The brush turkeys are never wrong

Rosemary and Robert Clark
Urbenville NSW

Observing scratch marks and nesting habits of brush turkeys forms the basis of climate assessment on the property of Rosemary and Robert Clark at Urbenville in northern NSW.

‘Levuka’ is a 400 hectare cattle property and four-wheel drive tourist park. Around a third of the property is rainforest or open hardwood forest.

The Clark family has farmed there since 1908. Robert and Rosemary diversified into the four-wheel drive venture four years ago. They run up to 300 head of cattle on improved pastures and grow some corn.

‘Our way of assessing the climate is unconventional’ said Rosemary.

‘Our rainforest is home to scrub turkeys and we watch where they build their nests and their scratching behaviour.’

The Clarks have found that the scrub turkeys on their property follow predictable patterns. If the nests are built close to the creeks, then a dry year will follow. If the nests are built high on the ridges, a very wet year will follow. And if the turkeys begin building their nests and then abandon them, a drought year is indicated.

‘They are an indication of what is most likely to happen in a season’ said Robert. ‘Their behaviour is specific to this farm, but the long range forecasts over the whole state do seem to back up the birds.

‘The main thing we use them for is as a very good indication of summer rainfall. If it’s likely to be a dry year, you simply must have your ground prepared sooner to catch any rain that is around and build up your moisture content.

‘In a wet year you know there is rain coming and you’ve got to have your crop sown early and get it established before it gets saturated by wet weather.’

Rosemary said ‘You don’t leave corn standing if you know you’re going to have a really wet year. You get it off early because you know you’re not going to be able to get machinery in.

‘It also affects carrying capacity – if you can’t carry the stock over a dry year you do some culling. Dropping our carrying capacity in a dry year stops the pastures getting stressed and helps with keeping the cattle out of drier creeks.

‘Watching the turkeys helps us take those actions earlier rather than later.’

In 1998, the Clarks expected a wet year after observing brush turkey behaviour. While many neighbours put in soybeans, Robert and Rosemary chose not to take the risk.

‘We looked at the environmental indications outside the back door and decided against soybeans’ said Robert.

‘We planted maize, which is better protected from the wet, got the improved pastures in and stuck with our tourism instead.

‘After the very wet year lots of people only got about half a tonne per acre of soybeans, when you need about 1½ tonnes to make it profitable’

The Clarks observations of brush turkeys go back across three generations, to Robert’s father and grandfather who lived on the property.

‘I guess they learned from books and observations that mound-building birds do it before the rain so that the moisture can build up in the mound to heat the eggs and hatch them out’ said Robert.

‘The birds simply don’t build them unless they know the rain is going to come at the right time.’

The brush turkey behaviour is very localised to climate conditions at ‘Levuka’.

‘We don’t have the male guarding the nest for months on end and the breeding season seems to be later as well’ said Rosemary. ‘We find that they don’t start scratching until rain is due. Six weeks after they start, the rain comes.’

The Clark’s area will soon have local call access to the internet and they are interested in developing other forms of climate prediction, including using Rainman software and accessing information on the internet.

Rosemary, who was recognised as an ABC Regional Woman of the Year, donated the Masters of the Climate software prize ‘Rainman’ to the local landcare office for the use of the whole group.

‘This is the poorest area in Australia and we need everything we can get’ said Rosemary. ‘Rainman is part of the community capital now. We’re trying to build up as much community capital as we can so people can share these things because they can’t afford to buy it themselves. We want people to be empowered with information.’

‘We’re keen for the landcare group to start using Rainman, although we did get off on an unfortunate footing with it’ said Rosemary.

‘We had a training workshop with it and after we put in all the details, the program came up with a 70% likelihood of it being a very dry year through till next March. We all had a great time at the workshop and it just happened that this year was one of the freak years when it was totally wrong!

‘But this year with the brush turkeys wasn’t well defined either, whereas other years have been clearly defined. We’ve had ongoing continuous seeping rain, but this year we couldn’t find any evidence of scratching, old nests weren’t being rebuilt, this one that did get built was built extremely late.’

Robert said ‘The reality is that when you’ve got plenty of rain you don’t bother looking for signs because you’ve got all the rain you want. When you’re short of rain you go out looking.’

Rosemary and Robert are committed to conserving the natural parts of their property and continuing to observe the brush turkeys as part of their property management.

‘We’re the only property that has this amount of rainforest on it and we live very close to it’ said Robert. ‘We’ll always keep the rainforest and always keep the turkeys there. They’re part of our business development now.’

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