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Scrub-Birds: Atrichornithidae

Rufous Scrub-bird (atrichornis Rufescens): Species Account

Physical characteristics: The rufous scrub-bird ranges in size from 6.5 inches (16.5 centimeters) for females to 7.1 inches long (18 centimeters) for males. Adults are a dark, reddish-brown with fine black bars on top and a dun-colored belly. Males have black markings in the center of a whitish throat. Both sexes carry their relatively long tails slightly upright. The rufous scrub-bird is perhaps the only species of bird in the world that does not have a wishbone, part of the breast bone, which is one reason it cannot fly very well.

Geographic range: This species exists solely on the central east coast of Australia, at the border between New South Wales and Queensland states. Their isolated populations are concentrated on the high-rainfall Border and Gibraltar Ranges, specifically along the Main Border Track from Mount Bithongable to Mount Howbee.

Habitat: Rufous scrub-birds require a moist microclimate at ground level, a dense layer of ground cover at least 3 feet (0.9 meters) high, and thick leaf litter in which to forage for food. These birds are almost always found at elevations above 2,000 feet (600 meters), although a sighting at about 790 feet (240 meters) was reported in 2000. Their habitat is usually associated with human-created or natural openings in the forest canopy. Most of the birds (an estimated 65 percent) live in wet eucalyptus (yoo-kah-LIP-tus) forests or Antarctic beech forests that are well buffered from fires in nearby rainforests. Mating pairs' territories are spaced far apart, with a maximum of six pairs per 0.4 square miles (1 square kilometer).

The rufous scrub-bird lives on the east coast of Australia, usually at elevations above 2,000 feet (600 meters). (Illustration by Bruce Worden. Reproduced by permission.)

Diet: Rufous scrub-birds use their strong legs and claws to scratch through leaf litter, flushing out invertebrates such as beetles, ants, and spiders.

Behavior and reproduction: Remaining sedentary within well-defined territories for their entire adult lives, rufous scrub-birds dislike disturbance and will run mouse-like into thick foliage at the slightest threat. The species is alert and forages with enthusiasm, but is shy and evasive in general. The female rufous is even more elusive. Because of their underdeveloped wings, rufous scrub-birds run when threatened, instead of flying. During breeding season in September to November (Australia's spring), males use their elevated and fanned tails, lowered wings, and loud, melodious song to woo their partners. They can mimic other birdcalls well, but also use a species-specific "chip" sound. Rufous scrub-birds are typically monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus). Females occupy small areas on the outside of their mates' territories. The birds prefer to have widely spaced territories, with males marking and occupying about 2.5 acres (1 hectare) each, ideally. Females take sole responsibility for their clutches of two eggs (one of which is often infertile). They build a domed nest near the ground with a side entrance, completely lining it with a cardboard-like substance made of chewed wood and grass pulp. She attends the chicks for the month it takes them to fledge.

Rufous scrub-birds and people: Avid birdwatchers from all over the world travel to Australia in hopes of seeing one of these rare birds. The species' elusive and secretive nature, in addition to its declining numbers, make it a thrilling experience for many bird lovers.

Conservation status: A 1999 survey of rufous scrub-bird populations suggested an ongoing decline in the bird's presence. Destruction of the species' preferred habitat through logging and burning has caused much of the population decrease, but conservationists are working to educate people, and land clearing no longer appears to be a threat. The rufous scrub-bird, with habitat estimated at only 580 square miles (1,500 square kilometers), has Near Threatened conservation status. ∎



Birdlife International. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 2000.

Ferrier, S. "Habitat Requirements of a Rare Species, the Rufous Scrub-bird." In Birds of Eucalyptus Forests and Woodlands: Ecology, Conservation, and Management. Sydney: Royal Australian Ornithological Society.

Higgins, P. J., et al., eds. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Vol. 5, Tyrant-Flycatchers to Chats. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Schodde, R., and I. J. Mason. Australian Birds: Passerines. Collingwood, Australia: CSIRO, 1999.

Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Alquist. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.


Chisolm, A. H. "The Story of the Scrub-birds." Emu 51 (1951): 89–112, 285–297.

Web sites:

"Noisy Scrub-bird Reintroduced to Darling Range." The Nature Base. http://www.calm.wa.gov.au/news/news.cgi?item=923494339 (accessed on May 17, 2004).

"Rufous Scrub-bird (Atrichornis rufescens)." Birdlife.net. http://www.birdlife.net/datazone/search/species (accessed on May 17, 2004).

"Rufous Scrub-bird: Lamington National Park." Lamington National Park, Queensland, Australia. http://www.lamington.nrsm.uq.edu.au/Documents/Birds/rufuousscrubbird.htm (accessed on May 17, 2004).

"Scrub-bird." Fact Index. http://www.fact-index.com/s/sc/scrub_bird.html (accessed on May 17, 2004).

"Scrub-birds." Planet Pets. http://www.planet-pets.com/plntsbrd.html (accessed on May 17, 2004).

"Scrub-birds (Atrichornithidae)." CREAGRUS@Monterey Bay. http://www.montereybay.com/creagrus/scrub-birds.html (accessed on May 17, 2004).

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceBirdsScrub-Birds: Atrichornithidae - Physical Characteristics, Behavior And Reproduction, Conservation Status, Rufous Scrub-bird (atrichornis Rufescens): Species Account - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, HABITAT, DIET, SCRUB-BIRDS AND PEOPLE