If you were to walk around the forests of eastern Australia for a day, you would most likely find a brush turkey in your path. Like a raccoon, you might even see them scavenging through a trash can. Brush turkeys are medium-sized, ground-dwelling birds. They scavenge through leaves to find bugs for food and use dead leaf litter to build mounds. Brush turkeys are considered to be pests by the local Australian communities due to their begging behavior and the damage they do to gardens.
Many locals are upset with their increasing numbers in the suburbs around Queensland, Australia. I’m currently studying abroad with SIT Australia: Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology along with 17 other students, who, like me, are all interested in biology and ecology. As a group, we decided to observe the abundance and concentration of brush turkeys between Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine to see if there were any differences between them. Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine are two fragmented pieces of Crater Lakes National Park, located near Malanda, Queensland. The crystalline blue lakes were both formed from magmatic explosions and now serve as popular tourist destinations. Both lakes are surrounded by thick rainforest vegetation and an abundance of wildlife, including brush turkeys. Lake Eacham’s park includes a picnic area, while Lake Barrine has a large parking area with a restaurant on the property.
In six groups of three, I went out with my fellow SIT Study Abroad students to survey the area in and around the lakes. We standardized our methods as much as possible by walking at similar paces, staying quiet, and surveying the same amount of area. In total, we collected around 36 hours of data, with each group surveying 26 km areas. This distance included the path around the lake, some picnic and parking areas, and streets 1 to 2 km from the lake entrances.
It is important to note that our surveys occurred in the mid-morning and the late afternoon, so we never captured the brush turkey population around lunch. It’s possible that more of them would have appeared in picnic areas as more people brought out food around noon. Also, some of our survey area occurred in dense forest cover, so it’s possible that some of the turkeys may have been hiding behind trees and foliage.
After trekking along each of our paths, we found an average of two turkeys per kilometer at Lake Eacham and an average of one turkey per kilometer at Lake Barrine. At Lake Eacham, the majority of brush turkeys were concentrated near the picnic area; each group saw between five and ten brush turkeys in the picnic area. At Lake Barrine, we saw between zero and two brush turkeys in their park area.
Lake Eacham is a popular place to hang out for locals and tourists alike. During our free time there, we’ve seen many people lying on the banks and picnicking with friends and family. One instance we were there, we noticed a brush turkey picking scraps out of people’s open cooler bag. The brush turkeys seem to be getting fed, whether or not the visitors are even meaning to feed them. There is a good chance that all of this food in the open could be attracting the brush turkeys near the site. Human feeding could explain why brush turkeys populations are concentrated near the picnic area of Lake Eacham. While Lake Barrine also had a place for people to relax and enjoy a meal, we didn’t see as many brush turkeys in this area. This is most likely due to the fact that there is an actual restaurant establishment at Lake Barrine and they may take action to keep the brush turkeys away. This would allow their customers to be more at ease and keep the site clean. People also don’t need to bring their own food to Lake Barrine. There is no one constantly at Lake Eacham enforcing any rules against feeding brush turkeys. The picnic area at Lake Eacham has created a habitat where brush turkeys are readily interacting with humans while Lake Barrine does not have the same connection between humans and brush turkeys. This difference is what allowed us to see an influx of brush turkeys at Lake Eacham and not at Lake Barrine.
For both lakes, we saw most of the brush turkeys in the forest adjacent the lake, and very few brush turkeys on the neighboring roads. This might to be due to the dramatic change in biodiversity right next to the lake and roads two km from the lake. There is more dense forest near the lakes than in their surrounding suburbs. Dense canopies are often associated with an abundance of insects, which are essential to the diet of brush turkeys. In addition, brush turkeys need an abundance of leaf litter to build mounds in which they incubate their eggs. The streets have fewer habitat areas for wildlife and greater fragmentation. This would explain the high concentrations of brush turkeys only on the path near the lakes.
While it is illegal to feed wildlife across Australia, brush turkeys are finding human food scraps at the Lake Eacham picnic area, as we’ve seen them dig through picnic bags and trash bins. It’s also possible that people are intentionally giving them pieces of food. At Lake Eacham, employees work two days a week to clean the bathrooms, while there are constant staff present at the Lake Barrine restaurant. To remedy the high concentration of turkeys at Lake Eacham, we recommend that Lake Eacham implement more efforts to control how people interact with the brush turkeys, especially in regards to feeding. Signage and more staff could be a good way to counter the scavenging turkeys. It is clear to us that brush turkeys are becoming greater pests and are more present in picnic areas, but it’s not too late to do something about it. Each person should take it on themselves to ensure that brush turkeys are not feeding off their food scraps.
SIT Australia has been a blast, as we often travel to a new place each day. This project has helped me to realize that even when I act as a tourist for a day at places like Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham, I can have a huge impact on the ecosystem there. When my group passed through the Lake Eacham picnic area and saw the brush turkeys scavenging, it reminded me of the way that pigeons rummage through the trash and streets of Philadelphia. Upon my return to Swarthmore, I am definitely going to be more aware of the way that I interact with the environment, paying more attention to where even my smallest scraps of food go. I encourage everybody at Swarthmore to think more about their impact on the environment through tourism and to make sure that they’re not giving handouts to local wildlife.