‘Brush turkeys have suddenly turned carnivorous and have been seen feeding on dead bandicoots by the side of a road. It literally grabs a chunk of blood-red steak and wolfs it down,’ said behavioural ecologist Professor Daryl Jones. ‘One of the reasons they’re so successful is because they’ll eat anything they can get their beaks into. They are quintessential opportunists,’ he said.
He believes that having occupied Sydney’s suburbs, the birds are feeding on abundant roadkill that was not once part of their environment (Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 2022).
June, maybe July 2040. What’s left of Sydney, NSW
I can hear them now. They’re surrounding the house. It’s only a matter of time. Peck peck peck. It doesn’t stop. One pecks at the door or the wall until its beak is bloody and sometimes three of them fall upon that first pecker and tear it apart. I guess we didn’t know they were cannibals either.
I don’t know why I’m writing this. I may as well just lie here and drink and smoke the last of the weed. Is there anyone left? Haven’t they won? Who am I writing this to? Either you survived and so you know what happened and you managed to stop them or there’s no-one left and sure, those fucking birds have changed but I don’t think they’re going to learn to read.
They scratch and they tear and they get through because there are hundreds of them. Any chink, any little weakness they find and they’re in, pimply red necks extended waiting to gorge themselves, talons scratching at the carpet, at the chairs as though it’s here they’ll lay their eggs so their putrid chicks can crawl slimy and naked out into the world and grow up to rend our flesh from our bones.
I guess we didn’t think of ourselves as part of their environment, something to be consumed, as prey. We’d always been proud of our killers. The sharks and the snakes and the spiders. The rest of the world regarded us with bemused respect.
‘You swim in the ocean? What about the sharks?’
‘Mate, you punch them in the eye, they back off pretty quick.’
‘You have the most poisonous snakes in the world.’
‘Yeah, but they’re more scared of us than we are of them’, and the spiders—‘make sure you shake your boots out before putting them back on’.
We loved our Steve Irwin/Dundee side, as though we all carried ourselves with bush nonchalance and if called upon we could all lasso a nuisance croc in the back billabong.
But when the brush turkeys turned, that was something else. We didn’t love brush turkeys, we didn’t hate brush turkeys, they were beneath our notice, like Greek pop music. They were so dumb, so ugly, a pathetic bird that could barely flap up onto a branch. Tiny pin heads, plumage the chalky black of a peddo priest’s suit, dirty yellow collar, ugly bare neck and worst of all—no personality.
Australian birds are like vaudeville performers; they pitch it to the balcony. The kookaburra, get four or five together, one of them says something smart about a lizard they once ate and they’re off, cracking up like drunk best friends between the wedding and reception. The magpie opens the day with bursts of operatic be-bop. Emus outrun utes. Lyrebirds do impressions of utes—and differentiate between a HiLux shifting gears uphill and a bogged Ford Ranger. The tawny frogmouth is a cranky pile of feathers, the powerful owl can take your cavoodle, raucous sulphur-crested cockatoos careen about like meth-addled bikies and tear our patios apart, spiteful lorikeets flit like hallucogenic flashes through our undergrowth, cheerful budgies, amicable galahs, duplicitous currawongs, they all exhibit character and spirit.
Even the bin chicken, despised by the urbanites and so called after it was pushed from its coastal wetlands and soggy paddocks by our need for suburbs and shopping centres, whence it quickly turned its habits to foraging through our garbage, and so in a repeat of our usual condesension and disdain for migrants and refugees we gave it a sneering nickname, as if it were the ibises’ fault that we’d stuffed a rubbish bin full of chips and half-snuffled burgers; even the bin chicken had a certain you-can-get-fucked arrogance about it as we shooed it away from our al fresco brunch.
Not the brush turkey. In the suburbs adjacent to the national parks and the mountains, they’d wander aimlessly through the back yards and along the streets, scratching wherever they went but without that sense of purpose and vigour you get from mynahs or the irritating insistence of the seagulls. If they eked out a worm or a seed, it was coincidental. If they didn’t find anything, they wandered onto the next patch and scratched some more.
They’d build a huge mound of rotting leaves and bark for a nest and were so uninterested in their own offspring, they left the egg in the middle of it and allowed a pile of compost to oversee gestation. They didn’t even bother returning to help the newborns, show them a pile of grubs to eat or suggest how they might avoid a fox or quoll or cat that sees them as breakfast. On your own, buddy.
