13.
Plains-wanderer
(Pedionomus torquatus)
EN
Overview
The Plains-wanderer is an Australian endemic of great scientific interest. It is the sole member of the family Pedionomidae and, as such, has no close living relatives. Unusual among birds, the females are larger and more brightly-coloured than the males, displaying a distinctive white-spotted black collar and rufous breast. The male takes responsibility for the majority, if not all, of the incubation and chick rearing. The species has declined due to historical widespread cultivation of lowland native grasslands and overgrazing during extended drought periods. Degraded habitat, even if abandoned, takes many years to recover, during which time it is unsuitable for the species. Fox predation is considered to also have played a role in the rapid population decline of this species.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Establish accurate estimates of population size and distribution; extend network of protected areas; research into and continued management of agricultural pesticides.
Distribution
Endemic to the semi-arid lowland native grasslands of eastern Australia. Most known habitat is in the western Riverina area of New South Wales.
Fact
Unusual in birds, the female of the species is larger and more colourful than the male.
Media from ARKive
Arkive image - Plains-wanderer
Arkive image - Female plains-wanderer showing courtship behaviour
Arkive image - Female plains-wanderer showing courtship behaviour
Arkive image - Plains-wanderer in dry grass
Arkive image - Plains-wanderer
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Pedionomidae
The Plains-wanderer is the sole representative of an entire family of birds. It was originally placed within the order of Gruiformes (cranes, crakes, rails and relatives) but later studies of its anatomy and behaviour, as well as DNA hybridisation studies, showed it was more closely related to the Charadriiformes, the family containing jacanas, oystercatchers, seedsnipes and plovers. Its closest relatives are the seedsnipes of South America, which suggests that the Plains-wanderer forms an ancient part of Australia’s avifauna.
The tree below shows the evolutionary relationships between this species and all other birds. The colours of the tree indicate EDGE scores with the red shades indicating the higher priority species; the bright red leaves correspond to the top 100 EDGE bird species. Further information on every species can be found by zooming in to its leaf on the tree.
Description
Size: 
15–19cm
Weight: 40–95g
This species is highly sexually dimorphic. Unusually, the male is substantially smaller and less brightly coloured than the female. Both sexes have a quail-like appearance, but the female sports a black and white collar and a rufous patch on her chest. The plumage on the upperparts of both sexes is light brown with dark rosettes. The underparts are beige to white with scattered, more widely-spaced dark rosettes. The Plains-wander has long, powerful yellow legs, and a yellow bill and irises. The young more closely resemble the mature male, but with dark brown spots rather than crescents.
Ecology
The Plains-wanderer is an omnivorous bird. Foraging takes place in the day and at dusk, with the birds pecking at the ground to pick up a variety of insects, seeds and leaves. They have been observed hammering the ground with their bill to expose arthropods. Reluctant to fly, the birds tend to run from danger, with their long high-stepping legs carrying them at considerable speeds. The birds remain within the same patch of habitat, only moving from the area if it becomes degraded or unsuitable. Nests are shallow scrapes, lined with grass and leaves. Between three and five eggs are laid. The male assumes most of the responsibility for incubating eggs, leaving the female free to mate with other males. Although generally a productive species, breeding success is affected by climate and may be low in years with heavy rains. Breeding may not occur at all in very dry years.
Habitat
Its preferred habitat is treeless sparse native grasslands, with a large proportion (50 per cent) of bare ground, with vegetation approximately 5cm high. There are a few observations of the species in degraded areas, such as patches of cereal stubble, but it is thought the species cannot survive in cultivated landscapes.
Distribution
Endemic to the lowland native grasslands of eastern Australia.
Population Estimate
The population is estimated to vary from between 5,500-7,000 in good years to around 2,000 birds during periods of widespread drought.
Population Trend
Declining
Status
Endangered
Threats
The primary cause of population decline for this species is the conversion of native grasslands for crop cultivation and livestock farming. Grazing by cattle and sheep destroys the ground cover needed by the Plains-wanderer to evade predation from animals like foxes. The species is now considered to be effectively extinct from parts of South Australia and Victoria. Populations are also in severe decline in parts of New South Wales and Queensland. Degraded habitat, even if abandoned, takes many years to recover, during which time it is unsuitable for the Plains-wanderer. The impact of chemical pesticides for locust control is largely unknown, but may kills birds directly or indirectly through the food chain. Current pesticide management focuses on the identification, mapping and avoidance of critical habitat by pesticide applicators. More research is needed, however, to quantify the impacts of pesticides on this species and amend management protocols accordingly.
Conservation Underway
The ecology and behaviour of the species has been well researched and documented. This information has been used to inform conservation efforts.  The extent of suitable habitat and the distribution of the species in parts of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia have been reviewed. Core areas, important for the species, have been identified in New South Wales. Species-specific recovery plans and conservation action statements have been drafted to guide conservation efforts. Guidelines have also been created for the management of the native grassland ecosystem as a whole. Pesticides that could potentially cause mortality are no longer used to control locust plagues. Some areas of grassland are now protected for conservation purposes and have been incorporated into the national reserves system as well as other non-government conservation land management organisations.
Conservation Proposed
Further research on the species’ distribution and numbers is needed to gain an accurate assessment of the entire population. Core areas need to be highlighted and protected, and land-owners engaged and incentivized to improve and maintain the quality of the grassland habitat. The network of reserves and protected areas should be extended to encompass more suitable habitat. A 2 km buffer zone should be included in plans to create refuge areas. Further research into the potential impacts of agricultural chemicals on Plains-wanderer population dynamics is vital for a better understanding of risks faced by this species. The continued use of the biological pesticide, Green Guard®, for locust control over high value habitat is an important management tool. Awareness-raising activities and community engagement is needed to garner support from the general public and media.
Links
References
Baker-Gabb, D.J. (1987b). The Conservation and Management of the Plains-wanderer Pedionomus torquatus. World Wildlife Fund Report No. 49. World Wildlife Fund.

