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North West Island Feral Fowl: A First Hand Account

08/12/2018 10:00 PM | James Anderson (Administrator)

I’ve briefly pondered why chickens cross the road but I’m more puzzled at why a chicken would depart a secluded tropical island paradise surrounded by trees gently swaying in the breeze, vivid white coral sandy beaches surrounded by sparkling azure blue ocean waters. Fortuitously I caught up with the man that could answer these questions 

The following account resulted from a phone conversation occurring on the 9th November 2018 between the author and John Frisch. John Frisch held a Bachelor of Agricultural Science degree and was undertaking his Honours Degree at University of QLD under Dr Glenorchy McBride. John possessed knowledge and experience making him suitable to accompany Dr Glenorchy McBride in field studies conducted on the North West Island Feral Fowl.

University of Queensland Animal Behaviourist and Geneticist, Dr Glenorchy McBride, wished to study the behaviour and dynamics of an isolated population of fowl.  Such a population was known to occur on North West Island, a coral cay off Gladstone in Central Queensland.  In 1965, Dr McBride and his small team visited the island and undertook a detailed field study and survey of the North West Island Feral Fowl (NWIFF). John described the NWIFF as “looking like some of my own bantams”

John and his late father accompanied Dr McBride during the August 1965 field study visit.  The team was taken to and from the island by a local fisherman Lionel Wickham.

Over the years John had camped on the island many times both before and after the island was gazetted as a National Park. He therefore saw the feral fowl population from when it was effectively in balance with the island ecology through to the disruption of that ecology following the complete removal of both the feral fowl and cat populations.

John described the Island status in1965 as 'Unallocated Crown Land' on which the sole structure was a shack erected several years earlier by fishermen from Gladstone on the site of the old turtle-soup factory. John believed that the NWIFF originated from Burmese Jungle fowl (Gallus gallus domesticus) which were left on the Island when miners completed their mining operations. In an attempt to 'improve' the NWIFF, in the1960s a few roosters from domesticated breeds had been released on the island by Yeppoon locals who were known to John, however, because of the fierce territorial nature of the feral fowl and several other factors, John Believed it is unlikely that the introduced roosters made any contribution to the gene pool of the NWIFF. 

John mentioned he observed large heaps of turtle bones adjacent to the shack.  These were remains from the time when the turtle-soup factory operated on the island.

Phosphorite rock was mined at North West Island prior to mining operations being conducted at Christmas Island and Nauru.

John was reared on a mixed farm near Yeppoon and owned about a hundred semi-feral Bantams of his own as well as other, domestic breeds, on the farm.  He often used traps or snares to catch the Bantams.

At night John would climb the trees on North West Island in which the NWIFF were roosting, shine a torch light on the roosting Fowl and use a Rangoon-cane pole with a noose attached at the end to snare suitable individuals.  The birds that were relocated to Tryon Island were caught using this technique.

The field study survey involved long hours seated in hessian hides observing the birds. Their territories were mapped and the birds counted within their territories. There were approximately 1500 NWIFF and 250 feral cats counted.

NWIFF were very shy and extremely territorial with cock possessing well defined territories, the boundaries of which were strictly observed. Interstitial males opportunistically promptly replaced a dominant breeding cock bird following his demise or removal from the territory.

John explained that spur length provided an indication of a cock bird’s age and he related an anecdotal yarn about the occasion in 1969 when he and his wife who (as was usual in those pre-National-Park times) were the sole campers on the island.  He sent his wife out with his rifle to obtain a young cockerel for the evening meal. John explained that instead of shooting a young cockerel, which was the usual fare, she returned with a rooster having 3 inch long spurs. The rooster and a couple of rocks were dropped in the boiling pot and John said:- “It was difficult to distinguish what was rock and what was chicken come meal serving time”. 

To enable further studies of the NWIFF in an environment in which there were no cats, a breeding group of the Fowl was relocated by the McBride team to adjacent Tryon Island where there were neither Fowl nor cats.  At the time, Tryon Island was also classified as 'unallocated crown land'.  In subsequent visits to Tryon, none of the Fowl could be found.  Anecdotal evidence indicated that the Fowl had been eaten by campers who occasionally visited Tryon.

Tryon Island is located 9.0 kilometres from to North West Island and has an area of 21 hectares (named after the naturalist Tryon)

On North West Island, Feral Fowl were observed nesting among the entanglement of Pisonia and fig tree roots.

Feral Fowl were opportunistic feeders.  Direct observations and examination of their digestive tracts showed that the Fowl ate figs, cockroaches, other insects, centipedes and mice and would also scavenge sea-bird carcases. They were also observed foraging along the high water mark. Their diet was influenced by the location of their territory.

Feral Fowl breeding success was largely dependent on being synchronised with the annual arrival of thousands of migratory Mutton Birds which breed in burrows on the Island. During their stay on North West Island these birds provided easy pickings for the 250 feral cats which in turn dramatically reduced predatory pressure on the ground nesting Feral Fowl.  Once the mutton bird breeding cycle was complete, they deserted the island. Brooding Fowl and late-hatched chicks were then subject to intense predation from the cats. Late-hatched chicks were also at increased risk of dying because of entanglement in the sticky Pisonia berries.

The shack on the Island was used by visiting campers and in 1965 by the McBride team.

The feral fowl were observed from within hessian hides. To enable more detailed study of individual feral fowl, several attempts were made to trap them with simple “drop traps”.  However, the fowl were extremely wary and trapping was not successful. Snaring the fowl at night while they were roosting was however very successful.

The Feral Fowl maintained a balance in the populations of mice, centipedes and cockroaches. Each of these populations increased markedly after the Fowl were eradicated from the Island. Baiting of mice after the Fowl were removed resulted in poisoning of significant numbers of Buff-banded land rails.

John explained that although there was no permanent source of fresh water on the Island, there was a shallow depression towards the north-west end that would temporarily hold water and tree hollows maintained small quantities of water for at least several months.

Birds were frequently observed in the early morning drinking water droplets formed by dew on the leaves of Birds Beak grass (Thuarea involuta) growing on the Island foreshores. The Fowl devised a method to harvest moisture when the opportunity presented.

Feral Fowl would generally flee by running.  However, they flew strongly, flushing like quail and, unlike domesticated poultry breeds, were capable of strong sustained flight.

John observed that Feral Fowl carcases had very little fat and that the breast meat was red rather than white as is the case for domesticated poultry breeds.

Roosters were generally of two colour types, namely Silver and Red.

There was little notable variation in the colouration of the hens.  Their feathers were predominantly mustard coloured with black edges.

John Urane 

9thNovember 2018

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