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Australian Brush-turkey (Alectura lathami) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

(Marchant and Higgins 1993, except as noted)

General

  • Move between roost and foraging areas
  • Most active at dawn and dusk
  • Spend most time on the ground (Jones and Göth 2008)
    • Roost in high trees

Roosting

  • Occurs year-round
  • Roost during mid-day and at night
    • Usually in groups, sometimes alone
  • During breeding, adult males roost near their mound

Breeding season

  • Spend less time in daytime roosts
  • Males
    • Spend most of the day at incubation mounds
    • Arrive at first light (before sunrise)
      • Females begin arriving at mounds about 30 minutes after sunrise (Jones 1988a)
    • Forage in the late morning, after females finish visiting mounds, and in the late afternoon
  • Females
    • Spend most of the day foraging, evaluating mounds/mates, and egg-laying

Non-breeding season

  • Both sexes forage for less than one hour after sunrise and for up to two hours before sunset
  • Feed intermittently throughout the day

Movements and Dispersal

Home range

  • Show fidelity to a home range (Jones and Göth 2008; Elliott and Kirwan 2017)
    • Do not migrate
  • Males stay within a home range during successive years (Elliott and Kirwan 2017)
    • Home range is larger during breeding (Jones 1990a)
  • Presence outside their normal home range probably due to escapes and illegal transactions (Elliott and Kirwan 2017)

Dispersal

  • Some chicks move far in their first five days of life (Göth and Vogel 2003; Jones and Göth 2008)
    • Able to fly farther than adults
    • On average, move 100-200 m (328-650 ft) (range: 5-800 m [3 ft-0.5 mi])
      • Chicks that move far are likely searching for habitats with dense vegetation that provides cover

Social Behavior

General

  • Solitary or found in groups (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
    • Depends on age, activity, time of day, and season (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
    • Young birds usually solitary (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
    • Adults typically solitary while foraging (Jones et al. 1995)
  • Formation of groups
    • Individuals of similar age and size may form groups (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
    • Females may also form small, female-only groups (Göth and Astheimer 2006)
    • Adults may congregate where food is abundant (Jones et al. 1995)
    • Largest groups (15-30 individuals) observed during nighttime roosting (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
  • Aggressive interactions

Young Brush-turkeys

  • Chick behavior
    • At first, solitary (Jones et al. 1995)
      • Do not join communal roosts (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
    • Join social groups within a few weeks (Jones et al. 1995)
  • Chicks do not depend on each other for survival (Barry and Göth 2006)
    • May aggregate around food or shelter resources
  • Social behaviors are present from the time of hatching (Göth and Jones 2003)
    • Not learned from adults or other chicks (Göth and Jones 2003; Göth and Evans 2005)
    • Chicks exhibit all the behaviors of adults, except for reproductive behaviors (Göth and Jones 2003)
  • Juveniles
    • Associate with each other during the first few months of life (Jones et al. 1995)

Behavior of adults: non-breeding season

  • Congregate in trees used for mid-day resting (Jones et al. 1995)
  • At night, join communal roosts (Jones et al. 1995)
    • Males attempt to displace each other from roost sites

Behavior of adults: breeding season

  • Males
    • Mainly interact with brush-turkeys that approach the mound (Jones et al. 1995)
    • At night, roost near the mound(s) they maintain (Jones et al. 1995)
    • Conspicuous wattle used during social interactions (Jones and Göth 2008)
      • In establishing dominance, dominant males extend their wattles and subordinate males retract their wattles
    • Jones et al. (1995) state that breeding males form relatively linear hierarchies
      • Additional research needed
  • Females (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
    • Solitary when visiting mounds
    • Roost with other Brush-turkeys, near the mound they are visiting (Jones et al. 1995)

Communication

Visual communication

  • Use bright neck wattle and tail in social displays (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
    • Neck wattle expands during aggressive signaling
      • Stretch/retract neck to expose more/less of wattle coloration
    • Spread or fold tail when disturbed or in dominance confrontations
  • Wing postures (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
    • Wings held close to body when relaxed
    • Wings held out when aggressive and down when submissive
      • These postures used in some courtship displays
  • Role of UV reflectance (Göth and Evans 2004; Jones and Göth 2008)
    • UV light reflects off the legs, beaks, and wattles of Brush-turkeys
    • Not well-studied
    • Possibly provides a channel of “private” communication
      • May be seen as a “glow” in shady, forest habitat
      • Might prevent detection by predators
        • Vocalizations are easily detected by mammalian predators, but most do not see UV wavelengths
    • Chicks respond to short wavelength light reflected off the legs—and to a lesser extent—the beak of another chick

Vocalizations

  • Adults
    • “Boom” call (Jones et al. 1995; Elliott and Kirwan 2017, except as noted)
      • Only made by adult male
      • Stance and sound production
        • Male stands with head lowered and bill pointed toward the ground (Jones and Göth 2008)
        • Inflates large wattle (hanging neck skin) and forces air out through nostrils
      • Characteristics
        • Varies in complexity
          • Monosyllabic: oom
          • Bisyllabic: oo-oom
          • Older males may give longer booms of 5-6 syllables
        • Can be repeated several times in a minute
          • Rarely more than 20 calls per morning
      • Contexts
        • At the mound, except in the presence of females
          • Used to advertise to females and deter rival males
        • During aggressive contests for food and dominance
        • At roosts
    • Low, deep, gulping sound (Jones and Göth 2008; Elliott and Kirwan 2017)
      • Contact call used by males and females, usually near a mound
    • Rapid, repetitive call (Jones and Göth 2008)
      • Produced when disturbed
    • High-pitched “scream” (Elliott and Kirwan 2017)
      • Only made in distress, when caught (by a predator or human)
      • Bill is held open when producing this vocalization
  • Chicks and juveniles (Jones et al. 1995; Göth and Jones 2003; Elliott and Kirwan 2017, except as noted)
    • Sounds limited to a few soft grunts
    • Chicks
      • Visually scan their environment more often when hear other chicks calling (Göth and Evans 2004)
        • Do not return calls of conspecifics
      • Call more frequently after two weeks’ of age (Barry and Göth 2006)
    • First-year males
      • Incapable of booming
        • Neck wattle needs to develop first

