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Brush Turkey join the Wingtags flock

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In Site Giving Insight
Dr John Martin, wildlife ecologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, explains the branching out of the Wingtag citizen science project to include the Australian Brush-turkey. Brush-turkeys are an old world bird. The male birds build mounds that look like a pile of mulch (5m round and 1m high) which incubates the eggs that females lay. This is an old nesting behaviour that modern birds don’t use.

Also known as Bush-turkeys or Scrub-turkeys, Brush-turkeys actually occur from the Illawarra region all the way north to Cape York. They were found all over the Sydney region but humans changed the landscape and introduced predators, including themselves. Brush-turkeys were hunted in colonial settlement and their eggs were also a food source. Today in Sydney’s urban landscape there are threats from cats, dogs, foxes and cars. Anecdotally the Brush-turkey population has been recolonising areas where they used to occur, often in parallel with fox management by local councils. There is similar anecdotal evidence for increasing numbers of Lyrebirds, swamp wallabies and bandicoots in areas where there has been persistent fox control.

 Brush-turkeys and their eggs are a protected species which has also helped them recolonise, so while they are sometimes considered a menace (as they like to forage and build mound in lawns and gardens) anyone concerned should contact their local council for advice. Technology is fundamental to the Wingtag Project which Matthew Hall, a PhD student at Sydney University, will be doing over the next 3-4 years. Some birds have already been marked with yellow plastic wing-tags, and marking will continue across the Sydney region for the next few years. GPS transmitters will be put on birds using a backpack harness with a solar panel, using the mobile phone network to communicate the data. We are also interested in the location of nest mounds, and plan to monitor nests with motion-activated cameras. 

This will provide evidence on male behaviour, how many females are laying eggs, hatching timing and success, and the proximity to mounds to one another. All sightings of Brush-turkeys with wingtags can be submitted via the Wingtag app (Google Play & iTunes) although Matthew can also be contacted by email (brush.turkey2@gmail.com) with sightings or questions. 

Sightings are not just restricted to tagged birds. People can report untagged birds, nest mounds and nocturnal roosts, as well as dead birds (as a comment), providing data about the whole population; report your sightings via our website by searching Wingtags Project Brush-turkey. The project will provide data on how Brush-turkeys survive and how they move across the urban landscape. When their eggs hatch the chicks are independent and have no parental involvement so the project will also shed light on how the little chicks survive in urban areas with cats, dogs, foxes and cars. 

The data should show if there are different adaptations and behaviours in bush and urban habitats, and whether the same birds roost together all the time.
We will also assess how Brush-turkey behaviours interact with the landscape, possibly changing natural processes. The raking of leaf litter to make mounds is thought to increase the speed of leaf litter decomposition, speeding up that natural cycle.
Raking may also stimulate plant germination, a mechanism that hasn’t been in the landscape for a long time as this species has been excluded.

The Wingtags Project, then, is an important citizen science initiative. This project aims to provide insights into many aspects of our native brush turkeys. 

Dr John Martin was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images from Dr Martin. Summary text by Victor Barry March 2018.

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