28 Sept 2023


David Waterhouse writes to us this month on the plains-wanderer, one of Australia’s rarest endemic birds – and is the only remaining representative of its family Pedionomidae. David has also decided to continue his support to WWF-Australia through a gift in his Will, he hopes that by sharing his experiences in nature he can inspire others to protect it. 

I first sighted a plains-wanderer in mid-December 1992. I was on a property west of Cobargo in the Riverina district of New South Wales. 

The quail-like bird crouched as if frozen in the ute’s headlights. It was a male. Its yellow eyes stared at us intently. Phil switched off the engine. After a short time, we heard the bird call and a tiny bundle of fluff bounced between the tufts of wallaby grass to find safety under its father’s wing. After a couple of hours of searching in the dark, we had thought we had been looking for needles in a haystack. Success at last. 

The curiously-named Plains-wanderer is one of Australia’s rarest birds. In the 90s, and perhaps today as well, it is estimated that throughout its huge range from Central Queensland, down to the Riverina and on into northern Victoria, perhaps as few as a thousand or so survive. Ploughing, overgrazing, predation by foxes and cats as well as frequent droughts have all contributed to drastically reducing the numbers of this endemic and unique bird (it has no close relatives anywhere) to a small fraction of its former numbers. Once, it could be found close to big cities like Adelaide and Melbourne, but alas, no longer. It is drastically in need of conservation. 

So as not to alarm the pair, the lights were switched off. When they were switched back on, both had vanished. Perhaps there were other chicks as the female normally lays around four eggs  ̶  but if so, they were probably hidden in the grass or had fallen foul of some predator earlier. 

As with button quail, the Plains-wanderer exhibits sex role reversal. The more brightly-coloured female does the calling and courting before scraping out a shallow depression skimpily-lined with grass, in which to lay her eggs. Then for her, it’s ‘job done’ and she goes off to play the field, quite literally. The male, camouflaged in pale, stubble-matching plumage, dutifully sits on the eggs and then cares for the chicks when they hatch. 

Meanwhile, the gadabout hen seduces several other males. She is larger than any male and more brightly coloured with a patch-like blood stain on her breast and an unusual black and white chequer pattern forming a kind of collar around her neck. Her courting call is a frogmouth-like ‘oom oom’. I am informed that both sexes have the most unusual habit of standing on tiptoe occasionally, perhaps to project their calling or possibly to obtain a better view across the plain. 

Plains-wanderers are also unusual in that they can breed before their first birthday. Ringing studies have shown that if conditions are favourable they may well breed twice in a season. In a drought year they may fail to breed entirely. They require sufficient rain and plenty of seed growth. 

Plains-wanderer © CC BY-SA 2.0 Nik Borrow / Flickr

It was three more years before I was able to return to the Riverina to look for Plains-wanderers and other birds. After several nights searching the open grassland, a female of our elusive avian quarry fluttered briefly in front of us. We obtained a glimpse of her trailing yellow legs, noticeably longer than those of any quail. When she landed, she scurried like a mouse before standing stock-still with neck fully extended. This enabled me to make out the distinctive chequering around her neck as well as the reddish splash of colour on the breast, so diagnostic of the hen bird. 

By spotlighting the paddocks till well into the night, we saw a grand total of seven Plains-wanderers, including three females. Most were seen crouched among the grass tussocks keeping a low profile and none was seen to take flight. They much prefer to scurry off rather than fly away. The flight is noticeably weak compared with quail, but this must be deceptive because they can cover great distances when compelled to do so because of drought, for example. 

At first sight, there is often little wildlife visible on these endless plains apart from the usual galahs and crows. More diligent looking and listening often reveals a variety of birds seldom seen near the big cities. The Plains-wanderer shares its habitat with flocks of Little Button-Quails, Red-breasted Quails, Singing Bushlarks; Rufous Songlarks, Brown Songlarks, Banded Plovers, Black Falcons, Brown Falcons, Spotted harriers, Wedge-tailed Eagles and Emus. There are also three kinds of kangaroos and Fat-tailed Dunnarts or Marsupial Mice. The latter are still common because they can evade cats and foxes by escaping into cracks in the ground. 

In the last few decades, some remnant areas of native grassland, in both New South Wales and Victoria, have been set up as reserves or national parks largely in an attempt to preserve the Plains-wanderers. In addition, a few enlightened and sympathetic landowners have set aside parts of their properties to maintain the correct conditions for the birds, managing their grazing without affecting their livelihoods. 

Normally fertile grasslands lay dry and life-less as a result of drought. Marsden District, Western NSW. Australia. June 2003.

One such property, twenty kilometres west of Echuca in northern Victoria, has had a covenant placed on it, so that in the event of its being sold, certain sections must not be ploughed or overgrazed, so as to preserve habitat for these rare birds. 

As a further safeguard, a few birds have been taken into human care in Werribee near Melbourne, as well as Monarto Safari Park in South Australia and the Western Plains Zoo in New South Wales. 

Such measures may not be enough. Persistent droughts and floods on top of constant predation by cats and foxes do not bode well for the bird’s future. It looks like a race against time to adequately conserve the species. 

Few people know of the bird’s existence. If it were to be announced that the Lyrebird or the Black Swan had faded into oblivion, it would cause concern, if not outrage. If the enigmatic Plains-wanderer were to fade from the scene, however, few would know and fewer still would care. To some of us though, its loss would be a tragedy as there is nothing else like it on Earth. 

David Waterhouse is committed to connecting people with the natural world and doing everything he can to ensure it is protected for all to enjoy.  

As well as sharing his experiences in nature with others, David regularly contributes to the work of WWF-Australia and other wildlife and environment protection groups. David has also chosen to make nature a part of his legacy by including a gift in his Will to WWF-Australia.  

If, like David, you value nature and wish to include its protection in your future legacy, please contact us at giftsinwills@wwf.org.au or find out more about including a gift to WWF-Australia in your Will.