Major breeding event sparks population rebound of near-extinct plains-wanderer bird


An astonishing breeding event has provided hope for the survival of one of the world’s taxonomically unique and most threatened birds.

The plains-wanderer — a small, quail-like bird only found in eastern Australia grasslands — represents an ancient lineage of birds that evolved in Gondawana more than 100 million years ago.

It is so critically endangered and taxonomically unique that it has been ranked the number-one priority for conservation action among birds of the world by the Zoological Society of London.

But recently, La Trobe University researchers uncovered a record number of plains-wanderers during a survey in northern Victoria.

“We found about 60 adults and it was close to 40 chicks,” La Trobe University PhD student and ecologist Dan Nugent said.

“We were finding that males were often accompanied by two to four chicks, huddled up underneath them for protection from predators.”

La Trobe University PhD student Dan Nugent holds a plains-wanderer.(Supplied: Tom Hunt)

La Niña sparks breeding boom

The sole member of its taxonomic family, Pedionomidae, it is estimated that there are fewer than 1,000 plains-wanderers remaining in the wild due to habitat loss.

Mr Nugent said this jackpot was the largest discovery of birds found since monitoring began in northern Victoria in 2010.

It was also more than double the previous best result in 2018, when 30 adults and 17 chicks were detected.

A bird in the grass
A female plains-wanderer, one of the world’s most endangered birds.(Supplied: Owen Lishmund)

“A further encouraging sign was that 85 per cent of monitoring sites supported plains-wanderers – the highest percentage of sites since surveys began 12 years ago,” he said.

Mr Nugent said the La Niña climate cycle was largely to thank for the recent population boom.

“Lots of rainfall has produced lots of food for these birds to eat,” he said.

Technology advances help detect bird

This latest survey was conducted by the university, in partnership with North Central Catchment Management Authority as part of a report for the Department of Environment Land and Water and Planning (DELWP).

Two men look at materials sitting on the boot of a car
Researchers recently uncovered a record number of plains-wanderers during a survey in northern Victoria.(Supplied: Rohan Clarke)

DELWP natural environment program officer Aaron Grinter said it was a challenging bird to monitor.

“Plains-wanderers are highly cryptic,” Dr Grinter said.

But Mr Nugent said survey technology and methods had vastly improved throughout the years.

“We used to only use spotlights,” he said.

“But now we’ve fitted out our cars with thermal imaging cameras, and they’re able to pick up these really tiny birds in the grass.”

A bird in thermal imaging
A plains-wanderer detected using thermal imaging.(Supplied: Dan Nugent)

Goldilocks species

While this surge in the plains-wanderer population has been celebrated by researchers, Mr Nugent said they are not out of the woods yet.

Habitat loss due to overgrazing continues to be a major threat, as these birds — nicknamed “Goldilocks” for its need for ideal conditions — favorite ground cover that is sparse, but not too sparse.

“There’s very little native grassland left in Victoria. A lot of it has been destroyed for agriculture,” Mr Nugent said.

He said more was needed to be done to ensure the bird’s ongoing survival.

“Plains-wanderers can benefit from livestock grazing, but as soon as that grassland is cultivated, they lose their habitat,” he said.

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