The majestic Australian brolga has cleverly adapted to land clearing and farming and now has a symbiotic relationship with many landholders.

Story By Mitch Reardon

Early winter mornings at Mandalee Swamp are pale and beautiful; a dense fog overlays still waters. Heads beneath their wings, the ghostly one-legged silhouettes of roosting brolgas stand hunched in a forest of drowned trees. As the sun rises it tints the mist with a fiery glow that rouses the elegant aluminium-grey cranes. They feather-shift and preen and flare their wings in preparation for the day ahead.
Suddenly a big male, his wings arched, throws back his head, aims his bill skyward and bugles a whooping staccato call. A female, standing alongside in the same posture except for wings folded at her side, answers with a rapid two or three cries for each of his. The mated pair’s wild antiphonal unison duet, audible for up to five kilometres, sets the working day in motion as one family group after another takes flight, crossing the sky in unhurried echelons.
As the dry season advances and more ephemeral wetlands dry out, as many as 2000 brolgas gather at Mandalee Swamp. Each morning they depart this 12-hectare marsh on a far north Queensland cattle station near the small southern Atherton Tableland village of Innot Hot Springs for nearby cornfields where harvest waste provides a dependable food supply to tide them over the lean winter months.
“Brolgas appear to be relative newcomers to the Atherton Plateau,” says local farmer and brolga expert Elinor Scambler. Together with a team of more than 100 volunteers, Elinor supervises an annual census of the Atherton Tableland brolgas and their nearest Australian relative, the sarus crane, on behalf of Birds Australia.
“Both species have benefited from altered landscapes brought about by land clearing,” Elinor says. Starting in the 1890s, pioneer settlers began transforming the vast green waves of unbroken rainforest that had dominated the tableland into forest islands surrounded by cultivated land. While many resident species suffered, brolgas now feed in maize fields where jungles once stood.

This story excerpt is from Issue #55

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2007