Brolga FAQ 1

The Brolga Antigone rubicunda is an icon bird for Australians, and the only crane found in New Guinea. Australia is now known to have Sarus Cranes Antigone 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, numbers, food and water. An introduction to Brolgas and Sarus Cranes including comparison photos is in Ozcranes Australia/New Guinea Cranes Introduction».


Brolga head showing feathered earpatch and dewlap (dark pouch below the throat) and ear patch (Michael Todd) ↓

Brolga head

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. Cranes have a raised, reduced hind toe and only the three main (front) toes show in most photographs and footprints. Brolga wingspan is 1.7 to 2.4m, which creates issues near powerlines and fences (more in Ozcranes Conservation»).

Size comparisons

Brolga height compared with person and roadside post; and food begging behaviour (Rob Gray) and (CHRC Libraries)

Brolga heightBrolga height

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). The Brolgas soliciting food in the above image are at Longreach, southern Queensland (but Brolgas can be aggressive, Ozcranes doesn't recommend feeding wild birds).

General Brolga links

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As per Ozcranes Crane Intro», there are no numbers for Brolgas in New Guinea. The International Crane Foundation estimates there may be up to 100,000 Brolgas in Australia, and the accepted minimum is now 50,000 following the 2008 National Waterbird Survey [5, 6], more below. For particular sites, 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:

[1] HJ Lavery & JG Blackman (1969) The cranes of Australia. DPI Queensland, Brisbane
[2] 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
[3] Halse et al 2005, Mandora Marsh, north-western Australia, an arid-zone wetland maintaining continental populations of waterbirds Emu 105(2): 115-125
[4] 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
[5] Kingsford et al (2012) National waterbird assessment, Waterlines report, National Water Commission, Canberra
[6] Veltheim, I. and Sundar, K.S.G. (in press). Brolga (Grus rubicunda). In: Harris, J. & Mirande, C. (Eds). Crane Conservation Strategy. International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI

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National Waterbird Survey 2008

Brolga distribution map Australia
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

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.

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 totals. Aerial surveys are well-known to underestimate numbers, but (as above) the total gives reliable minimum levels for total Australian cranes and Brolgas.

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 close to the time of the 2008 North Queensland Crane Count». On the evening of 4 October 5,200 cranes (both species) were counted flying into roosts (Atherton Tablelands & surrounds, Ingham, Townsville, Lakeland: E Scambler/Annual Crane Counts unpublished data).

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Food and water

Brolgas are omnivorous, eating many foods: wetland plant tubers, grains (including crops), insects, spiders, molluscs, frogs, mice, snakes. They wait and watch to catch fish or water invertebrates, or probe into silt or mud for tubers and food like mussels, see images below. But they can also actively swoop and capture prey: a Brolga pair in captivity caught and ate mice in their pen [6]. On the Gulf Plains breeding grounds Brolgas are more omnivorous than Sarus Cranes, taking a wider range of tubers and invertebrates [7]. Brolgas drink and bathe every morning and evening, and during the day in hot weather. Cranes drink by scooping water up into the bill then throwing the head back to swallow, probably using both gravity and some tongue movement. Images of Brolgas ‘scooping up’ and swallowing water are in the Sidebar.

[6] CB Brown & GW Archibald (1977). ‘Captive Brolgas and Sarus Cranes prey on wild mice.’ Emu 77: 39-40
[7] KSG Gopi Sundar, John DA. Grant, Inka Veltheim, Swati Kittur, Kate Brandis, Michael A. McCarthy and Elinor C. Scambler (2019). Sympatric cranes in northern Australia: abundance, breeding success, habitat preference and diet, Emu-Austral Ornithology, 119:1, 79-89

Brolga fishing Brolga hunting mussel Brolga eating mussel

↑ L: Brolga poised completely still, waiting for prey (P Merritt). C & R: Brolga with head underwater, hunting and eating mussels, note the long tongue (Rob Gray)

↓ L: Brolga hunting in mud, Mary River, NT (Lip Kee). R: Brolga probing for bulbs, SE Australia (P Merritt).

Brolga hunting in mud Brolga probing for bulbs

LINKS: Tony Ashton Blog: Brolga catching a dragonfly and Brolga taking rat killed by cane harvester

VIDEOS: Short (partial) sequence of adult Brolga drinking, in the NCCMA Brolga nest video, go to 2min 37secs; Brolgas feeding at Fogg Dam, Northern Territory (YouTube); Brolgas wading in water, and in mud (from Brolga Recovery Group, on Vimeo).

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Salt water

Brolgas use fresh and saline wetlands, and are the only crane to have glands near the eye (or specialised tear ducts) that excrete excess salt. The reference [8] states that Brolgas ‘roost frequently on saline areas at night, and drink fresh and salt water’ (page 515). However the paper deals with the biological processes involved and gives no detail on Brolgas drinking in the wild, or the level of salinity in the waters they drink. Presumably the statement derives from Blackman's vast experience in ecological studies of northern Brolgas. Ozcranes is pleased to present images and a firsthand observer report on Brolgas apparently drinking sea water.

[8] MR Hughes & JG Blackman (1973). ‘Cation content of salt gland secretion and tears in the brolga, Grus rubicundus (Perry) (Aves: Gruidae)’ Aust J Zool 21(4): 515-518.

Brolgas drinking seawater Brolga footprints

← Brolga family drinking seawater, and their footprints on the beach showing the three front toes (Bob Forsyth)

In April 2008 Bob Forsyth saw three Brolgas – a pair with one young of the season – walk down to the shore on Sweers Island, Gulf of Carpentaria. Each bird took a maximum of two very short drinks of sea water, then they left: so the ‘trip’ was specifically to drink. There was no fresh surface water on Sweers Island at the time (drinking water comes from wells). Bob said he forgot to taste the sea water at that spot himself, but he believes with the normal tides it would be saline. Observers report up to 20-30 Brolgas on the island, they often feed on sandbanks (a photo of 15 Brolgas on the beach is in Brolga FAQ 3»). Lyn Battle of Sweers Island resort adds: “We have seen them dig holes at high tide, and the Bentinck ladies have told us that when they themselves are looking for fresh water when camping, they seek out these Brolga 'holes' and they dig deeper and find where fresh water is seeping off the land” (Bentinck Island is 5km away, the indigenous people of Bentinck also own Sweers Is).

Next: Brolga FAQ 2 | Breeding»

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