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Bruijn's Brush-Turkey Aepypodius bruijnii on Waigeo, Papua, Indonesia
by Iwein Mauro
June 6, 2002
An opportunistic survey of Mount Nok [00°04'54"S; 130°45'17"E] - located on the far eastern side of Waigeo's Majalibit Bay - undertaken this May month by Iwein Mauro, resulted in the first observations in the wild of the virtually unknown Bruijn's Brush-turkey. This megapode (or incubatorbird), the most enigmatic and sought-after bird species in the New Guinea region, is on present knowledge confined to the large landbridge island of Waigeo at the northern extremity of the Raja Ampat archipelago of Indonesia's easternmost Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) province.
Named after the immortal Dutch merchant of Ternate, Anton August Bruijn - a dealer in almost every product that the Moluccas and Vogelkop region had to offer, including natural history specimens - it were indeed native hunters employed by the 'King of Ternate' (as Bruijn was nicknamed during the height of his entrepreneurship) that stood at the origin of the collection of all but one of a staggering 23 historical museum specimens known from this brush-turkey. After Bruijn's days (†1885) it was not until 1938 that Joseph Kakiaij – a native collector sent to Waigeo on behalf of the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP), Philadelphia, USA - collected a female specimen from the east side of Majalibit Bay. In doing so, a matter of considerable interest and speculation was finally unraveled beyond reasonable doubt. The absence of new records for more than half a century, reinforced by Bruijn's notoriously inexact labeling practices, had led to Waigeo increasingly being doubted as the homeland of Aepypodius bruijnii.
Indicative of its infuriating elusiveness and apparent rarity Bruijn's Brush-turkey to date had never been observed in the wild by western scientists despite extensive searches by at least 15 expeditions! However the continued existence of Bruijn's Brush-turkey on the island was reconfirmed on 23 February 2001 when the head and bones unmistakably of an individual of this species - the preserved remains of a pig hunter's meal - arrived in Sorong, the region's district capital. Kees Heij of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam, the Netherlands promptly mounted the Dutch/Indonesian Waigeo Expedition 2001, however also this attempt failed to locate the brush-turkey in the wild.
On 14-15 May 2002 Mauro discovered three incubation mounds of Aepypodius bruijnii in hill ridgetop forest at 690-715 m elevation on Mount Nok. These were in all respects indiscernible from mounds built by its sister species, the Wattled Brush-turkey Aepypodius arfakianus of continental New Guinea. One mound fortunately was in current use and carefully monitoring it from a blind during the mornings of 14 field days produced five excellent sightings of the territorial male down to point-blank range. On one occasion the male was watched during more than 20 minutes, digging a test-hole in the centre of the flattened top to check the temperature. Thus in all likelihood eggs were already being incubated and the male only performed irregular temperature check-ups. Another five sightings, all of solitary birds scurrying away, were made in forests in the vicinity, though these only allowed for the briefest of views.
The present survey suggests that Aepypodius bruijnii is a very low density species, probably with specialized habitat requirements even within the higher altitude forest to which it is certainly largely confined, and that it is extremely sensitive to human disturbance. Since the land surface exceeding 600 m elevation on Waigeo is rather limited, the total population of Bruijn's Brush-turkey might well prove to be comparatively small. Fortunately the precipitous terrain it inhabits is not conductive to remunerative timber extraction nor is it reconcilable with farming. Hence it remains entirely in pristine condition, rarely if ever visited by local people. While Wattled Brush-turkey readily flushes into trees upon disturbance, A. bruijnii encountered by Mauro typically ran off even at extremely close range. This begs the question whether it might perhaps have evolved to a flightless form, a merely speculative thought for now, though supported by the testimonies of several local informants. For that reason the potential threat posed upon the species by introduced dogs on the island needs solid investigation. Two weeks were spent searching slopes at mid elevations between 300 and 600 m altitude, without encountering any signs of the brush-turkey. In this area two different runaway dogs were sighted on five occasions during the daytime. The comparatively large number of historical specimens of Bruijn's Brush-turkey indicate that it must have been relatively common locally towards the end of the nineteenth century and it may well be in serious decline. Follow-up work is imperative.
Field work was facilitated through the kind logistical support of the Indonesian Parrot Project/Project Bird Watch and the Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre (RARCC). A paper elucidating preliminary findings is in preparation.