The Plague of the Brush Turkey began one winter morning when looking out our bedroom window at 6am, we saw a parade of 10-12 birds, strutting along in front of our gate behind a majestic male. We rushed out and hurried them on. We saw them running across the road into neighbouring gardens or the bush. Previously we had erected our recycled bathroom mirror in the garden and watched as the birds danced in front of it, thinking the reflections were competitors and hastily left us alone. But this year was different. We were about to do battle with one determined male – Mad Max.
The Brush Turkey ( or Alectura Lathami) is a spectacular Australian native bird. Its plumage mirrors that of the Aboriginal flag and it is wide spread from Cape York to Kangaroo Island. This is a photo of the female but it is the male who does all the work in preparing the nest for the female to drop its extremely large eggs.
Brush turkeys are renowned for their huge nests, often 1 metre high by 3-4 metres wide. The male builds the nests by facing away from the pile and using his strong back legs and claws to scrape debris onto the pile. The nest, really a giant compost heap, must reach 33 degrees C to incubate the eggs, which the female obligingly lays and just walks off. The hatchlings are left to fend for themselves. Nests are usually built in the bush but environmentally fashioned gardens make perfect substitutes.
The weather warmed up. Our raised garden beds, having lain fallow over the winter, nicely composted and mulched, were ready for spring plantings of herbs and vegetables. Our friendly neighbours offered us some of their huge pile of woodchips to cover our papered-over walkways. It all looked rather pristine.
But within one weekend, the destruction was immense. We politely brought back the mirror, being prepared to negotiate, as you do in conflict situations. Other deterrent measures were tried, shade cloth, tarpaulins, old VHS tape but nothing worked. This male just scratched everything away, flew over our barriers and even scratched in front of the mirror. Plants were uprooted and flung all over the garden. The garden became a battleground.
Man of the House started a stockpile of weapons. This was now all out war. Rolled up newspapers, blocks of wood, old bits of polypipe were thrown in the direction of Mad Max, who either quickened his pace or just flew over the fence. Our back neighbour managed to cover the first mound with blue tarp, so Mad Max tried our place, which was much more open and featured 10 years worth of mulching and compost. Each morning, after another destructive evening scratching down to roots of trees, we raked away the mound. Finally under the banana and mango trees of our side neighbour, the mound took shape. But the raking in our place continued, despite the fence between the mound and our garden. The war with Mad Max became a heated topic of conversation with neighbours. ‘It’s a plague’ and ‘I’d wring its neck if we could catch it’ were heard over backyard fences. Recipes for roast turkey were exchanged and compared to eating a roasted stone. Chicken wire, we read, is a great deterrent because brush turkeys get their feet caught in the wire, so we proceeded to lay a 50 metre roll over all the garden, as perhaps a more humane gesture than neck wringing.
Eventually a female arrived, strutting around, flying up into the nearby palm tree and inspecting the nest. There was lots of whooping and clucking between Mad Max and his prospective mate. Was this perhaps the end? If the eggs were laid would the mound building miraculously come to a halt?
As August lengthened into September and spring arrived, other visitors emerged. A water dragon appeared sunning itself on our fish sculpture. We wishfully thought it might eat the eggs and prevent the next generation of marauders. Things settled and we cautiously planted out corn and bean seeds and a few coriander seedlings, hiding them under shade cloth and a wonderful little greenhouse, courtesy of Aldi. We went away for a few days. They survived unscathed. The garden looked untouched.
But now we’re back, so is Mad Max, crazily raking small sections of uncovered soil. Has the mound been a failure? Did the female choose another mound, Mad Max’s not being good enough? Or is he high on testosterone and looking for another mate? Or perhaps it is some perverse war we are fighting with him, unwinnable like so many real battles. Apparently the mating and mound building season ends in December. Our best Christmas present would be the disappearance of Mad Max and who knows what we’ll eat for Christmas dinner.