Nomad of the Outback: The Australian Bustard’s Tale

Australian Bustard

Exploring the Life and Legacy of Australia’s Largest Flying Land Bird

The Australian bustard (Ardeotis australis), also known as the plains turkey or bush turkey, is a large, ground-dwelling bird native to Australia and parts of southern New Guinea. As the only species of the genus Ardeotis found in Australia, this impressive bird is an iconic symbol of the continent’s open grasslands and woodlands. Despite its widespread distribution, the Australian bustard faces numerous threats, leading to population declines and conservation concerns.

Interesting facts about Bustards

  • The Australian Bustard is Australia’s heaviest flying bird. Adult males can weigh up to 14.5 kg (32 lbs), making them the heaviest flying birds in Australia. Despite their size, they are still capable of flying long distances.
  • They have a unique mating display. During the breeding season, male Australian Bustards inflate a large throat sac, which can be up to 70 cm (28 in) long. They then produce a deep, resonant booming sound that can be heard up to 1 km (0.6 mi) away to attract females.
  • They have a diverse diet that includes insects, small vertebrates, fruits, and even carrion. They have been known to eat small mammals, lizards, and even venomous snakes.
  • When threatened, Australian Bustards often freeze in place and rely on their cryptic coloration to blend in with their surroundings. If the threat persists, they may lay flat on the ground with their neck outstretched, making them even harder to spot.
  • In Aboriginal culture, the Australian Bustard is often featured in Dreaming stories and is considered a culturally significant species. Their feathers and meat are used in traditional ceremonies and practices.
  • Australian Bustards have a unique way of drinking water. They use their long bill to scoop up water and then tilt their head back to let the water run down their throat, similar to the way pigeons drink.
  • Like many other bird species, Australian Bustards have been observed sunbathing. They will often lie down on the ground with their wings spread out, exposing their back to the sun.
  • Australian Bustards have a relatively slow reproductive rate compared to many other bird species. Females typically lay only one or two eggs per breeding season, and the chicks take several months to reach maturity.

Description and Characteristics

With a wingspan of up to 2.3 metres, the Australian bustard is a striking bird, with males standing up to 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall and weighing up to 14.5 kg (32 lbs). Females are smaller, typically measuring around 80 cm (31 in) in height. The bird’s plumage is predominantly brown and white, with a black cap on the head, a black band across the chest, and a black streak through the eye. The wings and tail display a distinctive black and white chequered pattern. The long, powerful legs are yellow, and the bill is stout and yellowish.

One of the most notable features of the Australian bustard is its remarkable size. Although it is the smallest species within the genus Ardeotis, it holds the title of Australia’s largest extant flying land bird.

Behavior and Ecology

Australian bustards are generally solitary or found in pairs, slowly striding across open plains in search of food. They are omnivorous, feeding on a variety of insects, lizards, small mammals, and plant matter. When threatened, these birds often adopt a cryptic pose, standing still with their neck erect and bill pointed skyward to avoid detection. If the threat persists, they will either walk away slowly or take flight with powerful wing beats.

During the breeding season, male Australian bustards engage in spectacular courtship displays. They inflate a feathery throat pouch, extending it almost to the ground while swaying from side to side and emitting deep, booming calls to attract females. Females lay one to two eggs directly on the ground, often near a small shrub or bush. The well-camouflaged chicks are precocial, able to leave the nest site soon after hatching to avoid predation.

Distribution and Habitat

The Australian bustard is found throughout northern Australia, from the Kimberley region in Western Australia to Queensland and parts of New South Wales. They also occur in southern New Guinea and Indonesia. These birds inhabit open grasslands, spinifex plains, low shrublands, and agricultural areas, often moving nomadically in response to rainfall and food availability.

Australian Bustard Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0
Australian Bustard Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0

Conservation Status and Threats

Although the Australian bustard remains relatively common in northern Australia, its population has experienced significant declines, particularly in the southeastern parts of its range. The species is listed as vulnerable in South Australia and endangered in New South Wales and Victoria. The IUCN Red List classifies the Australian bustard as Least Concern globally, but notes a decreasing population trend.

The main threats to the Australian bustard include habitat loss and fragmentation due to agricultural development, hunting (despite being protected), and predation by introduced species such as foxes and feral cats. The birds are also sensitive to disturbance at their breeding sites, readily abandoning an area if disturbed by humans or livestock.

Cultural Significance

The Australian bustard holds cultural significance for many Aboriginal communities across Australia. It is an important food source and is featured prominently in Dreamtime stories and artwork. The bird’s white feathers are used in traditional ceremonies, and the meat is considered a delicacy. However, hunting of the species is now regulated, with exemptions for Indigenous peoples.

Australian Bustard FAQs

Q: Can the Australian Bustard fly?
A: Yes, the Australian Bustard is capable of flying, although they are not known for their aerial prowess. They have strong, heavy wings that enable them to take off when threatened, but they generally prefer to walk or run. The bustards are able to fly reasonable distances despite their large size, which allows them to move nomadically in response to rainfall and food availability.

Q: Can you eat Australian Bustard?
A: Yes, the Australian Bustard is edible and has been an important food source for Indigenous Australians for thousands of years. The meat is considered a delicacy and is said to have a flavor similar to lean beef. However, hunting of the Australian Bustard is now regulated, and non-Indigenous Australians are not permitted to hunt them without proper licenses and permissions. It is important to note that the species is protected in many parts of Australia due to population declines.

Q: What are the predators of the Australian Bustard?
A: The primary predators of the Australian Bustard include:

  1. Introduced mammals such as foxes and feral cats, which prey on eggs, chicks, and occasionally adults.
  2. Large birds of prey, such as wedge-tailed eagles and falcons, which may target young or injured bustards.
  3. Dingoes and wild dogs, which can hunt adult bustards.
  4. Humans, who have historically hunted the species for food and sport, contributing to population declines in some areas.

Q: How tall are Australian Bustards?
A: The height of Australian Bustards varies between males and females:

  • Males: Adult males can stand up to 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall and weigh up to 14.5 kg (32 lbs).
  • Females: Adult females are smaller, typically measuring around 80 cm (31 inches) in height and weighing less than males.
    The Australian Bustard is Australia’s largest extant flying land bird and the smallest species within the Ardeotis genus.

The Australian bustard is a magnificent bird that embodies the wild spirit of Australia’s outback. While still relatively common in some regions, the species faces numerous challenges that threaten its long-term survival. Conservation efforts, including habitat protection, predator control, and community education, is key for ensuring that this iconic bird continues to grace Australia’s open landscapes for generations to come. By understanding and appreciating the ecological and cultural significance of the Australian bustard, we can work towards securing a brighter future for this remarkable species.