Cranes on Farms 2

This page covers Brolgas and other cranes overseas, in rice. Most of southern Asia's 9,000+ Sarus Cranes (primarily in India, but also in Nepal) breed in irrigated rice close to people, with many studies on Sarus Crane ecology and Sarus-human interactions. Recently (2020) the International Crane Foundation has posted a webinar on Sarus Cranes and rice farming in south-east Asia, which can be viewed on the ICF YouTube channel.

In Australia, most rice is grown under irrigation in the Riverina area straddling the New South Wales-Victorian border. Less than 100 of the threatened southern Brolga population inhabit the Riverina, and Brolgas are not often encountered in the extensive irrigation area of the region. Ozcranes southern contact Matthew Herring reports on two unusual and interesting encounters which delighted rice-grower landowners.

Brolgas in rice

The Riverinaarea covers the Murray-Darling basin in northern Victoria and southern New South Wales, west of about Albury (36.08° S 146.91° E: location map in sidebar). Maps for whole basin can be downloaded from the managing water authority. Irrigated cropping is extensive, including most of the 1 million tonnes per year of rice grown in Australia. Rice farmers are using drones to monitor crop growth and development, and a ricegrower's drone sighting gives evidence of a good 2016 breeding season for Riverina Brolgas.

March 2017: Hi-tech twitching in Colleambally Ricefield

From researcher Matthew Herring

It's hard to think of a more iconic Australian waterbird than the Brolga. Their dances, trumpeting calls and graceful flight are in equal parts unmistakable and captivating...There are about 1000 remaining in south-western Victoria and the far south-east of South Australia, and less than 250 in northern Victoria and southern New South Wales.

Brolgas in rice

Brolgas in rice field, taken from a drone in March 2017: Colleambally Irrigation area, Riverina (Peter Sheppard)

Peter Sheppard, a Coleambally rice grower, managed to get some stunning images from his drone of seven Brolgas during March 2017. It's the most he has ever seen on his farm. Mark Robb from Coleambally Irrigation has been keeping tabs on Brolga numbers in the area for almost 20 years and although he's seen up to ten together in the broader region, he's never had that many within the core irrigation area. Three of Peter's seven Brolgas are young birds, without the full red head, indicating an excellent breeding season consistent with many other waterbird species in 2016-17.

After the winter-spring breeding season, Brolgas congregate in non-breeding flocks, with the most important site in the Riverina being the Tuckerbil and Fivebough Swamps at Leeton. In 2003, I recorded 123 Brolgas there but not a single one was a young bird. It is thought these flocking sites are where young birds meet and partner for life; a bit like a B&S Ball perhaps?

During our Bitterns in Rice Project surveys we have recorded the odd pair of Brolgas in rice around Coleambally and in the Murray Valley, including a rare breeding event near Deniliquin in 2013, but the best areas to see Brolgas in southern NSW are on the plains around Urana, Boree Creek, Lockhart, Oaklands, Savernake and Balldale. Unlike the Australasian Bittern, Whiskered Tern, Glossy Ibis, Baillon's crake, Golden-headed Cisticola and various other wetland birds, Brolgas are not strongly associated with rice fields and irrigation areas.

So why don't Brolgas use rice crops more often? It's likely that by the time there's sufficient material to build a nest (December), it is too late in their season. The lack of native water plants with the tubers that they love to eat might also be important. However, there are still many things that rice growers and other irrigators can do to encourage Brolgas on their farms. The most important is to maintain any natural, treeless, shallow swamps, like those with canegrass (Eragrostis australasica) and spike rushes (Eleocharis spp.), as well as creating similar habitat in constructed wetlands that is available in winter and spring. They also love feeding on the grain in corn stubble and will use it extensively during the flocking season, providing they have a large, shallow wetland nearby to roost on at night.

Long live the iconic southern Brolga!

This article originally appeared in IREC Farmers' Newsletter 197, Autumn 2017, pp. 38-39. The Irrigation Research and Extension Committee facilitates cross-industry collaboration and cooperation between all those connected with irrigated agriculture in the Murrumbidgee Valley. Thank you to IREC for permission to publish the article, and to rice-grower Peter Sheppard, from the Colleambally Irrigation Area who kindly allowed use of his excellent drone camera image.

top TOP

January 2013: Brolgas breeding in rice

From researcher Matthew Herring.
The photo of the Brolga parent and chick in Deniliquin ricefield is in the Sidebar at top of page

It's a rare event. I'd heard about it but until this year I hadn't seen it for myself. There they were – a pair of Brolgas that had bred in a rice crop. The landholders were delighted, as was I. In the New South Wales Riverina, the 2012-2013 season amounted to more than 100,000 hectares of rice. And that amount isn't unusual outside of drought.

So why don't Brolgas breed in rice crops more often? By the time there's sufficient material to build a nest (late November – early December), it might be too late in their season. Is there a lack of tubers from native waterplants like Eleocharis spike-rushes? Maybe they breed in rice crops more than we realise. Can we encourage Brolgas to make better use of these agricultural wetlands? So many questions, so much work to do!

The Bitterns in Rice project is developing rice-growing guidelines to aid breeding of the globally endangered Australasian Bittern and hopefully, the conservation of Brolgas and other threatened waterbirds. Matthew's earlier work with landholders in the same areas showed the Brolga is an effective communication tool for promoting wetland conservation and that efforts to conserve Brolga wetlands protect many other species, the bittern project is expected to achieve similar benefits.

Sarus and other cranes in rice overseas

Most of South Asia's more than 9,000 Sarus Cranes breed in irrigated rice. Rice is the main cereal crop in South Korea and Japan, and wetland birds using fields include the revered, and threatened, Tancho or Red-crowned Crane. In the USA, rice crops have been planted in wildlife refuge areas to entice Sandhill Cranes and especially the endangered Whooping Crane, to stopover on migration where they are safe from hunting or other threats. A sample from the extensive literature on cranes and rice is listed below.

Sarus pair duet in rice Sarus Crane eating rice

Sarus Crane pair duet near nest in rice field; Sarus Crane pecking rice grains from stalks (India, KS Gopi Sundar). This is quite a laborious process for the bird and may not be a favoured feeding method if other foods are available. A study in India (Borad et al. 2001, see below) found that damage to the standing crop due to direct feeding was less than 1%.

Some references on cranes in rice

top TOP

Bitterns Boom in Rice

Bitterns in Rice is a major project for Matthew Herring of Murray Wildlife. It's a collaboration between Birdlife Australia, the Rice Growers' Association of Australia, and other organisations.

top TOP


Burning for Brolgas» Restoring overgrown wetlands with grazing and fire in north Queensland.

Change AT to @ and DOT to . in email addresses