Only 250 to 1,000 of these little, ground-dwelling birds remain in the wild today, and they are found only in the desert grasslands of south-eastern Australia.
Although it has lankier legs and a finer bill than a quail, the Plains-Wanderer is actually a closer relative of gulls and coastal birds.
Plains-Wanderers are little fawn-colored birds that blend in seamlessly with the plains of dry Australia, standing 12-15cm tall and weighing 40 to 95 grammes. Their variegated feathers have spots and streaks on the head and neck, as well as white and blackish markings.
Adult males have fawn-white underparts with black crescents and are light brown in colour. Females are larger and have a reddish brown breast with a white-spotted black collar around the neck.
Plains-Wanderers live where?
Small dispersed populations have survived in western Victoria, eastern South Australia, and the western riverina region of NSW, where they were once distributed from Victoria to Queensland.
The structure of the habitat is critical. They enjoy semi-arid, natural grasslands with a diverse plant community, which are typically found on red-brown soils. Good habitat typically consists of roughly 50% bare ground, 40% herbs, forbs, and grasses (mainly under 5cm but with occasional tussocks for concealment), and 10% fallen plant litter in which they will hunt for seeds, leaves, and insects.
The western riverina of NSW has seen the most sightings in the previous 30 years, however investigations spanning 5,000km2 of this area in the 1990s indicated that only around 5% of the land was acceptable habitat, dropping to 1% or 2% in extremely hot or wet years when grasslands were too dense or were grazed too low.
Plains-Wanders are mostly sedentary in ideal conditions, though they may become more active during droughts.
Each bird's average home range would be roughly 12 hectares. Males and females with overlapping ranges form breeding pairs, with the larger females defending their territories and mating with multiple birds over the course of a season, while the males incubate eggs and rear the young.
Females can lay multiple clutches of two to five eggs per year if the conditions are right.
Clearing and pasture improvement have historically resulted in habitat loss.
Drought or overgrazing over an extended period of time will also result in habitat loss owing to a lack of adequate ground cover.
Predation by foxes and developments that result in an increase in the population of foxes pose a serious hazard. Increased mouse densities linked to irrigated cereal crops like rice can lead to an increase in fox populations.
High-intensity fires obliterate viable habitat totally.
Pesticides, such as fipronil and fenitrothion, which are used to control locusts, have the potential to harm plains-wanderers directly or indirectly through their food source.
Plains-wanderers may be preyed upon by feral cats.
Plains-wanderer habitat can be harmed by rabbits.
Over a 14-year period, there was a significant (>90%) reduction in the observed population.
The Positive Side of this Story
You can help by donating to Trust for Nature Plains-Wanderer project.
Trust for Nature is part of a National Recovery Team for the bird which has established a captive program to save it from extinction. The Team includes partners such as Zoos Victoria, Parks Victoria, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, catchment management authorities and national partners.
The bird can only survive if it has safe places to be released – this is where our work is so important. Working with farmers we have protected about 540 ha in north-central Victoria with conservation covenants so far, and as a result of the work we’re doing to raise awareness of the birds’ plight in the area we have recently heard from many other farmers who are willing to protect this bird; but we can’t do this without more funds.