Spinifex pigeons call the hottest town in Australia home


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew December 13, 2021
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Like royalty, lording over a desert kingdom, beautiful spinifex pigeons are a whole lot tougher than they look.

As the spinifex pigeon’s name suggests, these birds are most at home among the spinifex or porcupine grasses that grow in the rocky arid and semi-arid parts of northern and central Australia. They have an extremely large range, found in every mainland Australian state except for New South Wales and Victoria.

Because they’re quite weak fliers, they tend to live close to creek beds or other water sources to help them cope with the extreme heat of the day.

And when we say extreme, we mean it. Among the many haunts of the spinifex pigeon (Geophaps plumifera) is Marble Bar, a town in the Pilbara region of north-western Western Australia, famous for the role it played in the gold rush of the 1890s.

It’s also famous for being the hottest town in Australia, and one of the hottest places on Earth. Recognised by the Guinness Book of Records, the highest temperature recorded in the town was 49.3 degrees on 27 Dec 2018. On average, more than 100 days each year are recorded at or above 40 degrees. For up 10 160 days per year, the air temperature in the shade exceeds 38 degrees.

Related: Meet Australia’s rainforest pigeons

How do these delicate birds cope with such high temperatures? Researchers have found several physiological characteristics that work together to give spinifex pigeons remarkable tolerance for high temperatures.

First off, they drink a whole lot of water throughout the day, because the food they eat – mainly spinifex grass seeds – provides very little. They also have unusually low body heat production and have a high rate of non-evaporative heat loss, which means they can cool down without losing too much water.

Another interesting thing about these birds is they are one of just two Australian pigeons that have an erect crest.

A spinifex pigeon.
(Image credit: Andreas Trepte/Wikimedia)

The other species is the crested pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes), a common sight in Sydney, and increasingly so in Canberra and Melbourne.

Along with the crest, these birds have beautiful tail and wing feathers with which to impress each other during courtship rituals. To show them off, they bow their heads low, fan out their feathers like a fan and bob and shake their bodies.

Check out that shimmer of this spinifex pigeon’s wing feathers: