Brolgas

Last updated: Friday 27 May, 2016

(Grus rubicunda)

Famed for their elaborate courtship dance, Brolgas are one of Australia’s most iconic birds. A number of traditional Aboriginal legends and dances are associated with the bird, with movements mimicking their graceful performance.

Brolgas at Edgbaston Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
Brolgas at Edgbaston Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
The name Brolga is taken from the Aboriginal language Gamilaraay, where they are named, burralga.

Brolgas are one of Australia’s largest flying birds—they stand a metre tall and have a wing span up to 2.4 metres. They’re one of two members of the Gruidae (crane) family in Australia—John Gould, celebrated ornithologist and artist, once called them the Australian Crane. The Sarus Crane (Grus antigone), the only other Australian member of the crane family, is found across northern Australia, South East Asia and India.

Where do Brolgas live?

Brolgas can be found across tropical northern Australia, throughout Queensland and in parts of western Victoria, central NSW and south-east South Australia. They feed and breed in open wetlands, coastal mudflats and irrigated croplands, occasionally visiting estuaries and mangrove creeks.

Brolgas in flight over Naree Station, NSW. Photo Steve Parish.
Brolgas in flight over Naree Station, NSW. Photo Steve Parish.
While not considered migratory, they’re partially nomadic, flying to different areas following seasonal rainfall.

The Australian population of Brolgas is considered ‘secure’, with somewhere between 20,000 to 100,000 birds in northern Australia. But the southern population—estimated at 1,000 birds—is dwindling, and the species is listed as vulnerable in NSW, South Australia and Victoria.

Pre-1900 records of Brolgas along the coast of NSW show that their range and population has already declined.

Brolga behaviour

Brolgas are best known for their intricate and ritualised dance. Partners begin by picking up grass, tossing it into the air and catching it again in their beaks. The birds then jump up to a metre in the air with their wings outstretched, before performing an elaborate display of head-bobbing, wing-beating, strutting and bowing. Occasionally they stop to trumpet loudly—a spectacular sound!

Both sexes dance year around, in pairs or in groups, with birds lining up opposite each other.

 

With such an impressive mating ritual it’s little wonder that Brolgas pair for life. But the large birds are also gregarious—during the non-breeding season family groups gather to form flocks.

During the breeding season a pair will return to their breeding site and create a nest in the middle of a wetland. The nest is an island mound made with sticks, grass and sedges. Some pairs have returned to the same nest each year for 20 years!

Brolga footprint in the dried floor of a dune swale ephemeral wetland after winter rain, Craven's Peak, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
Brolga footprint in the dried floor of a dune swale ephemeral wetland after winter rain, Craven's Peak, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
Both adults care for the incubating eggs, typically two per clutch. Once hatched, the young can feed themselves almost immediately.

Brolgas are omnivorous—they eat tubers dug up with their bills, but also feast on insects, frogs and molluscs.

Brolgas breed from September to December in southern Australia and from February to May in northern Australia.

Perhaps you’ve seen a pair of Brolgas, wings beating slowly, crying hoarsely as they travel from wetland to wetland?

Threats

Brolgas in flight over Ethabuka Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
Brolgas in flight over Ethabuka Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
Brolgas are dependent on wetlands. The main threats to the species are habitat loss, including wetland drainage for agriculture and development, and collisions with powerlines. Fox predation is also a major issue for breeding birds in southern Australia.

In northern Australia, feral pigs reduce the cover of plants that Brolgas use to hide from predators. In the past they were poisoned and shot on farms because of the damage they caused to crops.

What's Bush Heritage doing?

Naree Station Reserve is a haven for Brolgas. A former pastoral property, it's located in the Warrego-Paroo River catchment in north-western NSW, one of the least disturbed parts of the Murray-Darling Basin. Unlike most other river systems in the Basin, there's minimal water extraction in the Warrego-Paroo system, allowing the area to flood and dry naturally.

We work with universities, and experts like ornithologist (bird specialist) Professor Richard Kingsford on Naree, who has been monitoring waterbirds across inland Australia since 1986.

We also protect their habitat on Ethabuka, Cravens Peak, Edgbaston and Yourka Reserves (all in Queensland), removing threats like weeds and feral pigs, which damage sensitive wetland systems.

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