This didn’t breed an engaging self-reliant streak. Instead, if approached the brush turkey would flap a little sideways, or attempt to get to the nearest low-hanging branch, or scuttle a few metres up hill. It had not enough imagination to see you as a threat and no physical or intellectual skills to do anything about it. They were like an annoying work colleague who had no idea that it was his own insipidness and limpness that got on everyone’s nerves.
They hung about. They were too big to ignore but did nothing to attract. They weren’t even edible. People fell in love with their chickens in the coop but no-one had a nice word to say about the brush turkey. You may as well have looked for fans of the maggot or mosquito.
We all noticed when we started to see them gathered around a squashed possum or wallaby, or devouring an upside-down wombat on the side of the road. Hang on, we’d say, as we wooshed past on our way to the beach as we’d done for years and assumed we’d do forever, hang on, were those brush turkeys eating that flat cat? It’s crows that usually do that, right? Brush turkeys—I thought they ate old figs or something. I mean, they’re just going to end up roadkill themselves, aren’t they?
But no-one thought they’d go any further. It’s like imagining that the toys after dark come alive and plot our demise or that possums will form death squads and push us out of our houses instead of the other way around.
And of course it was entirely predictable how it all began. A young woman, she had to be Muslim, was hanging out washing in the courtyard of an apartment building in the suburb imaginatively called Green Park. A few hundred metres away ran Kemps Creek and it wound its way through remnant bushland corridors to the Nepean River. Cross that and it’s into the prehistoric wilderness of the Blue Mountains; so ancient these are but stubs of worn-out mountains like crumbling teeth in a corpse and so inaccessible now to the colonisers its gullies and canyons are largely unknown. The brush turkeys had been wandering in and out of this land for millions of years.
The land had changed to such an extent that now where a brush turkey might once have found a rotting lillipilly or some wattle seed or snatched at a darting skink, now he found cement and asphalt and Fatima at a Hills Hoist.
At Fatima’s feet were two baskets. She stooped into one and picked up another flouro-orange top, her husband’s work clothes. She didn’t want to be here hanging out washing in Green Park but she smiled at the inevitably of it; you fall in love, you marry, there’s a baby, for a while you have to hang out the washing and he has to work two jobs so they might be able to buy a house and land a little farther on from where she stood now.
The baby was in the other basket. She checked and the baby was sleeping soundly so she turned and walked quickly back inside. She needed more pegs. ‘I was gone two minutes,’ she said to the neighbours, the ambulance, the police, to the media, to the court, to other inmates. No-one believed her. The meme was as quick as it was cruel. ‘A brush turkey took my baby.’
Fatima’s story never wavered. She came back down and she saw a dark shape over the baby’s basket. For a moment she thought it was a small dog and then she realised it was one of those large dumb birds her husband threw stones at whenever he saw them.
‘I hate those things. They’re like lazy vultures,’ he always said.
She ran at the basket yelling. The bird turned to look at her and she could see something glistening and visceral hanging from its beak. There was blood all over its head and neck.
It flapped a metre away and a scream that had reached her throat choked there and became a sob and strangled whimper. There was blood all over the basket and a great gouge where Aisha’s left eye had been. She collapsed and the scream grew until it burst out of her.
The neighbours in the block who came running said they’d never heard anything like it. It didn’t sound like it had come from a human. When they arrived Fatima had the bloody child in her arms, there was blood all over her and she was moaning and rocking. She couldn’t speak.
They called an ambulance. What happened? they asked as they tried everything they could to revive her but the tiny baby had bled out in seconds, from its wounded eye, from its severed throat. The bird, she said over and over, the bird. After sedation and questioning she was able to identify the bird and when she pointed at the picture of a brush turkey, there was immediate confusion and sceptisism.
It never lifted. Forensics found some traces of brush turkey on the blankets, the baby and so maybe there had been a brush turkey there, but they don’t attack. They found the gashes on the baby’s throat and the eye wound to be consistent with a short knife, like a vegetable knife similar to one found in Fatima’s apartment. No trace of blood, but that’s why she’d gone back into her home, the prosecution claimed, to clean the weapon and hide it in plain sight, back in the knife block.
After a while she gave up. No-one was ever going to believe her. She may as well claim to have been carried away by wedge-tailed eagles or a bunyip. It took another half-dozen reports and some security camera footage from a playground where three toddlers in a sand pit were torn apart by a dozen brush turkeys before anyone looked at Fatima’s story again. By then it was too late.
The emboldened turkeys had been killing our pets, the smaller animals, the feral cats and on this feast their offspring’s brains had got larger, their appetites sharper, their predator instincts honed.
