Bird of the Month - October 2020

Each month, Birds Queensland highlights a Bird of the Month. To learn more about our Queensland birds, make sure you return to this page each month to read about the featured species.

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Australian Bustard Ardeotis australis

Article: David Niland

Our Bustard is the only representative of the Family Otidae, which has about 24 species spread through Africa, Europe and Asia. It is one of our heaviest flying birds and inhabits open grassland and open woodland across much of Australia. There has been a decrease in the population in Victoria and southern Western Australia, but it is still well represented across northern areas. However the hunting for it as a food source had continued heavily up until recent decades.

Similar to a number of inland species, it has a fairly nomadic lifestyle with loose flocks moving around as conditions on the grasslands suffer during droughts. The healthy vegetation growth after good rain will often see flocks of 20-50 birds in an area of a few hectares. The small groups can possibly travel many hundreds of kilometres in their search for suitable conditions, as one female was tracked from south of Bedourie north to the Mount Isa area over 15 months.

This species is generally polygynous with mature males holding a small display territory which a few females will visit. In areas with a larger population there may be 3-5 males in adjacent territories in a form of ‘lek’ behaviour. This is quite a spectacle as the males expand a sac and fluff their feathers to form a large cascade from their head down to ground level, and their tail raised over their back.

Australian Bustard: A captive male showing display posture Australian Bustards - Winton
Australian Bustard: A captive male showing display posture
©J & I Brown
Australian Bustards - Winton
©David Niland

The male’s display includes a hoarse roar which appears to be part of a two-phase process, sucking the air in and then expelling it as the roar comes from its chest sac. See this video by Philip Griffin of a bird at Longreach performing this act.

After visiting this territory for mating the female will establish a nest in the general vicinity and lay 2-3 eggs. She alone will incubate them after laying the last egg so they all hatch together after about 24 days. She will then lead them away in search of food and keep the family unit together until after they have fledged.

The New Atlas of Australian Birds showed the major breeding months are October, December and January, with no records from March to May. Understandably there were fewer observations of Bustards during summer, and most of these were in the Northern Brigalow Bioregion in Queensland. The northern half of Western Australia has very few in summer, but a major influx through the winter months of mid June to mid August.

The birds will usually rest during the middle of the day, and their colouration makes them blend into the open grassland extremely well. They are quite wary of people walking or riding on horseback but are much less concerned about motor vehicles, often to their detriment.

The results in eBird over the last four years show quite a regular appearance in the Brigalow Belt Bioregions, with more records during June-August in the South and March to August in the North. The occasional observations of over 20 birds occurs during this period, usually in association with grasshopper outbreaks and / or mature crops. They will also take advantage of areas recently burnt in their search for insects and small animals.

References:

The New Atlas of Australian Birds (RAOU 2003)
Ecology and movements of the Australian Bustard Ardeotis australis in a dynamic landscape, M.Ziembicki, 2009 (Thesis in University of Adelaide)
Higgins, P J (Eds)(1999), Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds Vol 2, Melbourne, Oxford University Press

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