Australian pratincole (Stiltia isabella)

Also known as: Australian courser, isabelline pratincole, long-legged pratincole
GenusStiltia (1)
SizeLength: 21 - 24 cm (2) (3)
Weight60 - 70 g (3)
Top facts

The Australian pratincole is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A slim, graceful wader (4), the Australian pratincole (Stiltia isabella) is a highly distinctive species (5), being different to the seven other pratincole species in having long legs and unusually long wings (2) (3) (4) (5). These wings are slender and pointed (2), and project far past the tip of the tail (2) (4).

Male and female Australian pratincoles are similar in appearance (3). In its breeding plumage, this species has cinnamon-brown upperparts (2) (3) and a white rump, while its throat is whitish shading to a pinkish-cinnamon towards the breast (2). A distinctive feature of the Australian pratincole is the presence of a dark chestnut patch on the lower breast and belly (2) (3) (5). The tail is short, square and white, with a black central patch (2) (4) (5), while the sandy-coloured upperwings have black primary feathers (2) (4). Silvery-grey secondary feathers stand out against the mostly black underwing (2).

The Australian pratincole has black lores (2) (5), and its downcurved bill is sharply defined, with a red base and a black tip (3) (5). This species’ legs are dark (5), ranging from grey to reddish-brown (4).

In the non-breeding season, the adult Australian pratincole’s plumage is duller (2) (4) (5) and lacks the dark lores (2) (5), while its bill and legs are a dull greyish colour (4). The dark chestnut patch on its breast and belly is reduced in size (5), and may appear to be divided (2) (5). Browner upperparts with sandy or buff fringes, a duller red bill, and shorter outer primary feathers distinguish the juvenile Australian pratincole from the adult (2) (4) (5).

The Australian pratincole is reported to produce a repeated, liquid call, described as ‘weetweet’, as well as a tern-like, trilling ‘quirree-quirree’ or ‘quee-quee’ (4).

The Australian pratincole breeds in Australia (2) (3) (4) (6), specifically within the drier regions of the northern and eastern parts of the country. In wetter years, it can be found further south, although it is absent from south-western areas (2).

Between May and November, the Australian pratincole may migrate northwards (4), flying to northern Queensland and the Northern Territory of Australia (2), as well as further afield to southern New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor-Leste (2) (3) (4) (6).

The Australian pratincole tends to favour rather bare habitats or areas of sparse grassland (2) (4), including gravel plains, open plains with limestone pebbles and scattered low shrubs, and open shorelines of lakes, rivers and lagoons. It is seldom found far from water (2). This species is also often found on airfields (2) (4), as well as harvested or fallow rice fields (2).

In Papua New Guinea, the Australian pratincole has been recorded from sea level up to elevations of 1,740 metres (2).

A primarily insectivorous species (2) (7), the Australian pratincole generally feeds on grasshoppers, beetles, dragonflies, termites and other large insects, although it will also eat centipedes, spiders and even seeds (2). Much of the Australian pratincole’s foraging occurs on the ground (2) (3), and it is capable of running swiftly to catch insects (2) (3) (4), occasionally stopping its prey using an outstretched wing before lunging towards it with its bill (2). However, the Australian pratincole also forages in flight (2) (3) (4), hawking adeptly after flying insects (4), often at considerable heights (3) (4). This species is highly water-dependent (7), and needs to drink frequently (2).

Breeding in the Australian pratincole is dependent upon the weather, mostly occurring between September and November (2). This species nests on open, bare, stony ground (2) (7), with the nest site often being outlined with small stones and dry plant material. The Australian pratincole breeds in small, loose colonies, which are usually located within two kilometres of water. The female typically lays 2 eggs, which are incubated for a period of between 18 and 21 days (2). Both the male and the female Australian pratincole take part in egg incubation (2) (7), and both sexes are also involved in feeding and brooding the young once they have hatched. The young fledge at about three to four weeks of age (2).

The main cause of nest failure in the Australian pratincole is predation by ravens, as well as introduced foxes, snakes and lizards. Chicks sometimes hide within rabbit burrows or shelter under shrubs, and the adult bird is known to carry out a broken-wing distraction display at the nest when threatened, to lure the predator away from the young birds (2).

The Australian pratincole has an extremely large range (6), and as it is not currently facing any major threats, it is not considered to be globally threatened (2). However, this species may be hunted in Indonesia (2).

As the Australian pratincole is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction, there are no known specific conservation measures in place for this species at present.

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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2012)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Burnie, D. (2011) Animal. Dorling Kindersley Ltd., London.
  4. Dutson, G. (2012) Birds of Melanesia: Bismarcks, Solomons, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  5. Marchant, J., Hayman, P. and Prater, T. (2010) Shorebirds. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  6. BirdLife International - Australian pratincole (November, 2012)
  7. Maclean, G.L. (1996) The Ecophysiology of Desert Birds. Springer, Berlin.