‘Let’s not forget,’ said the experts who had interesting facts and observations but could suggest nothing to stop the slaugher. ‘The brush turkey is a dinosaur. As in literally, descended from and still carrying the DNA of Tyrannosauraus rex.’
We didn’t notice. We shooed them away. We strengthened the chicken coop. We kept the shnoodle indoors. We kept a closer watch on our children. But we didn’t notice their numbers growing, their size growing, their appetite growing.
We had to lose Woy Woy first. From above, Woy Woy is a jigsaw puzzle; a perfect balance of blue and green, of ocean and beach, and river and bush. Houses sit along twisty roads, boats and caravans outside, surfboards and paddleboards stacked on the verandah. Everyone’s active, surfing, spear fishing, renovating, putting on a deck. The bush comes down into everyone’s back yard. Everyone’s found a diamond python under the warm cover of their barbecue; some redbacks in the timber stack, gets visited at dusk by king parrots and rosellas. And brush turkeys, well, they were barely noticed until one dug a mound on your back fence. Bit of a problem then, because you could destroy the mound but they just came back.
Then after a long hot summer it was over. Some say the fires pushed them to it, but there’d been fires before. Some say it’s global warming—the blue tongues seem bigger as well. Some say we did it—if we’re not going to share, why should they? Whatever the reason, they started to attack.
Not in ones or twos but in packs of a hundred or more. They’d find the door or a window with just a wire screen on it. They’d tear at it and then they’d be in. The big ones with beaks like razors came in first. They went for the eyes, they went for the tongue when you screamed, they went for the throat. Those puny wings had become strong enough to hold them aloft so they could fly at you with the force of a leaping boar. They could drive their beak into your throat, stabbing at your artery, your blood splattering your wife, your husband, your lover before you even knew you were dying.
They didn’t eat. They just killed. They went from house to house and when everyone was dead or gone, they went back and started to rip our flesh away to get to our luscious organs. No-one knew they could be that organised, systematic and disciplined either. By the time we decided to burn Woy Woy to the ground, it was too late. They’d spread into the bush and headed over the range into Kuringai and French’s Forest.
We started to hunt them but they could disappear. They were like perfect guerillas; they could slink back into deep gullies and vanish for weeks before they gathered again and attacked. We couldn’t follow them there so what were we going to do, nuke the whole place?
We all had our own idea of the eco disaster that would kill us. The oceans would run out of fish. The mosquitoes would spread as tropical conditions headed south and populations unused to dengue and everything else the mossies harboured in their festering snouts would die, unless of course some other virus hadn’t sprung up and already taken us out. The bees would go and the plants would die. The last cow would burp its last belch of methane so we could have one last burger and that would turn out to be the global tipping point; no way back now. Species diversity would collapse and hitherto unknown relationships between animals, insects, fungus, fruit, vine and seed would cause gaia, the biosphere, the whole damn thing to shrivel and we’d be left with cockroaches, lantana and some kind of weird cross between a labradoodle and a dingo.
No-one suspected Sydney would become uninhabitable because of ferocious flocks of brush turkeys whose killing spree began with a dead rat on the M1 and finished up tearing out the livers of everyone they could get at. It’s only a matter of time. Peck peck peck. Already I can hear splintering and the pecking is being replaced by a ripping sound as they tear the door away in strips and jab at it with their talons.
I’ve got a 25-year-old Bowmores. I’ve got some fine Mambo Madness, some fresh chop chop and a pack of the big-size Rizlas. I’m still pouring two fingers of Bowmores into a heavy crystal glass with two ice cubes and a dash of water. Civilisation is not finished yet. I’m rolling a joint about the size of something Winston Churchill would have puffed on. Mingus is blasting through the speakers and I suspect I’ve got about three tracks to go. I’ll be going out to ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’.
I’ve also got about ten litres of petrol and a shotgun. Around about the time I see the first one of those viscous fuckers I’m going to set fire to the place then blow my own head off.
It’s the least I can do to save everyone else. I’m the goat in the trap. There’s me, my ten litres and about another 200 in trenches all round the place. Once it all goes up, it’ll take out this flock and maybe my friends can get away. Maybe enough goats in enough traps and we can start to reclaim the place. I’ll have the Opera House thanks. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. If brush turkeys can go full beast, what next? The willy wagtails? •
James Valentine presents Breakfast on ABC Radio Sydney, where he’s been broadcasting daily since 1998.