Ground-Dwelling Birds of Australia

Ground-Dwelling Birds of Australia

Discovering the Remarkable Ground-Dwelling Birds of Australia

Australia is home to an incredible diversity of bird species, many of which have adapted to life on the ground. These birds primarily forage and nest on the ground, spending a significant portion of their lives on or near the ground or are ‘flightless’. Ground-dwelling birds are an integral part of the country’s unique ecosystems, showcasing a wide range of adaptations, behaviors, and habitats.

Types of Ground-Dwelling Birds

Australia hosts a variety of ground-dwelling birds that thrive in its diverse landscapes. These unique groups of ground-dwelling birds showcase the incredible diversity and adaptability of Australia’s avian fauna.

Native Wild Fowl

Australia’s native wild fowl are well-adapted to the continent’s diverse habitats and play crucial roles in their ecosystems. Some notable native wild fowl species include:

Australian Brush-turkey (Alectura lathami)

Australian Brush-turkey
Australian Brush-turkey

Found in eastern Australia, from Far North Queensland to southern New South Wales. These birds are known for their unique nesting behavior, where males build large mounds of leaf litter to incubate the eggs.

Australian brush-turkeys have adapted well to urban environments, and they are often seen in parks and gardens in eastern Australia. These birds are known for their amusing behavior of raking up leaf litter and mulch from garden beds to build their nesting mounds, much to the annoyance of some gardeners.

Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis)

Australian Bustard
Australian Bustard

The largest flying bird native to Australia, found in grasslands, open woodlands, and agricultural areas across the mainland. Despite their size, they are capable of fast running and powerful flight.

Malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata)


An iconic species of the semi-arid and arid regions of southern Australia. Malleefowl are known for their distinctive nesting mounds, which they use to incubate their eggs using the heat generated by decomposing organic matter.

Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt)

Orange-footed Scrubfowl
Orange-footed Scrubfowl

Found in the rainforests and coastal areas of northern Australia, from the Kimberley region in Western Australia to Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. These birds also use mound-nesting to incubate their eggs.

Lord Howe Woodhen (Hypotaenidia sylvestris)

Lord Howe Island woodhen in rainforest
Lord Howe Island woodhen

A flightless bird found only on Lord Howe Island, off the coast of New South Wales. Once critically endangered due to introduced predators and habitat loss, successful conservation efforts have helped the species recover.

Ground-Dwelling Lyrebirds, Scrub-birds & Bowerbirds

These ground-dwelling birds are an integral part of the country’s unique ecosystems, showcasing a wide range of adaptations, behaviors, and habitats.

Lyrebirds (Family: Menuridae)

Superb Lyrebird
Superb Lyrebird

Lyrebirds are one of the most remarkable groups of ground-dwelling birds found in Australia. These birds are known for their extraordinary ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment, as well as the striking beauty of the male bird’s impressive tail when it is fanned out in courtship display. There are two species of lyrebirds, both endemic to Australia:

  1. Albert’s Lyrebird (Menura alberti) – Found in a small area of rainforest in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales.
  2. Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) – Inhabits forests in southeast Australia, from southern Victoria to southeast Queensland.

Lyrebirds can imitate the calls of other birds, as well as human-made sounds like camera shutters, chainsaws, and even car alarms. There’s a lyrebird named “Echo” at the Adelaide Zoo, who learned to mimic the sound of a fire alarm so perfectly that it caused the zoo staff to evacuate the premises repeatedly.

Scrub-birds (Family: Atrichornithidae)
The scrub-bird family is an ancient lineage, closely related to lyrebirds and possibly also to bowerbirds and treecreepers. There are two species of scrub-birds, both endemic to Australia:

  1. Rufous Scrub-bird (Atrichornis rufescens) – Found in subtropical rainforests of eastern Australia, from southeast Queensland to northeast New South Wales.
  2. Noisy Scrub-bird (Atrichornis clamosus) – Inhabits the heathlands and dense scrub of southwest Western Australia.
Rufous Scrub-bird Illustration by Gould and Richter 1869
Rufous Scrub-bird Illustration by Gould and Richter 1869

The Rufous Scrub-bird is found only in the isolated regions of northeastern New South Wales and southeastern Queensland, thrives in the dense ground cover and deep leaf-litter of rainforests and wet eucalypt forests above 600 meters. Here, it primarily feeds on snails and insects.

Historically on the brink of extinction by the mid-20th century, intensive conservation efforts have seen its status improve from Near Threatened in 2004 to a more concerning Vulnerable and Endangered in 2008 and 2012, respectively. This change reflects the ongoing challenges posed by habitat fragmentation and the small size of remaining habitats. From an alarming low of approximately 2,500 pairs in the 1980s, the population has rebounded to an estimated 12,000 pairs today.

The species’ decline has largely been attributed to the clearance of lowland habitats for agriculture and urban development, with current threats including logging and the natural aging of eucalypt stands, which reduces the understorey necessary for its survival.

