Rufous scrub-bird

Common name: Rufous scrub-bird

Scientific name: Atrichornis rufescens

Family: Atrichornithidae (scrub-birds)

Conservation status: This species is listed as Vulnerable in Queensland (Nature Conservation Act 1992) and Endangered nationally (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999). It is ranked as a critical priority for conservation under the department's 'Back on Track' species prioritisation framework.

Description

The rufous scrub-bird is a small to medium—16.5 to 19 centimetres (cm) in length—ground-dwelling bird that is nearly flightless. The rufous scrub-bird has a long rounded tail, and a small, dark wedge-shaped bill. Its upper parts are rufous brown and finely barred with black. The throat is grey-white fading to buff on the breast and abdomen, with rufous on the flanks and under-tail coverts. Male birds have a mottled blackish throat with conspicuous white edges.

Habitat and distribution

This species is found from Barrington Tops in central eastern New South Wales north to Cunningham’s Gap and the Main Range and McPherson Range areas of South East Queensland. In Queensland it is only found in scattered localities near the New South Wales border from Lamington National Park west to Mount Barney National Park and north to Main Range National Park. Even in suitable habitat its territories are widely-spaced, with a maximum of six pairs per square kilometre.

The rufous scrub-bird is found in high rainfall areas mostly above 600 metres elevation in rainforests (especially beech—Nothofagus moorei—forest) and nearby wet eucalypt forests. Its habitat consists of dense undergrowth, which is often associated with gaps in the forest canopy. Eucalypt forests only provide suitable habitat if they are well buffered from fire, e.g. by adjacent patches of rainforest.

Life history and behaviour

The rufous scrub-bird is diurnal (active by day), tends to remain in the one area, and lives by itself, or in pairs. It is known for its powerful and varied call, but can be difficult to see, even if calling from nearby. Its home range has been estimated at one to two hectares for each bird. The rufous scrub-bird spends most of its time on the ground, fossicking for invertebrates such as insects, worms and seeds in the litter and woody debris on the forest floor.

Reproduction occurs between the months of August and January. The rufous scrub-bird generally produces two eggs per clutch, but often only one egg hatches. The eggs are laid in a dome-shaped nest 15cm in diameter with a side entrance. The nest is often built very close to the ground in a clump of blady grass, rushes, or amongst ferns. The outside of the nest is woven with blady grass, rushes and ferns while the inside is lined with wet wood pulp and grass which sets to a cardboard-like consistency. Females incubate and rear the young alone and have only one brood per season.

Threatening processes

Habitat destruction from agricultural clearing and logging practices, along with inappropriate fire regimes, are known threatening processes to the species. Some suspected threats include disturbance by recreational bird watchers (especially the playing of recorded rufous scrub-bird calls to attract wild birds).

Climate change is likely to further reduce areas of suitable habitat. The rufous scrub-bird is among 100 terrestrial Australian bird taxa that is thought to be the sensitive to climate change. This modelling indicates that by 2085, the available habitat for the rufous scrub-bird will have substantially contracted (Garnett and Franklin 2014).

Garnett and Franklin’s modelling also indicate that suitable areas will have become available in Tasmania. However this species will not be able to naturally disperse to these ‘new areas’ but would require human assistance to across Bass Strait.

Staff undertaking rufous scrub-bird surveys in Lamington National Park (photo: Queensland Government)

Staff undertaking rufous scrub-bird surveys in Lamington National Park (photo: Queensland Government)

Recovery actions

The Queensland Government has been monitoring rufous scrub-bird populations in Queensland since 2006. Each year the department undertakes surveys in Lamington and Main Range National Parks. The data collected from these surveys are provided to the Queensland Government's species database WildNet and improve our understanding of the species’ population status. The information is also being used to assess the status of the species under the national Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

In 2013, most of the scrub-bird transects were damaged by ex-tropical cyclone Oswald. However, it is expected that the large number of tree falls with the rainforest will be beneficial to many species, including the rufous scrub-bird, by opening up the canopy allowing ground cover to grow.

Recovery actions to conserve this species include:

  • protecting known rufous scrub-bird habitat from fire
  • translocating individuals between subpopulations to maintain genetic diversity
  • reducing the impact of recreational bird-watching, especially during the breeding season
  • maintaining the suitability of known scrub-bird habitat. For example, some form of disturbance (e.g. selective logging) may be periodically required to open up the rainforest canopy and increase light levels. This promotes the growth of the dense ground vegetation preferred by this species.