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.
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.
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.