Bush Stone-Curlew Fact Sheet

Bush Stone-Curlew Fact Sheet

Bush Stone-Curlew

Burhinus grallarius

This ground-dweller goes by many names, including Weerlo, Bush Thick-knee and, in early settler texts, Southern Stone Plover. More colloquially, the haunting night-time call of the bush-stone curlew has earned it the nickname “murderbird” due to its eerie similarity to a distant human scream. Several First Nations cultures and stories associate the bird with death or dire warnings.

Despite their nickname and ominous reputation, the bush stone-curlew is a charismatic nocturnal master of disguise.

Can you spot the bird?

Alone or in a loose flock, they wander at night foraging for invertebrates and small animals. Like the Eastern Quoll, it is cryptic and has evolved to outwit and avoid predators. Mottled brown-grey plumage allows the curlew to blend in seamlessly with its environment. If threatened the curlew will “play dead”; standing or laying completely still and sometimes adopting a stick-like pose to vanish further into the surrounding scrub and leaf litter.

Although it can fly, the bush stone-curlew rarely flies away from a close predator and often continues to “play dead” even after being picked up.

Bush stone-curlews are not fussy about where they live and will settle happily in open scrubland, grasslands or dense woodland – anywhere with coarse woody debris. They are non-migratory and will live in one location for most of their lives, only moving when faced with external pressures such as food scarcity or extreme climatic change.

Although currently found in the North and East coasts and parts of Western Australia, the bush stone-curlew was once present in all but the most arid parts of the country and in recently history has faced a steep loss of population.

The Ngunnawal name for the bush-stone curlew is Warabin

Their hiding strategy, whilst well-adapted to the predators it evolved alongside, is ineffective in the face of introduced foxes and feral cats. Loss of habitat has also impacted on this species’ ability to thrive.

In 2014, the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust partnered with the Australian National University, the Canberra Ornithologists’ Group, and the ACT Government to return bush stone-curlews to the ACT where they had been absent for more than 40 years.

Twelve individuals were placed in a ‘soft release’ aviary within the sanctuary where they lived for four months before being released into the broader enclosure. Despite their habitat being fox- and cat-free, this first reintroduction had a low survival rate as many flew over the fence into the waiting jaws of foxes.

Across the following two years, 21 more individuals were reintroduced. This time the birds were, again, released into an aviary before entering the sanctuary – with clipped flight feathers. By the time these feathers grew out the birds had settled into the sanctuary as their permanent home, and as a result had a far higher survival rate.

Plenty has been learned since 2014, with a total of 40 individuals translocated to the sanctuary to date. Mulligans Flat now houses a healthy population of bush stone-curlews who delight and encourage our researchers to continue to learn and strive for the protection of Australia’s unique bird life.