Nature conservation

Threatened species

Plains-wanderer - profile

Indicative distribution

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The areas shown in pink and/purple are the sub-regions where the species or community is known or predicted to occur. They may not occur thoughout the sub-region but may be restricted to certain areas. ( click here to see geographic restrictions). The information presented in this map is only indicative and may contain errors and omissions.
Scientific name: Pedionomus torquatus
Conservation status in NSW: Endangered
Commonwealth status: Critically Endangered
Profile last updated: 20 Jun 2019


The Plains-wanderer is a small quail-like bird standing about 12-15 cm tall and weighing 40 to 95 grams. Both sexes have straw-yellow legs and bills, and their plumage is mainly fawn with fine black rosettes. The larger female is easily distinguished by her prominent white-spotted black collar above a rich rufous breast patch.

The Plains-wanderer could be confused with other small ground-dwelling birds that occur in native grasslands such as Stubble Quail (Coturnix pectoralis) or Little Button-quail (Turnix velox). However, the Plains-wanderer has a finer bill, much longer legs and lankier appearance than button-quail or quail.


The vast majority (>99%) of records of Plains-wanderers in NSW over the past 30 years come from an area of the western Riverina bounded by Hay and Narrandera on the Murrumbidgee River in the north, the Cobb Highway in the west, the Billabong Creek in the south, and Urana in the east. Even within its western Riverina stronghold, the Plains-wanderer has a very patchy distribution. Surveys in the 1990s across 5,000km2 of the western Riverina covering 37 properties found only 5% of the total area comprised suitable habitat. The amount of high quality habitat in the Riverina drops to 1-2% during very wet or dry years when grasslands become too dense or are grazed too bare for Plains-wanderers.

An Aerial Photo Interpretation (API) mapping project conducted by the former NSW NPWS confirmed the patchy distribution of the Plains-wanderer's habitat. This API mapping project covered 2.28 million hectares or nine 1:100,000 map sheets. Approximately 2.3% of the mapping area was identified as primary habitat suitable for Plains-wanderers all year round. A further 4.3% of the 2.28 million ha is comprised of denser, secondary habitat that may be periodically occupied by Plains-wanderers, particularly during drought or extended periods of heavy grazing when primary habitat can become too sparse for the Plains-wanderer.

The Plains-wanderer has declined greatly since European settlement. Areas where the species was formerly common and is now so reduced in numbers that it is effectively extinct include eastern NSW, south-western Victoria, and south-eastern South Australia. Its current stronghold is the western Riverina of southern NSW. Areas of secondary importance include north-central Victoria and central-western Queensland. The bird was formerly fairly common until about 1920 on the Slopes and Tablelands, and there are two earlier records of birds near Sydney. The main reason for the decline in the numbers and distribution of Plains-wanderers in all eastern States has been the conversion of native grasslands to dense introduced pasture or croplands. If native grasslands are not overgrazed or cultivated then Plains-wanderers are largely sedentary, though there is some recent evidence to suggest that birds may not remain sedentary during prolonged drought conditions.

Habitat and ecology

  • Plains-wanderers live in semi-arid, lowland native grasslands that typically occur on hard red-brown soils. These grasslands support a high diversity of plant species, including a number of state and nationally threatened species.
  • Habitat structure appears to play a more important role than plant species composition. Preferred habitat of the Plains-wanderer typically comprises 50% bare ground, 10% fallen litter, and 40% herbs, forbs and grasses.
  • Most of the grassland habitat of the Plains-wanderer is <5 cm high, but some vegetation up to a maximum of 30 cm is important for concealment, as long as grass tussocks are spaced 10-20 cm apart.
  • During prolonged drought, the denudation of preferred habitats may force birds into marginal denser and taller grassland habitats that become temporarily suitable.
  • The average home range of a single bird is about 12 ha. Breeding pairs have overlapping home ranges that total approximately 18 ha.
  • The Plains-wanderer is a ground-dwelling grassland bird, which is cryptic and very difficult to observe during the day. Graziers have seen Plains-wanderers during the day when mustering sheep. The species can only be properly surveyed at night using spotlighting techinques.

Regional distribution and habitat

Click on a region below to view detailed distribution, habitat and vegetation information.


Recovery strategies

Activities to assist this species

Information sources

IBRA Bioregion IBRA Subregion Known or predicted Geographic restrictions region
Broken Hill ComplexBarrier Range Predicted None
Channel CountrySturt Stony Desert Known None
Murray Darling DepressionDarling Depression Predicted None
Murray Darling DepressionSouth Olary Plain Known None
NSW South Western SlopesLower Slopes Known None
Other StateACT Known None
Other StateQLD Known None
Other StateSA Known None
Other StateVIC Known None
RiverinaLachlan Known None
RiverinaMurray Fans Known None
RiverinaMurrumbidgee Known None
Simpson Strzelecki DunefieldsStrzelecki Desert Known None