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The lesson I learnt from an unwelcomed bush turkey

I love mulch. I love making it, raking it, spreading it. I love the way it keeps the water in and the weeds out of my garden beds. A well-mulched yard is a thing of beauty and gladdens my gardening heart. But my love of mulch has led to a relationship with a creature whose passion overwhelms my own, who has taken me on a roller-coaster of emotion these past few months. He is the rock to my Sisyphus, the bête to my noire – he is a brush turkey.

When brush turkeys moved into my Sydney harbourside neighbourhood, I was delighted. Wildlife in the suburbs! A testament to effective fox baiting and dog control. I enjoyed their quiet goofy cooing and bobbing heads as they came and went between my backyard and the bush reserve behind.

The start of spring changed all that. I had marked the change of season with a heavy investment in vegetable seedlings, lovingly planted into my raised beds, mulched then fertilised with homemade compost.

But my suburban pastoral idyll was soon to be in tatters. A young male brush turkey had decided that the bed with the flourishing crop of silverbeet was The One. Not too sunny, not too shady, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of mulch close to hand – it was the place where all his dreams of megapodal fatherhood would be realised. 

I swore a bit, and did some research. Male turkeys are the homemakers, building a mound of decomposing vegetable matter in the hope of attracting a female and inducing her to mate and lay her eggs within. The male then tends the pile, pausing periodically to stick his beak in to check the temperature (ideally 33°C) until the eggs hatch. It's a simple plan – scratch, have sex, scratch some more. 

At first the pile didn't seem too bad, and the damage to the garden minimal. But within a few days the turkey had widened his field of operations. One by one the vegie beds succumbed, followed by the back lawn. 

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My husband and I surveyed the growing devastation, four university degrees in biology between us. "Perhaps you should just learn to live with it," he said. I took in the dying vegie seedlings and the uprooted buffalo grass. Not bloody likely.

I googled "relocate brush turkeys". It is apparently illegal to harm or trap turkeys in NSW, although I found ads offering to do it for several hundred dollars. I asked family and friends for suggestions. Most involved shotguns and cranberry sauce. "I think I have a bow and arrow somewhere," my son said helpfully.

I reluctantly dismissed lethal options – I had, after all, spent most of my professional life working to save native species, not roast them – and searched for more palatable advice, initiating Operation Extreme Discouragement. "They don't like walking on chicken wire," said several bloggers.

I covered the entire back lawn in this product, staking it down with tent pegs. Within hours, the turkey covered the wire with more mulch, en route to the mound. "Put up a mirror," said another. "It will think there's another male and go away." The turkey paused momentarily to admire its profile between scratches.

The most creative suggestion was to stake teddy bears around the garden. Worth a shot. I rushed to my local op shop and explained what I needed and why. The girl behind the counter barely raised an eyebrow: "How about four for $10?" The teddies were duly staked and positioned, the backyard now the scene of some bizarre druidic sacrifice staged by toddlers. By the next day, two of the teddies had been interred within the mound.

The next phase, Operation Sovereign Backyard, heralded more drastic action. There had been no females sighted for weeks, so I figured there was no chance of disturbing any eggs.

I repositioned the teddies into what I hoped were more menacing poses. I returned the mulch on the mound to whence it came, covered the spot with a bright blue tarpaulin, invested in more chicken wire, moved garden furniture, a kayak, boogie board, a ladder, aiming to block the paths of mulch transport and frustrate the bird into finding a less encumbered location. Within two days the tarpaulin was shredded and the mound reinstated, bigger than before.

And then the final straw. "There's been a development," my son informed me when I arrived home. He had seen a female arrive, they had mated, and the female had dug deep in the mound, presumably to lay her eggs. I googled the turkey life cycle – eggs take 50 days to incubate (50 days!), and females can lay up to 24 in a single mound.

So that's it. I am spent, defeated. I wash and return the useless teddies to the op shop. I rearrange the chicken wire to protect what's left of the garden which now resembles a World War I battlefield, complete with foxholes. I dispense with the hope of having a lawn, or of providing homegrown vegetables for the foreseeable future. I am humbled by a bird of tiny brain, but possessed of such ruthless, driving single-mindedness that no hurdle is insurmountable, no barrier too great to thwart its ambition. 

Perhaps, after all, there's a lesson in that.

Lesley Hughes is a professor of biology at Macquarie University. No brush turkeys were harmed in the writing of this article.