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Unraveling the Mysteries of the Bush Thick-Knee: A Fascinating Guide to Australia’s Unique Ground Forager

The bush thick-knee, also known as the Burhinus grallarius, is a fascinating bird species that belongs to the family Burhinidae. It is native to Australia and can be found in a variety of habitats, including grasslands, forests, and wetlands.

With its unique appearance and behavior, the bush thick-knee has become a popular subject of study among ornithologists and bird enthusiasts worldwide.


Field Identification

The bush thick-knee can be easily identified in the field due to its distinct appearance. Adults measure around 55-60cm in length and have a wingspan of up to 105cm.

They have a large, round head, a stout, flattened bill, and long, thick legs that are well-suited for walking on the ground. Their overall color is grayish-brown with speckles of white and black, which provides good camouflage in their natural habitat.

Similar Species

The bush thick-knee can be mistaken for other bird species if not closely observed. Some of these species include the brown quail, the shore plover, and the masked lapwing.

However, the bush thick-knee has a distinctive call that can help differentiate it from these species. It has a loud, sharp, repetitive whistle that can be heard at night and is often used to defend territories and attract mates.


The plumage of the bush thick-knee differs between males and females. Males have a more prominent black line encircling their neck, whereas females have a broader and more diffuse line.

Juveniles of both sexes have a more brownish-gray plumage with fewer speckles.


Bush thick-knees undergo two molts per year, which allows them to replace their old and worn out feathers with new ones. The first molt occurs during late summer or early autumn, while the second molt starts in late winter or early spring.

During these molts, the bird becomes more vulnerable to predators as they lose their ability to fly temporarily.


The bush thick-knee is a unique bird species that is fascinating to observe in the wild. With its distinctive appearance and behavior, it is a popular subject of study among bird enthusiasts and researchers.

By understanding its identification, plumages, and molts, bird lovers can gain a deeper appreciation for this amazing creature and its role in the ecosystem.

Systematics History

The bush thick-knee, also known as Burhinus grallarius, is a bird species that belongs to the family Burhinidae. Taxonomically, this species was first described by John Latham in 1801 and initially placed in the genus, ‘Charadrius’.

Later in 1816, Louis Jean Pierre Veillot moved the species to the genus Burhinus where it remains today.

Geographic Variation

The bush thick-knee is widely distributed throughout Australia, including Tasmania and some offshore islands. However, there are slight differences in physical characteristics among populations in different regions, and this has led to the recognition of several distinct subspecies.


There are four recognized subspecies of the bush thick-knee:

Burhinus grallarius grallarius – Also referred to as the eastern bush thick-knee, this subspecies is found in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. Burhinus grallarius oedicnemus – The western bush thick-knee is found in Western Australia and most abundant in the northern parts of the region.

Burhinus grallarius woodwardi – This subspecies is found on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Burhinus grallarius leichhardti – The southern bush thick-knee is found across South Australia, Tasmania, and Victoria.

These subspecies differ slightly in size and plumage; the subspecies found in the east of Australia (B. grallarius grallarius) has more extensive black and white markings on the wings, while the southern subspecies (B.

grallarius leichhardti) have a more extensive black markings. The western subspecies (B.

grallarius oedicnemus) is paler and more grey-brown in color.

Related Species

The Bush thick-knee is one of over one hundred species of stone-curlews, which are part of a global group of birds, called the Charadriiformes, that includes plovers, sandpipers, and gulls. Within this group, the bush thick-knee is in the same family Burhinidae’ along with nine other species of bush thick-knees that are found globally.

All of these species have a similar broad bill and large eyes as their defining characteristic.

Historical Changes to Distribution

Records indicate that bush thick-knees were more abundant in the plains and grasslands before the arrival of Europeans in Australia. Since then, the species has shown an adaptive response to anthropogenic habitat change, and it has expanded its range into the urban and suburban areas found in Australia’s major cities.

There is now evidence to suggest that the species, despite long-standing myth that it may be declining, is actually becoming more numerous in some urban areas. The bush thick-knees historical distribution has varied from the present-day distribution.

Fossil records show that the species was once widely distributed across southern Australia, starting from the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Nickol Bay of Western Australia to southernmost locations of Tasmania. The range expansion of humans led to the alteration of the species’ natural habitat, forcing the bird to become flexible and adapt to new areas.

Today, bush thick-knees are often observed in grassy habitats located near wetlands and salt plains, pastures, heaths, within the home gardens and sometimes in coastal environments on beaches. Some natural habitats used by the species in the past, such as the mallee and open grasslands, have been removed or significantly reduced due to land use change.


