Today, here in the U.S., an annual tradition is underway; Thanksgiving. I sincerely hope that those of you that celebrate this festivity are hanging out with friends, family, or anyone that you care about, smartly swaddled in your best harvest sweaters. I hope by now, your unapologetically racist uncle has ceased his impassioned musings on how “all lives matter” and his declarations on how Donald Trump is “just the man for the job.” Don’t worry, the nausea will pass. I hope you’ve survived yet another round of invasive questions from perennially-seen Baby Boomer relatives about when you’ll be getting a “real” job, getting married, and having children. Take a deep breath, remember, murder is technically very much illegal. Besides, you can’t afford to go to prison. Not with all those student loans to pay off! Anyways, yeah, I wish everyone the best of luck out there.
Sure, most of us like to tell ourselves this holiday centers around ideals of family, generosity, and humbled self-reflection. But, let’s be real: the big draw for this autumnal grand event is the feast that comes along with it. Yes, modern Thanksgiving is a loving ode to gluttony…one I don’t resent for an instant. Pies, stuffing, rolls, gravy, pies, potatoes, squash….did I mention pies? But all of this pales in comparison to the main attraction, that poultry on a pedestal; the turkey.
Yes, turkey….more specifically, the domesticated form of Meleagris gallopavo, a large species of vaguely pheasant-like ground bird that ranges across much of the eastern two-thirds of the continental United States and south into northeastern Mexico. This species, along with a single close relative (the dazzlingly-colorful ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellatus, from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula) are the “true turkeys.” These two species make up the entirety of a distinct subfamily in the ground fowl family (Phasianidae), a large taxonomic grouping that includes chunky, chicken-like things that prefer to run rather than fly….everything from grouses to partridges to peacocks.
There are plenty of things in our world that share, completely or partially, the common name of the Meleagris birds. A venomous marine fish. Soy-based meat alternatives. West Asian countries. All these, of course, are Meleagris-style “turkeys” in name only. There are even a handful of other species of bird that are, confusingly, referred to as “turkeys” despite not being particularly close relatives of the gobble-gobble/hand tracing variety so familiar to North Americans.
One of these not-turkeys resides on the opposite side of the Pacific from Meleagris, and in the Southern Hemisphere. The animal I’m referring to is the Australian brush-turkey (Alectura lathami). With its beefy, bowling ball shape, alert and fanned out tail feathers, and naked head and neck…both saturated with colors that look like the end result of receiving a swirly in a vat of liquefied candy corn…the brush-turkey seems damn deserving of its fowl moniker.
Of course, this “turkey” can’t be quite what it appears to be. After all, this is Australia we’re talking about here; a place where “koala bears” are very much NOT bears, “marsupial cats” aren’t even remotely close to any household Mittens or Muffins, and Boston buns are certainly not “edible food.”
It so follows that our charismatic brush-turkey belongs to a wholly different family of birds than its name would suggest. Australian brush-turkeys, growing to as much as two and a half feet long, are the largest living members of the megapode family (Megapodiidae). Megapodes, so named for their typically thick, powerful legs and large feet, are a somewhat primitive fork of the “ground fowl” clan. Megapodes and true turkeys are both members of the ground fowl order (Galliformes), but hail from very different evolutionary lineages within that larger umbrella of relatedness. Megapodes are restricted to Australasia, with much of their biodiversity scattered through Australia, New Guinea, and many of the islands in the eastern section of the Indo-Australian Archipelago.
While the Australian brush-turkey isn’t domesticated or ritually consumed by Ozzies like Meleagris is in the States, there are unique aspects of the biology of this megapode on the antipode that are worth sharing.
Australian brush-turkeys, unlike a depressingly-large proportion of Australia’s native fauna, are actually faring quite well in the modern, industrialized era. They are a wide-ranging species, and can be found all over eastern Australia, from Cape York in far-north Queensland, down south into New South Wales. They are found in rainforest and wet woodland habitats, but can exploit drier, more open areas as well. Brush-turkeys are shitty fliers, and tend to only take to the air when absolutely necessary, preferring to use their strong legs to run around through the underbrush, pecking at insects, seeds, and the occasional fruit. Males and females look very similar, but during the breeding season, the loose, colorful wattle at the base of the neck expands and becomes more brightly-colored in males (as well as the red skin on the head). The male’s wattle gets big and floppy enough during this time of year that it pendulates wildly as the bird runs, like a geriatric scrotum….which is imagery I’m sure you didn’t need exposure to today. Again, I hope that by the time you read this, you’re done with the dinner portion of the holiday….
