Paradise for wanderers: the fight to save the plains-wanderer

Victorian landholders are securing habitat, and hopefully a future, for one of Australia’s rarest and most unusual bird species.
By Miranda Luby September 3, 2020 Reading Time: 3 Minutes

IN THE DWINDLING native arid grasslands of north central Victoria, the plains-wanderer is clinging tenuously to survival. This small, quail-like ground bird is endemic to Australia and unique – so distinctive that it’s the sole member of not only its own genus, Pedionomus, but its own family, Pedionomidae. Its closest living relatives are shorebirds from South America, meaning its evolution can be traced back at least 60 million years – when Australia and South America were both part of the southern supercontinent Gondwana.

There is, quite simply, nothing else in the world like the plains-wanderer. “In terms of conservation of the world’s bird biodiversity, it doesn’t get more important than this,” says renowned ornithologist Dr David Baker-Gabb, who chairs the Victorian Plains-wanderer Operations group.

These birds were once widespread throughout eastern Australia’s grasslands, David says, explaining that due to habitat loss they are now restricted to a few isolated remnant patches, mostly in Victoria. With an estimated 250–1000 now left in the wild and less than 5 per cent of the species’ native grassland habitat remaining in Victoria – mostly on private property – there are grave concerns the plains-wanderer is heading rapidly towards extinction.

But the fight for this species is far from over. Pockets of plains-wanderer habitat are being secured on private property in the north central region of the state using covenants prepared through the Victoria-based Trust for Nature, one of Australia’s oldest conservation organisations.

These voluntary, legally binding, agreements permanently protect native grassland and the animals living on it. The Trust, in partnership with Victoria’s North Central Catchment Management Authority, has so far protected more than 500ha of plains-wanderer habitat in this way. Recently, Zoos Victoria has also stepped in to support the covenanting program by providing funds.

“Conservation covenants are critical to the survival of this bird because we still have native grassland being ploughed and cropped, destroying all its natural value,” says Trust for Nature’s senior conservation officer Kirsten Hutchison. “To have a species that’s so globally significant in our own backyard that’s on the brink of extinction means we need to do something about it.”

The covenants aren’t, however, proving beneficial only for this critically endangered bird. “People love being a part of this journey to help save a species,” Kirsten says.

Cattle grazier George Pearse is one of them. He’s placed a covenant on his property near Echuca, securing 24ha of rare, uncultivated native grassland that’s perfect plains-wanderer habitat. George is one of many to fall for the birds’ unusual quirks, including its cow-like call and the fact that, after mating, the female, which is the larger and more colourful sex, flits off to find a different breeding partner while the male incubates the eggs and rears their chicks.

“It’s good to be making a difference for this bird,” says George, who’s affectionately signposted  his covenanted area George’s Grassland. “So much wildlife is disappearing off the plains. It’s great to have something done about it.”

Landholder Greg Rankin is also taken with the birds’ plight, recently placing a covenant on 119ha of his Patho Plains property. For him, it’s about leaving a legacy for the future. “It harks back to remembering what the land was like when you were a kid,” Greg says. “I want to give that to the next generation.”

Under these conservation covenants, Trust for Nature is working with landholders to manage their land, so it suits the preferred habitat structure for plains-wanderers. The fawn-coloured birds thrive on relatively bare, treeless grasslands, keeping to an average home range of 12ha.

Landholders can be wary of covenants locking them out of their properties. But in this case, selective grazing complements conservation. “It won’t affect our farming because we can still graze the land,” George explains. There can also be financial incentives for landholders, with $1000 per hectare currently on offer from Trust for Nature and their project partners to protect plains-wanderer habitat. 

Not only are George and Greg helping protect wild plains-wanderers, their properties are also collection sites for birds transferred to Werribee Open Range Zoo to take part in a captive breeding program. Zoos Victoria has
successfully bred 23 during the past two years. The properties of George and Greg may also become suitable release sites for the captive-bred plains-wanderers.

Dr Baker-Gabb says that although the future is looking brighter for the bird, there is a long way to go. “We’re still losing too much native grassland to cultivation and time is running out,” he says. “Conservation covenants are the best way to make sure this species survives.”

Act now to help stop the extinction of the critically endangered plains-wanderer. Habitat loss and land cultivation have led to there being fewer than 1000 plains-wanderers left in the wild. Help the AG Society to help Trust for Nature partner with local landholders to protect precious grasslands, and give this unique bird a place to live forever. The species’ particular habitat is at risk of being cleared, and the Trust’s work, in collaboration with many other organisations, helps farmers protect and manage it. Conservation covenants are the only way to guarantee that nothing happens to plains-wanderer habitat in the future and to ensure the species doesn’t become extinct. Donate below.