Through historical changes in the bird’s distribution, adaptation to new environments has become crucial for the survival of the species. This adaptability has been seen in their ability to explore urban areas, and further study will continue to reveal the bird’s adaptability and capacity to thrive in new habitats.

The study of geographic variation among the populations of the bush thick-knee and related species remains ongoing, and researchers continue to discover new information about these fascinating birds.


Bush thick-knees are found in a variety of habitats across their range, including grasslands, pastures, heaths, wetlands, and salt pans. They prefer open areas with short vegetation and are often found close to water sources such as dams, rivers, and wetlands.

The birds natural habitat is under threat from activities such as urbanization, agriculture, and mining. To combat these threats, wildlife conservation organizations recommend the setting up of conservation areas, habitat connectivity projects to ensure diverse habitats for the species, and the restoration of degraded habitats.

Management strategies such as controlled burning can also be used to restore natural grass ecosystems and provide sufficient forage for the birds prey.

Movements and Migration

Bush thick-knees are typically sedentary birds, which means they do not migrate. However, some populations exhibit seasonal dispersal, which means they move away from breeding sites to seek food and mating opportunities in new areas.

These movements can be influenced by environmental factors such as seasonal rainfall, temperature, and food availability. Some individuals may make longer movements, from neighboring regions to breeding sites, during the breeding season.

Some bush thick-knees may also travel short distances to access wetlands or freshwater resources during the non-breeding season. In Australia, the bush thick-knee inhabits some coastal islands such as Kangaroo Island in South Australia and the Whitsunday Islands, off the Queensland coast.

On some of these islands, the species is thought to be a natural resident, and it is restricted to these locations due to the bird’s inability to disperse and colonize new habitats. The variation in movements across bush thick-knee populations can be inferred from their abilities to survive in a range of diverse environments and the influence that these environments have on the birds survival.

Impacts of Climate Change

Climate change is seen as a significant global challenge that could impact the bush thick-knee and other wildlife in a variety of ways. Changes in rainfall patterns and temperature are predicted to have significant impacts on the birds natural habitat, and this could influence its distribution and range.

Prolonged drought events could reduce the birds food sources and lead to significant declines in population numbers. This, in turn, may lead to habitat fragmentation, affecting the bird’s ability to move and reproduce if the movement of birds becomes restricted.

The likely effect of sea-level rise on the birds coastal habitats is still unknown. However, it is expected to cause significant changes to the ecosystem and biota, which may alter the birds distribution or increase the risk of habitat loss.


Understanding the habitat preferences and behavior of bush thick-knees helps to provide insights into conservation efforts and management strategies. Therefore, it is crucial to conduct regular surveys using appropriate techniques to gather data about different aspects of the birds life history.

Knowledge of the birds movements and migration can inform the establishment of wildlife corridors and the placement of conservation areas in critical habitats. It is also important to continue to monitor how climate change is expected to impact the birds habitats and populations.

Conservation measures such as habitat restoration, conservation area establishment, and climate adaption strategies are effective approaches to mitigate negative impacts on the birds survival.

Diet and Foraging


Bush thick-knees feed primarily on insects, spiders, and other arthropods. They forage nocturnally on the ground, using their long legs to search for prey in patches of short grass, open areas, or around water sources.

They also regularly consume plants, including seeds, fruits, and flowers, generally becoming omnivorous feeders.


The bush thick-knee is an opportunistic feeder. Their diet usually reflects the availability of prey and can be relatively high in carbohydrates during times of abundance.

A study conducted on the feeding habits of bush thick-knees found that their original diet consisted of mainly invertebrates, with insects making up the largest food group. The bird preyed upon beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes, all of which it captured with its sharp bill.

However, as opportunistic feeders, bush thick-knees will adapt to different prey types based on availability and can also feed on small lizards or amphibians if these are in abundance. They have also been known to eat small mammals such as rats and mice on occasion.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Bush thick-knees have a unique metabolic rate that adapts to their feeding habits. The birds ability to enter a low metabolic state and maintain it for long periods allows them to regulate their temperature and reduce their energy requirements when food availability is low.

It also means that they can withstand long periods without water, considering their natural/habitat is arid. The birds are nocturnal, making nighttime feeding easier while also lowering their chances of being preyed upon.