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Australian brush-turkeys is how they bring little brush-turkeys into the world. They, like all megapodes, have highly divergent reproductive practices.
Megapodes are also known as “mound-builders” or “incubator birds”, which is in direct reference to their massive nests. Unlike all other birds, megapodes do not incubate their eggs by popping a squat on them and keeping them at just the right temperature with their body heat as they mature. Megapodes, after grunting out a hard, pearly litter, bury them….like a cat burying a turd. The eggs are sandwiched above ground in the middle of a seemingly excessive quantity of organic material; in the Australian brush-turkey, the mounds can be chest-height and roughly as long as an SUV. It depends on the species, but in many megapodes, the eggs rest in the center of the mound, with rotting vegetative matter below the clutch, and dirt and sand covering on top for insulation. The mound functions as an incubator, with heat coming from underneath from the continually decomposing compost, and the denser layer on top keeping the heat contained. Once completed, the male partner plays the important role of the thermostat, testing the temperature inside with probes of its beak, and adjusting by either removing or adding material to the mound, making sure everything is just right on the inside.
Yes, that’s right, a “turkey” makes an oven for its own eggs, and periodically tests the temperature of its clutch with a built-in thermometer to make sure the precious cargo doesn’t get over-done.
This inevitable habit of large-scale construction of reproductive monuments becomes a bit of a nuisance when the brush-turkey is confronted with the manicured backyards of suburban Sydney and Brisbane. Brush-turkeys are adaptable birds, and while they don’t prefer sharing habitat with humans, encroachment into their home range has made interactions between city-dwelling Australians and these birds unavoidable. Once a brush-turkey has wandered into a yard, picked out a suitable plot, and started meticulously gathering up leaves and dirt in a fledgling pile…it’s kind of impossible to get them to knock it the fuck off. Brush-turkeys, like Richard Dreyfuss painstakingly crafting a mashed potato diorama of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, will obsessively build their creations until they are complete. Even if the mound is destroyed during construction, they will stubbornly rally their efforts and start over. Again, and again, and again.
Because of this, brush-turkeys can be the nightmare of anyone with anal retentive views on landscaping. Gardens? It can be scrapped for mound material in two days or less. Enjoy having bark mulch? Too bad. It all goes to the pile. The pile is all. The pile is Life.
As human populations grow, and more and more interactions between brush-turkeys occur, rather than responding to frustration with violence and extirpation, various governmental and conservation agencies have advocated some measure of coexistence with this…er….industrious…bird. Seriously, there are websites devoted to tips for dealing with brush-turkeys. Some work-arounds include just acknowledging that gardens and planned backyard spaces are a no-go, and just going ahead and planting natural vegetation. Another approach is just having a compost pile already going in the yard, so when a brush-turkey waltzes by, it’s tempted to just use what you’ve already started for it rather than starting from scratch (literally).
Given that everything turns out OK on the incubation side of things, the eggs will eventually hatch. However, unlike every other type of bird, megapodes hatch under unique difficult conditions….namely, that they are buried under potential hundreds of pounds of rotting vegetation. Luckily, megapode chicks are “superprecocial”, meaning that they come into the world rippin’ and ready to go, in stark contrast to the pink, helpless, larvae-like “altricial” hatchlings that you typically see in things like robins. Megapode chicks are typically fully-feathered, with eyes fully open, and able to run, hunt prey, and sometimes even fly right out of the gate. This is like if human babies rocketed out of the womb, and promptly teetered out of the hospital, bitching about being late to work, lit cigarette drooping from their lips.
Because megapode chicks need to get the hell out of their eggs and scramble their way through an ocean of rotten wood chips so they can breathe, they don’t have the luxury of slowly picking away at their shells from inside like most birds. Megapodes don’t have an “egg tooth” with which to chip away a hole in the egg’s shell. Instead, they use their heavily-muscled, oversized feet to claw their way out.
That’s right, megapode chicks fucking round-house kick their way into the world.
So, this Thanksgiving, I give thanks to Australia, for providing such a bizarre, badass take on the “turkey” that I can admire (luckily, for my garden) from several thousands of miles away.
© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.