Nicknamed the 'bush turkey' by Aboriginals, the Australian Bustard is a large member of the Bustard family (Otididae). They are also monotypic and can be found across all states in Australia.
Australian Bush Turkey, Plains Turkey
Adults have short brown tails, long yellowish-grey legs and feet and long light coloured necks. The upper parts are mainly a light, dullish-brown with fine buff streaking. The upper wing coverts display black mottling with accompanying white bend. Both the head and breast are greyish-white with finely barred dark greys. The forehead and crown are black, with a line joining the peak behind the eyes to where the eyebrow is white. Underbody parts are primarily white with a black band across the breast. The bill is whitish and the eyes are brown.
Females are considerably smaller than male birds and generally have slightly duller plumages and thinner bands on the breast, but other than that are mostly similar. Females generally weigh up to 3.2kg with males reaching weights of 8.2kg in some cases.
Juvenile birds look similar to adults but have less black detailing.
Close up of an Australian Bustard
Australian Bustards are predominantly quiet birds, but when alarmed or under threat, will produce a sharp barking noise. Males will inflate the throat and the sound made has been likened to a 'distant roaring lion'. They will often emit a croaking sound whilst feeding.
These birds are also vocal during the breeding season whilst males are performing their courtship display. This sound made is more of a low pitched boom or roar.
Australian Bustard male display call
Marc Anderson, XC156198. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/156198.
Australian Bustard walking across a desert plain
Australian Bustards are omnivores meaning they have varied diets. They will feed on seeds, berries, roots, leaves, insects (especially caterpillars, grasshoppers and beetles), young birds, reptiles and small rodents such as mice.
These birds are ground feeders and mainly feed during the morning and later in the afternoon. When they find food, they use their short bills to grab things and then swallow them whole.
Close up of an Australian Bustard
Australian Bustards can be found in each state of Australia, but are less common in both the south and south-eastern regions. They can also be found in southern parts of New Guinea. Preferred habitats are on open grassed plains, low shrubbed areas and in woodland.
Most birds are sedentary, but those in lower rainfall areas, may travel further distances from the drying area.
These birds are primarily nomadic and will often travel vast distances following the rains in search of food.
As previously mentioned, they are mostly silent, so if you are hoping to track and spot them by listening out for them, then the breeding season is most definitely the best time for this.
In New South Wales, these birds are listed as 'Endangered' due to their declining population. This decline is down to several factors such as illegal hunting, human disturbances and predation of cats and foxes. However, in most parts of northern Australia, they are much more common.
Australian Bustard in long grass
The start and end of the breeding season vary depending on the range. In the south, this is between April and November. Arid areas do not have any set breeding season, so it can occur all year round - but will generally be in relation to rainfall.
As with other bustards in the breeding season, males will gather in areas referred to as 'display arenas'. The males will be spaced well apart from one another (100 - 1,000m) to enable them to display and attract a female. Displaying males inflate their throat sacs which then allows the long throat feathers to be utilised as a fan. This display produces a sound that is often likened to 'a distant roaring lion'. Males can get rather aggressive when defending their 'display arenas' and will often fight with other birds on the ground.
As they are able to perform more elaborate displays, larger males tend to have more success in attracting females to his 'arena' for mating.
Nests are constructed on bare ground or sometimes in tall grass. One clutch of 1-2 olive eggs is laid and then incubated solely by the female for up to 23 days. The plumage helps to deter predators as it mostly camouflages with the surroundings, whilst the female bird is sitting low on the nest. Once hatched, the chicks are only cared for and fed by the female, as the male will not help with nesting duties.
A pair of Australian Bustards
The average lifespan for these birds is around 25 years, which means they are regarded as a long-lived species. However, in captivity, birds have been recorded at reaching ages of over 30 years old.
Because of their long life span, it takes young birds a considerable amount of time (5-6 years) to reach full sexual maturity, when they are then able to reproduce.
Australian Bustard in flight
Yes, Australian Bustards are the heaviest bird capable of flying in Australia, although they prefer to walk most of the time. If you are lucky enough to see one of these birds in flight, it can be an extremely fascinating sight.
These birds are still eaten today in parts of central Australia. They are an important source of food for Aboriginal people.