The Australian Bustard: when being delicious is not a recipe for success

Posted on Posted in Central Australia, Central QLD, feathered, North QLD

We’d like to welcome our newest contributor Brent to Before It’s Gone. Brent talks Australian Bustards, a species he became enamoured with while living in north-western QLD…

The first scientifically described Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis) was shot in what is now Agnes Water in May 1770. Captain Cook recorded in his journal “it turned out an excellent bird, far the best…that we have eat since we left England” [sic]. A culinary, if not cultural echo of Aboriginal Australians who have valued the Bustard as food for millennia.

The bird’s range and population has greatly declined since Captain Cook had his first taste. Changes in land use, introduction of feral predators and increased hunting appear to be responsible. They are birds of open plains that prefer grass and low shrubs allowing them to hide yet maintain good views of their immediate surroundings.

A Bustard posing roadside in north-western QLD (Photo by B. Smith)

Male Bustards reach 120 cm in height, have a wingspan of up to 2.3m and are the heaviest flying bird in Australia at a massive 14.5 kg. In perspective, the mighty Wedge-tail Eagle weighs in at a paltry 5.8 kg and my staffy, who resembles a tan beer keg with legs, weighs 17 kg. To see a fully grown Bustard take-off is impressive, especially when they launch from roadside cover straight at your car.

Cars and Bustards bring me to two points. First, while Bustards are shy and difficult to approach on foot, they are easily approached in a vehicle. Secondly, it’s worth stopping to take a closer look at fresh road-killed Bustards. From a distance the feathers appear to be a series of brown shades. Up close the wing, neck and tail feathers are finely banded in white, black, cream and buff like the patterning of mineral sands in a shallow creek. The delicate mosaic is utterly amazing. Being colour-blind I can only imagine how incredible it must appear.

After you have (safely) looked at roadkill please give it a good hurl away from the road.  That way native species don’t risk becoming roadkill themselves while dining. I do emphasise inspecting fresh roadkill, remember that, lest a wholly different kind of hurling occurs. Now back to cars and Bustards.

Bustards are much easier to approach using a Hilux than your Blundstones, which enables a single illegal hunter with a vehicle to decimate a local population with ease. The Bustard is a long-lived species (approx. 30 years) and will only breed when conditions are right. Up against even a moderate number of hunters a population of Bustards is unlikely to survive for long.

Distribution of the Australian Bustard, during the Field Atlas (1977-1981) and the New Atlas (1998-2000) showing a decrease in range (Figure taken from Australia State of the Environment Report 2001, DEH)

But how do you monitor the population of a bird that prefers not to be noticed and is comfortable moving 500km in a year? With camouflage better than a politician’s 3 days prior to an election? That walks quietly rather than flying? That doesn’t even have the decency to make noise or live within easy reach of most people?  Problems like this make me glad that Australia produces world class research scientists.

If you are interested in learning more about Bustards, try the book “Australian Bustard” by Mark Ziembicki or find your local bird group through BOCA or Birds Australia.

19 thoughts on “The Australian Bustard: when being delicious is not a recipe for success

  1. I had no idea. Thanks for sharing Brent. What a majestic looking bird! Do they nest on the ground as well?

  2. My wife and I just drove from Perth along the coast to Port Lincoln and across the middle back to Newcastle (Road trip holiday)

    Took a drive around Eucla after staying overnight and saw a pair of Australian Bustards beside a dirt track in the scrub.
    Never seen them before – wow, what an incredible prehistoric looking bird, got some footage of them. Had to wait to get home (today) to ID.
    You’re right about them not being afraid of vehicles, drove right up beside them and filmed them before they flew off.

    Regards,
    Dave

    1. Hi Dave: Thanks for your post – it makes our day when we hear from people about their experiencing an awesome animal for the first time. Really glad that you got the opportunity to see such a cool creature and hope you got some spectacular footage of them. I know what you mean about their prehistoric appearance, they look like they would be right at home among a herd of dinosaurs.
      Cheers
      Brent

  3. My son and I have just seen our first Australian Bustard while driving home at Cummins on Lower Eyre Peninsula. Never seen one around here before, was absolutely amazed at it’s size and also that it let us stop nearby and observe it. What an awesome bird!

  4. If you want to see these birds, come to the Barkley tablelands in the Northern Territory. They are absolutely EVERYWHERE !!!!!!!!!!!

  5. My wife and i just returned from a trip up the West Coast from Perth to Coral Bay.
    On the way back to the main highway we came across a Bustard right on the edge of the road but it was quick to get going. I am sure we frightened it but did not hit it.
    I noticed on your map up to the year 2000 that south of Exmouth, on the coast there are no recordings of this bird. Perhaps they are breeding.

  6. We came across three bustards on the heritage trail in Sandstone WA on the 15th of June and took photos, then passed another two beside the road just east of Nungarin in the Wheatbelt of WA on June 19th. As they can be highly mobile birds they have probably moved on now, but we were surprised by those in the Wheatbelt as we’ve not seen them there before, however there was a report of some north of Wyalkatchem recently so the recent rains may have drawn them this far south. Beautiful creatures!

  7. Stunned to see a pair of bustards near the roadside, between Forsayth and Georgetown in far north Queensland. They appeared frozen, like the metal kangaroos my wife had installed in our front yard the night before my 50th birthday. Seeing them, I felt the same surreal reaction as I did when I opened the front curtains on that birthday morning. Can’t quantify the pleasure I get from these random wildlife sightings.

  8. Many years ago, the first cause I ever sponsored was “Boost the Bustard” but then lost track of what was happening in that area. I’m so pleased that I found this wonderful article.

  9. We saw a bustard crossing Gregory Developmental Road on the way from Townsville to Greenvale last weekend. He was happy to be watched as he finished what he had planned! Beautiful beast

  10. Recently travelled to Karumba, and was disappointed that we did not see these birds on the way up. But we were delighted to see several on our way home, saw 4 just south of Winton, and just before Barcaldine, and again north of Cobar NSW. I was lucky enough to get a few photos of both on the ground, and in the air. Made my day

  11. Devastated to have accidently killed one of these beautiful birds today. It popped up out of bushes onto the road, south of Mt Morgan in central QLD, as I approached. I braked as much as I could towing a caravan, and would have managed to miss it if it hadn’t decided to take off in front of me at the last minute, rather than stay where it was (or better yet, go back the way it had come). I was surprised by how heavy it was when I picked it up to take it off the road. They are a rare, and rather special sight in my area, and I am so so sad to have caused the death of one.

  12. Hi, ive just come across a Plain Turkey chick next to its freshly car hit parent. Id like to raise it to young adult and release it again. Question is whats best to feed it? Chicken starter mash and fresh kitchen scraps? Only very young, about size of a Magpie and still flightless. Thank you

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