs who never really sleep.
In my opinion, they are Australia’s biggest birdbrains!
There are nine sub-species of Magpie in Australia whose plumage varies in pattern and the distribution of their black and white feathers. They are widely distributed across the country, only absent from the arid deserts and very dense rainforests which lack the grassy habitat of their pray.
Their taste for insects makes them a great friend to farmers and gardeners alike. Magpies have very sensitive ears and are actually able to hear their favourite snacks moving around under the ground.
The Australian magpie is probably best known for its bothersome swooping tendencies during the breeding season in early spring.
A familiar and placid character for much of the year, a small proportion of malicious males go to great lengths to protect their nests from potential threats which in essence is any unfamiliar person who inadvertently crosses their path. Unfortunately, since many choose to nest in parkland areas, there are an awful lot of ‘unfamiliar persons’!
Magpies have particular disdain for cyclists and its very common to see cycle helmets in Australia adorned with multiple zip-ties designed to ward off would be swoopers.
The good news for property owners in Magpie territory is that they are extremely intelligent birds with very proficient memories. They are able to recognize human faces and are unlikely to swoop you if they have gotten to know, trust you and don’t perceive you as a threat.
Unfortunately, by the same rote, their photographic facial recognition skills are bad news for those to whom Mr Magpie has taken a dislike; he remembers his enemies as well as his friends and if he’s swooped you once, chances are, he’ll come back for you again!
It is said that Magpies are less likely to swoop if you look directly at them, as they generally attack from behind. Having eyes in the back of your head is a useful strategy and precautions such as wearing a pair of sunglasses on the back of your hat or painting eyeballs on your skid lid can help to mitigate the malice.
Despite their ruffian reputation, most magpies are charming creatures, known to befriend humans and on occasions invite themselves into people’s homes to see what food they can filch.
Whilst I was trying to obtain photographs of magpies to accompany this post, I met some residents who had befriended the pair I’d set my sights on. They would turn up daily to claim offerings of raw mince, and I was charmed to have them literally eating out of my hand!
Magpies will even introduce their offspring to their human friends.
The caroling of the magpie is a familiar tune to all Australians but magpies are great mimics and can impersonate a range of other native birds as well as cats, dogs, car alarms and even human speech. The next time you hear a dog barking outside your window, check it’s not a feathered one!
The Bush Turkey (Brush Turkey / Scrub Turkey)
With the word turkey comes images of a golden roasted bird as the centerpiece for festive celebrations. For Bush Turkey, however, such culinary delights are way off the mark, with the cooking instructions being much the same as for those of the Ibis!
Historically, they haven’t proved to be a popular food source for the Aboriginal people or European settlers. Their only peak in popularity as a foodstuff came during the great depression of the 1930’s when money was tight and these easy to catch birds provided a little protein on the menu.
With his roast dinner rejection and his current status as a protected species, you will have to hold off on the cranberry sauce whilst the Bush Turkey thinks all of his Christmases have come at once now he is squarely off the menu!
These predominantly black birds with their bald red heads and necks and yellow wattles around their throats are distributed throughout Eastern parts of Australia.
Whilst an English man’s home is his castle, so a male Bush Turkey’s mound is his. Rather than building a nest, male bush turkeys work tirelessly to build incubation mounds which are, in effect, carefully constructed compost heaps. These mounds can reach up to 1.5metres in height and span a diameter of up to 4 meters.
Size isn’t everything, however; the rotting vegetation from which these mouldy masterpieces are made produces heat which serves to incubate their eggs.
Female turkeys will only lay eggs in those at the right temperature. A male will therefore spend many hours per day perfecting his pile, using his beak as a thermometer to monitor conditions. Too cool, and he will add more mulch to the top, too warm and the upper layers of insulation are raked away.
His efforts though are rewarded; if his is a nest to impress, she’ll be back to lay again.
Somewhat promiscuous in their reproductive behaviours, males will mate with and incubate the eggs of several females, whilst she will lay in a number of nests. One mound may hold as many as 50 eggs.
Paternity of the guarded eggs is by no means guaranteed, and research has shown that up to 60% of the eggs in a males mound are not actually his.
He can perhaps be forgiven, therefore, for having no interest in the hatchlings; with mum long gone and dads territorial instincts in guarding his mound extending even towards his offspring, baby bush turkeys are effectively orphaned before they have hatched.
Fortunately, hatchlings emerge fully feathered and capable of running and flying within hours, learning to forage for themselves and dodge predators on the job.
That said, as few as one in two hundred will eventually reach adulthood, with snakes and goanas picking off rural chicks whilst cars, cats and dogs pose a threat to urban dwellers.
With much of their natural woodland and rainforest habitat giving way to housing development, Bush Turkeys have adapted surprisingly well to their new surroundings.
Natural foragers and omnivores, Turkey’s are quite content to feast on food discarded by humans and delighted with the offerings of a square meal presented in a pet food bowl.
Mulched gardens provide all the raw materials Mr B.T. requires for a magnificent mound although his gardening style may leave a lot to be desired for his human hosts. Encouraging a male to seek an alternative location for his labours, however, is often futile, so strong is his drive to build his mound and may leave man and beast rather at odds.
Much like his rejected cooking pot companion the Ibis, Bush Turkeys are similarly unwelcome at picnics and just as inclined to attempt to help themselves from unguarded bags.
He is fondly chastised though rather than hated, especially in places where Bush Turkey’s are abundant. Hastings street in Noosa pedals plenty of Bush Turkey merchandise celebrating this feathered foe.
With so many birds calling Australia home, it would be impossible to write about them all, and these are only a tiny proportion of the ones we have encountered so far. In our time living here, we have observed, admired, heard and learnt so much about these feathered friends and regularly stumble across birds that we’ve never seen before.
What a wonderful adventure it must have been for those early settlers getting to meet all these curious characters and hear their varied voices for the first time. It certainly has been for us.
From the tiny to the tuneful, the bizarre to the beautiful and every bird in between, we hope that you enjoy the birds that surround you every day or the ones you may encounter when you visit as much as we do.