Tassie "turbo chooks"
‘Turbo chook’ is the affectionate name given to the Tasmanian Native hen. However, they have no relationship to domestic chickens but belong to a group of waterfowl known as rails.
The Native hen is a flightless bird standing approximately 45 cm tall with strong sturdy legs.
It gets its nickname from being a very fast runner, reaching speeds of 50 kph. They are also extremely good swimmers and will take to the water readily if pursued. You appreciate their speed when seeing them running in a straight line with their wings held tight by their side and neck outstretched.
When chased they hold their wings out for balance and to stabilise themselves, enabling them to make tight turns in their efforts to elude the chaser.
Native hens are one of 12 Tasmanian endemic bird species. They did occur on the mainland in areas of south east Australia until the arrival of dingos and foxes. Native hens prefer to live where there is water, either as a stream, river or dam.
They are grazers of grass and seed and prefer open ground for foraging, especially pasture and grassy vegetation. Though they are shy, cautious birds you can spot them grazing in suburban areas close to reserves or farmland. In some respects, clearing for agriculture has expanded their range and numbers by increasing food supply and habitat.
The breeding season is from July to December. Native hens generally lay approximately 5 eggs, though they can lay up to 10. In a good season when food supply is plentiful they may produce another brood. The eggs hatch after approximately three weeks of incubation, which is shared by both parents.
The black fluffy chicks leave the nest to run with their parents and feed for themselves a day after hatching. They are very territorial and tend to remain in the area of their birth often living in multi-generational groups.
The structure of groups can be quite complex in terms of the number of mates a female may have and the number of juveniles remaining in the family group and territory.
They are charismatic birds with an interesting social structure and behaviours – native hens are fascinating to watch. They have a complex communication system both vocally and visually. At least 14 separate calls have been recorded, the most distinctive being a loud rasping sound which sounds like a saw cutting metal.
This call is a territorial guarding call and often several birds in the group will join, resulting in a noisy din you can hear for some distance. Flicking their tail is a warning sign to others of potential danger and to remain alert.
This story was written by Iona Mitchell, Coordinator Gardens for Wildlife and Land for Wildlife, Department of Primary Industries and Water.