Baker-Gabb, D.J. (2002). Recovery Plan for the Plains-wanderer Pedionomus torquatus 2002-2006: Conservation of lowland native grassland dependant fauna. Environment Australia, Canberra.

Baker-Gabb, D.J. (2002b). Surveys for Plains-wanderers Pedionomus torquatus on Astrebla Downs National Park, western Queensland. Unpublished report to Environment Australia.

BirdLife International (2013) Species factsheet: Pedionomus torquatus. Downloaded from www.birdlife.org on 05/06/2013.

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2013). Pedionomus torquatus in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of Sustainability, Diez, S. and P. Foreman (1996). Draft: Practical Guidelines for the management of native grasslands on the Riverine Plain of south-eastern Australia. Department of Natural Resources, Bendigo.

D'Ombrain, E.A. (1926). The vanishing Plains-wanderer. Emu. 26:59-63.

Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra. Downloaded from: www.environment.gov.au/sprat on 06/06/13

Garnett, S. T. and Crowley, G. M. (2000). Action Plan for Australian Birds 2000. Environment Australia, Canberra

Marchant, S. and P.J. Higgins, eds. (1993). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Volume 2 - Raptors to Lapwings. Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Paton, T. A., Baker, A. J., Groth, J. G. and Barrowclough, G. F. (2003): RAG-1 sequences resolve phylogenetic relationships within charadriiform birds. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 29: 268-278

Roberts, I. and Roberts, J. (2001). Plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus) habitat mapping including woody vegetation and other landscape features, Riverina Plains, New South Wales. Unpublished report to New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Story PG, Oliver DL, Deveson T, McCulloch L, Hamilton JG, Baker-Gabb D. 2007. Estimating and reducing the amount of Plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus Gould) habitat sprayed with pesticides for locust control in the New South Wales Riverina. Emu 107:308-314.
Acknowledgements
Text compiled by Michelle Harrison. Factchecked by Paul Story.

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