Agonistic Behavior and Defense

Defense

  • Escape from predators
    • Adults have strong legs to run from predators (Jones and Göth 2008; Dial and Jackson 2011)
    • If grabbed by its long tail, a Brush-turkey can shed all of its tail feathers, almost instantly (Jones and Göth 2008)
      • Similar to the tail-shedding ability of some lizards
  • Courtship aggression
    • Female shields her head and body with a wing when a male pecks at her (Jones et al. 1995)
  • Chicks (Göth 2001)
    • Crouch and freeze, or run for cover
      • Do not fly
    • May respond to songbird alarm calls

Aggression

  • Food competition
    • Both sexes show aggression when foraging in groups (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
  • Males
    • Show aggression throughout the year (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
    • Most aggressive during the breeding season (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
      • Defend mounds, but not territories (Jones et al. 1995)
    • Behaviors (Jones et al. 1995)
      • Commonly chase, peck, bite, and charge opponent
      • Rarely fight
      • Boom vocalization
        • Produced with neck wattle expanded
        • Appears to be a status symbol
  • Females
    • During breeding, show aggression to each other at mounds (Jones et al. 1995), except while laying (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
    • Variation in behaviors
      • Some may be tolerant of other females, some chase and fight violently
      • Chase behavior is common
      • Fights are less common
        • Female leaps upon rival and scratches with feet

Other Behaviors

For detailed descriptions of behaviors, see Marchant and Higgins (1993).

Dust bathing

  • While squatting, scratch dirt with powerful feet and lean from side to side (Dow 1988a)
    • May aid the molting of feathers or reduce parasite loads

Sunbathing

  • Lay on side and extend wings to gather the sun’s rays (Dow 1988a)

Ecological Role

Mound building

  • Male builds and maintains an incubation mound (Jones and Göth 2008, and as noted)
    • Leaf litter, seeds, and fruits accumulate in the mound
      • May have a profound effect on forest structure and nutrient transport (Jones 1988b)
    • Surrounding area becomes bare
    • For more detail, see Courtship and Incubation Mounds

Interspecies Interactions

Feral pigs

(Natusch et al. 2017)

  • Avoided by Australian Brush-turkeys
  • When pigs leave a foraging area, Brush-turkeys move in to procure exposed food items
    • Compete with other bird species (e.g., cockatoos and doves) for newly exposed food

Invasive cane toads

  • Some predators of Australian Brush-turkeys (e.g., monitor lizards) are poisoned by these toads (Jolly et al. 2015)
    • Brush-turkey populations increase due to lower predation pressure

Relationship with humans

  • In some areas, interactions with humans are rare
    • Brush-turkeys are shy; avoid people (Jones and Göth 2008)
    • Challenging to spot, despite large body and colorful head and neck (Jones and Göth 2008)
      • More easily detected by listening for sounds of scratching in leaf litter or while building incubation mounds
  • In other areas, interact with humans frequently
    • Commonly encountered on the East Coast of Australia (Jones and Göth 2008)
    • Become habituated to humans near urban areas (Warnken et al. 2004; Jones and Göth 2008)
      • Encountered in picnic areas, campgrounds, and other suburban areas (Jones and Göth 2008)
      • Scavenge for food scraps
    • Frequently hand-fed (Warnken et al. 2004)
      • May solicit food from humans
      • Brush-turkey densities increase when fed by people
        • Trampling results in damage to vegetation and soil
    • In some places, cause considerable damage to gardens (Göth et al. 2006; Jones and Göth 2008)
      • May enter gardens looking for food (e.g., pet food, compost scraps) and then decide to stay for breeding
      • Mound-building denudes topsoil and may prevent the growth of young plants
    • May cause damage to orchards by damaging plant root systems and eating fruits (Hopkins 1972; Marchant and Higgins 1993)
  • Also see Threats to Survival

Locomotion

Running

  • Adults mainly use their powerful legs to outrun predators (Dial and Jackson 2011)
    • May use wings to make brief escape flights
  • Chicks run fast and fly (Jones and Göth 2008)
    • Spread their large wings as they run (Dial and Jackson 2011)
    • Speed and lift allow them to make vertical climbs (Dial and Jackson 2011)
    • Behavior used to navigate environment or reach the safety of high places (earth mound, tree branch, boulder, cliff) (Jones and Göth 2008)

Flying

  • Hatchlings able to fly on first day following emergence (Jones and Göth 2008)
  • Young birds capable of flying longer distances than adults (Jones and Göth 2008)

Outpacing Predators

Australian Brush-turkey running

With long legs, adult Brush-turkeys can outrun most predators.

If a predator grabs its tail, a Brush-turkey can escape by shedding all of its tail feathers, almost instantly.

Image credit: © Jim Bendon via Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareALike License 2.0. Some rights reserved.

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