Bowerbirds (Family: Ptilonorhynchidae)

Male Satin Bowerbird at bower nest
Male Satin Bowerbird

Bowerbirds are small to medium-sized passerine birds, known for the elaborate courtship behavior of the males. Male bowerbirds construct intricate structures called bowers to attract mates, which can range from simple cleared patches of earth to complex and highly decorated structures made of sticks and leaves. There are 11 species of bowerbirds, all native to Australia:

  1. Spotted Catbird (Ailuroedus maculosus)
  2. Black-eared Catbird (Ailuroedus melanotis)
  3. Green Catbird (Ailuroedus crassirostris)
  4. Tooth-billed Bowerbird (Scenopoeetes dentirostris)
  5. Golden Bowerbird (Amblyornis newtonianus)
  6. Regent Bowerbird (Sericulus chrysocephalus)
  7. Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus)
  8. Western Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus guttatus)
  9. Spotted Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus maculatus)
  10. Great Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus nuchalis)
  11. Fawn-breasted Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus cerviniventris)

Lyrebirds, scrub-birds, and bowerbirds have evolved specialized behaviors and adaptations that allow them to thrive in the continent’s varied habitats.

Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)

The largest native bird in Australia, emus are flightless and primarily found across mainland Australia. They are well-adapted to various habitats, including savannas, woodlands, and grasslands.

The emu holds great cultural significance for many indigenous Australian communities. In some Dreamtime stories, the emu is associated with the creation of the Earth and is seen as a spiritual ancestor. Emu eggs, feathers, and meat have been used for various purposes, including ceremonial decoration, clothing, and food.

Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)

Another large flightless bird, the cassowary plays a crucial role in the health of tropical rainforests through seed dispersal. They are predominantly found in the rainforests of northeast Queensland.

Plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus)


Critically endangered bird native to the grasslands of southeastern Australia, the plains-wanderer has a unique appearance and behavior distinct from other ground birds.

Brolga (Grus rubicunda)


also known as the Australian crane, is a large ground-dwelling bird known for its elaborate dance performances. Brolgas are found across northern and northeastern Australia, particularly in Queensland, the northern parts of Western Australia, and the Northern Territory. They favor wetland areas but can also be found in adjacent grassy plains. During the dry season, they may move to more arid areas in search of food and water.

Pairs of brolgas perform synchronized, graceful leaps and wing movements, often accompanied by loud trumpeting calls. This dancing behavior has inspired various indigenous Australian dances and ceremonies.

Australian Logrunner (Orthonyx temminckii)

A unique ground-dwelling bird found in the rainforests and wet sclerophyll forests of eastern Australia, from southeast Queensland to eastern Victoria. This bird is known for its distinctive foraging behavior, using its powerful legs to kick and scatter leaf litter in search of invertebrate prey.

Bristlebirds (Family: Dasyornithidae)

Rufous Bristlebird
Rufous Bristlebird

Bristlebirds are a family of small, ground-dwelling birds endemic to Australia. They are characterized by their bristly plumage and are known for their shy nature, preferring to run and hide in dense undergrowth rather than fly. There are three species of bristlebirds, all native to Australia:

  1. Eastern Bristlebird (Dasyornis brachypterus) – Found in small, scattered populations along the east coast of Australia, from southern Queensland to Victoria.
  2. Rufous Bristlebird (Dasyornis broadbenti) – Inhabits coastal heathlands and shrublands in southwest Victoria and southeast South Australia.
  3. Western Bristlebird (Dasyornis longirostris) – Occurs in a small area of southwest Western Australia, in coastal heathlands and shrublands.

Adaptations and Behavior

Ground-dwelling birds in Australia have evolved various adaptations to suit their terrestrial lifestyles. Many species have cryptic plumage that helps them blend in with their surroundings, providing camouflage from predators. Others, like the emu and the southern cassowary, have long, powerful legs that enable them to run quickly and cover vast distances in search of food and water.

These birds exhibit a wide range of behaviors. Some, like the malleefowl and the brush turkey, are known for their unique nesting habits. They construct large mounds of soil, leaves, and debris to incubate their eggs, relying on the heat generated by the decomposing organic matter to maintain the optimal temperature for embryo development. Other species, such as the plains-wanderer, have adapted to life in the open grasslands, where they forage for seeds and insects among the vegetation.

Habitat and Distribution

Australia’s ground-dwelling birds are found in a variety of habitats across the continent. The emu, for example, is widely distributed across mainland Australia, inhabiting savannas, woodlands, and grasslands. The southern cassowary, on the other hand, is primarily restricted to the tropical rainforests of northeast Queensland, where it plays a vital role in maintaining the ecosystem through seed dispersal.

Other species have more specific habitat requirements. The malleefowl is found in the arid and semi-arid regions of southern Australia, where it relies on the dense, low-growing vegetation of the mallee woodlands. The plains-wanderer, a critically endangered species, is confined to the native grasslands of southeastern Australia, where it is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation.

Conservation and Threats

Many of Australia’s ground-dwelling birds face significant conservation challenges. Habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation due to human activities, such as agriculture and urbanization, have had a profound impact on these species. Introduced predators, particularly foxes and feral cats, pose a significant threat to many ground-dwelling birds, especially those with limited flying abilities.

Conservation efforts are underway to protect these unique birds and their habitats. Initiatives such as captive breeding programs, habitat restoration projects, and predator control measures have been implemented to help safeguard vulnerable species like the plains-wanderer and the malleefowl. Ongoing research and monitoring are also crucial for understanding the ecology and population dynamics of these birds, informing effective conservation strategies.

Australia’s ground-dwelling birds are a testament to the country’s remarkable avian diversity. From the iconic emu to the elusive plains-wanderer, these birds have evolved a range of adaptations and behaviors that enable them to thrive in the continent’s varied landscapes. However, many of these species face significant threats, highlighting the need for ongoing conservation efforts to ensure their survival. By protecting and preserving the habitats of Australia’s ground-dwelling birds, we can safeguard these unique and fascinating species for generations to come.