A new, award-winning app is allowing Australians to record sightings of brush turkeys in their local area. This data is contributing to a collaborative research project run by the University of Sydney, Taronga Conservation Society and the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.
"Once rare due to over-hunting during the Great Depression, these birds have made a dramatic comeback and are increasingly common in suburban areas," said Matthew Hall, a University of Sydney PhD student and the project lead. "This has created a unique human-wildlife conflict situation as some people are irritated by brush turkeys digging up their gardens, while others are happy for more close contact with native species."
Researchers have been tagging turkeys at Taronga Zoo and other areas in Sydney, observing their behaviour and tracking the birds with GPS in an effort to understand their population dynamics, movement patterns and general social behaviour. The aim of the project is to determine how brush turkeys have adapted so quickly to urban environments and what makes them geared towards urban life.
"Brush turkeys are an Australian native bird with an unusual form of reproduction," Mr Hall said. "Rather than brooding their eggs, they construct huge nest mounds out of soil and leaf litter (up to three tonnes), which keep the eggs warm. The chicks, once they hatch, live completely independently of their parents."
The Brush Turkeys: Birds in Suburbia app is now allowing Australian citizens to record their own observations and assist with this research. The app concept won the Australian Citizen Science Association's 'Spotteron Competition' at the 2018 Citizen Science convention, and as a result was developed by software design company Spotteron. Launched in September, it allows users to report their sightings of brush turkeys and provide information about their behaviour.
"People can add details such as where the turkeys are foraging, and the foods they are eating, where they are building their mounds, and whether there are chicks present,” said Dr Alicia Burns, a behavioural biologist at Taronga Conservation Society. “This is information that we may not be able to get out and find ourselves.”
Brush turkeys gained legal protection in the 1970s and, since then, have taken to reclaiming not only the bush but the cities – which are dangerous playgrounds for independent turkey chicks. In the past decade there has been an increase in the number of urban turkeys colonising south-east Queensland and northern NSW.
Researchers are encouraging citizens all over Australia to download the app and report what they see.
"It has been really inspiring and exciting to see the response to the app so far," said Mr Hall, who is studying with supervisor Associate Professor Dieter Hochuli from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences and Dr John Martin from the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.
"Within three days of the launch the number of reports on the app already outstripped the number of brush turkeys I had personally tagged in the whole first year of my PhD."
Citizen science projects such as this are really important, Dr Burns said.
"The aim is to get people to appreciate the environment around them and also to highlight just how lucky we are to have all these amazing native species still living in urban environments," Dr Burns said.
"The app is also teaching people data collection skills and getting them to participate in efforts to protect these species. This data is really valuable for our broader ecology work and conservation."