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Scientific classification
Binomial name
Grus rubicunda

The Brolga (Grus rubicunda) is a bird in the crane family.

In the Aboriginal dreamtime, Brolga was a young woman of extraordinary beauty, and a wonderful dancer: She learned the old dances—parading like an emu and whirling like the wind—and invented new ones to tell the stories of the spirits and the animals. People of far-away tribes came just to see her dancing, and the more she danced the more famous she became. Sometimes the old people would worry that, because she was so pretty and so famous, she might grow vain; but she never did. She remained the same happy, modest Brolga she had always been.

One day, Brolga went alone out onto the plain to dance, just for the joy of it, and when the evil spirit saw her, he felt he must possess her. He came in the form of a willywilly and spun her away. Her people became worried and searched for her, but the wind had blown away her footprints. They searched for many days before they found the willywilly on a distant plain, and Brolga there beside him. They all ran to rescue her, waving their spears and boomerangs, but the evil spirit span the whirlwind faster and faster. If he could not have Brolga, he said, no-one would have her. He swirled around her and just as the tribe came close, she vanished into the sky.

But before too long a bird appeared, one that that they had never seen before: a beautiful tall, grey bird. Slowly, it stretched its wings and began to dance, making long hopping steps and floating on the air with the same grace and poetry of motion that Brolga had been famous for. Soon the people realised that Brolga had escaped from the evil spirit and been turned into a bird so that she could fly back to Earth and dance for them again.

There are many Brolgas on the endless Australian plains today, and they still dance with the same extraordinary beauty, especially in the breeding season. Formally known as Grus rubicunda, they are still usually called Brolga. Sometimes the name is seen as Brogla.

The dance begins with a bird picking up some grass and tossing it into the air, catching it in its bill, then progresses to jumping a metre into the air with outstretched wings, then stretching, bowing, walking, calling, and bobbing of heads. Sometimes just one Brolga dances for its mate; often they dance in pairs; and sometimes a whole group of about a dozen dance together, lining up roughly opposite each other before starting.

Brolgas are gregarious. The basic social unit is a pair or small family group of about 4 birds, usually parents together with juvenile offspring, though some such groups appear to be unrelated. In the non-breeding season, they gather into large flocks, which appear to be many self-contained individual groups rather than a single social unit. Within the flock, families tend to remain separate and to coordinate their activities with one another rather than with the flock as a whole. In the breeding season, which is largely determined by rainfall rather than the time of year, the flocks split up and pairs establish nesting territories in wetlands. In good habitat, nests can be quite close together, and are often found in the same area as those of the closely related but slightly larger Sarus Crane.

The nest is a raised mound of sticks, uprooted grass, and other plant material: on a small island, standing in shallow water, or occasionally floating. Both sexes build. If no grasses are available, mud or roots unearthed from marsh beds are employed. Sometimes they make barely any nest at all, take over a disused swan nest, or simply lay on bare ground.

A pair of eggs is most common, but sometimes the clutch is one or three, laid about two days apart. Both birds incubate and guard the young. Hatching is not synchronised, and takes about 30 days. The chicks hatch covered in grey down and weighing about 100 g. They can leave the nest within a day or two, have body feathers within 4 or 5 weeks, and are fully feathered after three months, and able to fly about two weeks after that. When threatened, chicks hide and stay quiet while the parents perform a broken-wing display. The parents continue to guard the young for up to 11 months, or almost two years if they do not re-nest.

The full-grown Brolga is a tall, mid-grey to silver-grey crane, 0.7 to 1.3 m high, with a wingspan of 1.7 t o 2.4 m, and a broad red band extending from the straight, bone-coloured bill around the back of the head. Juveniles lack the red band. Adult males weigh a little under 7 kg, females a little under 6 kg. They are widespread and often abundant in north and north-east Australia, especially north-east Queensland, and are not uncommon as far south as Victoria. They are also found in southern New Guinea and as rare vagrants in New Zealand and the south of Western Australia.

When first described in 1810, the Brolga was misclassified as Ardea, the genus that includes the herons and egrets. It is in fact a member of the Gruiformes; the order that includes the crakes, railss, and cranes, and as a member of the genus Grus the Brolga is closely related to other cranes like the Sarus Crane of Australia and South-east Asia, the Blue Crane of South Africa, and the Old World Common Crane.