Brolga FAQ 1
The Brolga Grus rubicunda is an icon bird for Australians, and the only crane found in New Guinea. Australia is now known to have Sarus Cranes Grus antigone as well, so an earlier common name for Brolga (Australian Crane, attributed to John Gould) may be confusing. Here in Brolga FAQs Part 1 we look at Brolga features, size, location and numbers. An introduction to Brolgas and Sarus Cranes, including comparison photos and calls, is in Ozcranes Australia/New Guinea Cranes Introduction».
The Brolga is a tall, stately grey bird with bare red skin behind the eyes, extending down only as far as the top of the neck. Legs are black to dark greyish-black. Under the throat they have a dark pouch or dewlap, which may help extend the resonance of penetrating calls made by pairs (unison) or among groups. Brolgas are the only crane to have glands near the eye (or specialised tear ducts) that excrete salt, so can drink salt water (more on drinking salt water in Brolga FAQ 2»). Cranes have a raised, reduced hind toe and only the three main (front) toes show in most photographs, and footprints (see footprint in Sidebar). Brolga wingspan is 1.7 to 2.4m, which creates issues near powerlines and fences (more in Ozcranes Conservation»).
Brolga head showing feathered earpatch and dewlap (dark pouch below the throat) and ear patch (Michael Todd)
A table with measurements for Brolgas and Australian Sarus Cranes is in Ozcranes Crane Intro». Males are slightly larger than females. One way of estimating male Brolga size is to view them standing near people. Australia Zoo has photos of zoo rangers kneeling or standing beside male Brolgas (scroll down). A Brolga with young can be seen soliciting food from a camper – excellent view of Brolga size and food begging behaviour (but Brolgas can be aggressive, Ozcranes doesn't recommend feeding wild birds).
As per Ozcranes Crane Intro», there are no numbers for Brolgas in New Guinea. For Australia, the International Crane Foundation estimates there are up to 100,000 Brolgas. A table with past survey numbers for the Townsville Town Common, from some hard to find references, is in Ozcranes Conservation Burning for Brolgas. Some other survey numbers for Australia Brolgas:
- SE Australia (current): max 1,000
- North Queensland Crane Counts 1997-2008: 4,000-4,500 (E Scambler unpublished)
- Cromarty, N Qld 1969: 12,000 
- Kakadu early 1980s: 24,000 
- Mandora Marsh, NW Australia 2000: 3,600 
- Northern Territory coastal surveys to 2005: 15,000 
 HJ Lavery & JG Blackman (1969) The cranes of Australia. DPI Queensland, Brisbane
 Morton et al 1993, Distribution and abundance of Brolgas and Black-necked Storks in the Alligator Rivers region, Northern Territory Emu 93(2): 88-92
 Halse et al 2005, Mandora Marsh, north-western Australia, an arid-zone wetland maintaining continental populations of waterbirds Emu 105(2): 115-125
 R Chatto (2006) The distribution and status of waterbirds around the coast and coastal wetlands of the Northern Territory Technical report 76, Parks and Wildlife Commission Northern Territory, NT Australia
National Waterbird Survey 2008
The 2008 National Waterbird Survey was the first nationwide survey for waterbirds and is the only survey so far to cover the whole Top End of Australia, where all Sarus Cranes and most Brolgas are found. The aerial surveys counted birds on wetlands by region, between 30 September and end of November 2008. This is the end of the northern Dry season, when birds congregate on remaining wetlands.
Hasties Swamp, Atherton Tablelands, at the end of the Dry season (Sandy Carroll) →
The surveys recorded 51,969 cranes. Details are in Kingsford et al (2012) National waterbird assessment, Waterlines report, National Water Commission, Canberra. The survey method can't distinguish between Brolga and Sarus Crane from the air, so any Sarus observed are included in the table below. Aerial surveys are well-known to underestimate numbers, but the total gives a reliable minimum for total Australian cranes. A fair minimum estimate for Brolgas is 50,000.
Two figures are known underestimates. The South East Coast Brolga population is about 1,000, from counts in SW Victoria and elsewhere. For the North East Coast, the total of 1,117 for the whole basin is also an underestinate. Coincidentally, the aerial surveys were done over several days in early October that coincided with the North Queensland Crane Count». On the evening of 4 October 5,350 cranes (both species) were counted flying into roosts (Atherton Tablelands & surrounds, Ingham, Townsville: E Scambler unpublished data).
Cranes counted by nationwide aerial surveys 30.09.2008-31.11.2008
Abbreviations: Bulloo-Bancannia (BB: 1), Gulf of Carpentaria (GC: 14,710), Indian Ocean (IO: 107), Lake Eyre (LE: 253), Murray Darling (MD: 127), North East Coast (NEC: 1,117), South Australian Gulf (SAG:0), South East Coast (SEC: 8), South West Coast (SWC: 0), Timor Sea (TS: 32,136), Western Plateau (WP: 3,510). TOTAL: 51,969. Attribution for the original map (Geoscience Australia) is in the Sidebar