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The Plains-wanderer is a small, ground-dwelling bird native to the grasslands of south-eastern Australia. With less than 1000 birds remaining in the wild they are Critically Endangered and under imminent threat of extinction.
Plains-wanderers are a beautiful bird – mostly brown or buff in colour, with a light buff-coloured belly and white and blackish markings over the body including spots and streaks on the head and neck. Females are larger than males and have distinctive black and white collar around the neck, with reddish-brown patch on their chest.
Plains-wanderers share a physical resemblance to quail, but in evolutionary terms, they are one of a kind – there’s no bird like it in the world.
The species has no close relatives and in a recent study examining evolutionary distinctness combined with extinction risk they were ranked fourth amongst all the world’s birds and first in Australia.
Once widespread from Victoria to Queensland, the Plains-wanderer has undergone a dramatic decline in the last decade, with their last strongholds in the Northern Plains of Victoria and New South Wales Riverina.
The major threats to their survival are the loss of sparse native grasslands and the condition of the grassland habitat that remains. Grassland structure is critical for the Plains-wanderer, with birds preferring short, sparse grasslands that provide cover and space to forage for seeds, leaves and insects. If grass cover becomes too thick or too sparse they abandon the site.
Females and males with overlapping territories form breeding pairs, and the female may mate with several males in a season. It’s primarily the male that incubates the eggs and raises the young, while the larger female defends her turf. If conditions are favourable they can produce multiple clutches of 2-5 eggs each year.
Saving the Plains-wanderer
Zoos Victoria is part of Australia’s National Recovery Team for the Plains-wanderer, which was formed in an emergency effort to save the species from extinction.
As part of this team, Zoos Victoria, Taronga Zoo, Zoos South Australia and Featherdale Wildlife Park are working together to establish a captive breeding program to ensure the survival of this unique grassland species.
The Plains-wanderer’s range once included the plains between Geelong and Melbourne, with Werribee Open Range Zoo providing an ideal location for the breeding program. In 2017, a new Plains-wanderer captive breeding facility was built at Werribee Open Range Zoo. The initial focus of the breeding program is to establish an insurance population for the species, but it will also enable captive-bred birds to be released to the wild to increase populations in the Northern Plains of Victoria and New South Wales Riverina.
Zoos Victoria is also supporting local recovery team partners, Parks Victoria and Trust for Nature who are working to preserve Plains-wanderer habitat.
How can you help?
The Plains-wanderer is our local, an incredibly precious native species that needs our help. Unfortunately very few people have heard about this amazing bird, or the threats that it faces. You can take the Plains-wanderer under your wing and help us spread the word. Whether that’s online or at your school, your workplace, community group or sports club – raising awareness is critical if we are to secure a future for the Plains-wanderer.
Plans and publications
- The Plains-wanderer is an ancient member of Australia’s avifauna and the species is in a family of its own, Pedionomidae
- Plains-wanderers build their nests at the base of these tussocks in a hollow or 'scrape', with the opening facing East, perhaps to catch the morning sun and block the strong afternoon sun from the West
- Plains-wanderers don’t like trees! They avoid areas with trees or large shrubs, which appears to be a defence mechanism to protect themselves from birds of prey that often perch in these trees
- Plains-wanderers depend on sparse grasslands, with 50% bare ground and where most vegetation is less than 5cm in height
- A simple system for measuring the density of grass cover has been devised that involves dropping 18 golf balls into a 1m x 1m quadrant and scoring the visibility of each golf ball – for a Plains-wanderer the ideal score is 14.5 – 16.5 golf balls!
- The male Plains-wanderers are very protective of their chicks. Despite their tiny stature the males will stand their ground to protect their young