The endangered eastern bristlebird is a shy, ground-dwelling songbird. Less than 2,500 birds are left in the wild, restricted to 3 isolated areas in eastern NSW and southern Queensland.
Eastern bristlebirds are medium-sized songbirds, with cinnamon-brown feathers, a pale throat, and striking red eyes. They get their name from stiff, bristle-like ‘whiskers’ that sprout from the base of their beak. No one really knows the bristles’ purpose, though they might help the birds sense their grassy environment.
Bristlebirds are agile ground scamps, preferring to scurry through dense undergrowth rather than fly, as they search for insects, seeds and small fruits.
They can be tricky to see, but their loud, melodious voice will brighten up any birdwatcher’s day.
Listen to an eastern bristlebird's call
Audio © David Stewart Naturesound
Few and far between
Eastern bristlebirds were once far more widely spread across their range. Today in NSW, less than 2,500 individual birds remain in the wild across 3 geographically isolated coastal populations.
The species’ stronghold is on the Shoalhaven Coast and the escarpments behind Kiama. A smaller population straddles the NSW/Victoria border in Nadgee National Park. The most contracted population, with around 40 birds, is found on the NSW border with Queensland, around Border Ranges National Park.
Bristlebirds move mainly by running or flying low to the ground, preferring to forage in grassland environments. While their southern kin live in coastal heath and shrubland, the northern bristlebirds rely on a unique habitat of open tussocky grass sites, next to rainforest or wet gullies, for their feeding and breeding.
3 facts about eastern bristlebirds
1. The perils of isolations
Extreme geographic isolation can be a nasty business for any animal, but with very small populations it becomes a critical survival factor.
The NSW Saving Our Species program and partners are implementing a ‘genetic rescue’ captive breeding program. Birds from the central NSW populations are introduced to the northerners in carefully selected pairings to bolster genetic diversity and help bring this rare bird back from the brink of extinction.
2. The goldilocks zone
Eastern bristlebirds in northern NSW need a unique dual habitat to survive: open grassy forest next to rainforest or wet gullies. Fire is essential to maintaining the tussock grasses that the birds nest in.
Small, slow-moving patchy burns give the birds time to seek refuge from the flames, while also stimulating important regeneration of plants after the fire. Too long between fires and the grassy understorey is lost as weeds and saplings take over. Research shows that regular, low-medium intensity controlled burns every 2 to 7 years is ‘just right’ for eastern bristlebirds.
3. Ancient Gondwanan origins
In 2019, fossilised bones of a new species of (now extinct) bristlebird, dasyornis walterbolesi, were described from the Riversleigh fossil beds of north-western Queensland. This bird lived in an ancient rainforest environment some 18 million years ago, alongside other Gondwanan originals like lyrebirds, logrunners, treecreepers and cockatoos.
This lucky find confirms bristlebirds were once widespread across Australia and are one of Earth’s oldest living songbirds.
- Common name
- Eastern bristlebird
- Scientific name
- Dasyornis brachypterus
- Conservation status in NSW
Threats and conservation
As land management practices have changed, Eastern Bristlebird distribution has shrunk. The remaining populations have less resilience to threats like wildfire, habitat loss, disease and climate change impacts. With so few birds, these small, disconnected populations are at risk of extinction.
Feral predators like foxes and cats also pose a significant risk to ground-dwelling birds, along with habitat loss.
For the small northern population, a habitat restoration program is expanding the area of grassy open forest habitat they need for breeding. A captive breeding and release program is also helping to bolster these rare birds’ chances of survival.
Extra special protections
Several areas within NSW national parks have been declared Assets of Intergenerational Significance (AIS) to provide the strongest protections for eastern bristlebirds and their habitat. These include:
You might also like
The eastern bristlebird recovery program is helping to reverse the decline in populations of these rare and endangered native Australian birds.
Assets of Intergenerational Significance (AIS) are declared to bolster protections for an area with exceptional environmental or cultural values, like...
Around 85% of the approximately 900 threatened species in NSW are found in our national parks and reserves. Find out what we're doing to protect threa...
Today, we're at risk of losing nearly 1000 of our state's native animals and plants. That's why the NSW Government established Saving our Species. It'...