This low metabolic state also enables the bird to conserve energy during flight, allowing them to travel long distances without depleting their energy stores. Their long, powerful legs and buoyant bodies make them good runners and walk-and-stalk predators.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


Bush thick-knees are known to have a distinct and forceful vocalization that is likened to harsh whistles or screeches. They have a monotonous, sharp “wee-lo” call that is often made in response to intruders or during territorial displays.

Their vocalizations are especially pronounced during the mating season, when males use their prolonged ‘wee-lo’ call to attract females and defend their territories. Moreover, this bird species uses clapping as a courtship display during breeding season.

The birds will alternate quick, bill-clapping displays with vocalizations to impress a potential mate and to secure breeding rights. Furthermore, marking their territory with calls and claps makes visiting another bird’s territory challenging, which makes their territorial defense more efficient and effective.

Additionally, the exact frequency of the birds vocalization can be used to age some individuals, making it a useful identifier for the bird.


Bush thick-knees have a unique metabolic rate that enables them to adapt to their habitat and feeding habits. They are nocturnal ground foragers that prey mainly on insects and arthropods but can feed on other animal types during periods of abundance.

Their vocalization can be heard at night, making it an exciting experience to come across a bush thick-knee and hear their calls. The marking of their territory by vocalizations and claps is an adaptive behavior that has helped the bird species survive in their natural habitats.



Bush thick-knees have a distinctive way of walking: they take short, quick steps with their long, powerful legs. Their feet are adapted for walking on soft ground, with long toes that allow them to balance while walking on muddy or sandy substrates.

They have been known to run in short bursts if necessary and are also capable of flying short distances if threatened.

Self Maintenance

Bush thick-knee birds have a grooming behavior that is unique to their species, probably due to their arid habitat. These birds are inquisitive, so their grooming behavior includes preening and fluffing out feathers, particularly after a meal or before retiring to roost sites.

Likewise, this preening behavior is an essential aspect of cleaning and maintaining their feathers to allow adequate regulation of their body temperature.

Agonistic Behavior

Bush thick-knees are generally solitary birds, but when they do intermingle, they display agonistic behavior mostly during the breeding season. Agonistic behavior usually occurs near the bird’s territory and includes various forms of body language and vocalizations.

These behaviors represent an attempt to intimidate or drive away a perceived threat or challenger.

Sexual Behavior

Bush thick-knees engage in different kinds of reproductive behaviors during mating encounters, including territorial defense, male display, and female choice. The male will usually demonstrate by using their vocalizations and clapping displays to attract a female, after which it will engage in copulation.


Bush thick-knee breeding generally occurs throughout the year, with most copulations occurring during the summer months (December to February). During the breeding season, the males will draw attention to their territories with clapping displays, making sure any intruders are kept away.

When two males meet, they will puff out their chests, stare at each other, and clap their bills. This behavior can escalate into physical aggression, with males flapping their wings, biting, and chasing one another.

Nests are usually small depressions that are excavated in sandy or gravel soils and lined with leaves or twigs. The species is known for its simple nest design, almost always built on open ground with sparse or no vegetation.

The female will lay one to two eggs, which she incubates for about 28 days. The young birds are semi-precocial, meaning they can walk and feed on their own soon after hatching.

The parents continue to protect and care for the chicks, leading them to food sources and teaching them how to forage for themselves.

Demography and Populations

Bush thick-knee populations are currently stable, and there are no major concerns about the species’ conservation status. They are classified as Least Concern’ by the IUCN Red List.

However, as with many other bird species, habitat degradation and loss remain significant threats to the species’ long-term survival. As mentioned before, maintaining the habitat of the bird and implementing conservation areas are crucial to preserving the birds native environment.

Therefore, it is important to regularly track the size, distribution, and population dynamics of the species to study the bird’s response to the changing environment carefully. Monitoring the birds population dynamics aids in understanding trends in the population, which enable experts to conduct adequate conservation measures such as habitat restoration, establishment of new habitats, and mitigating climate change impacts.

In conclusion, this article has provided a detailed overview of the bush thick-knee, covering various aspects of the bird’s life history. The article has explored topics such as the bird’s taxonomy, habitat, behavior, and demographics.

We have seen how environmental factors and human activities influence the bird’s habitat and how the species adapts to a changing environment. Additionally, we have learned about the birds unique metabolic rates and its feeding habits.

This study also explored the birds vocalization, territorial defense, breeding, and population dynamics. Understanding the information provided in this article is significant to the conservation of this unique bird species and its natural habitat.

It highlights the importance of preserving natural habitats, implementing conservation measures, and monitoring the bush thick-knee populations for the species to thrive for generations to come.

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