Although classed as waders, pratincoles superficially resemble swallows, with long pointed wings, a deeply forked tail and aerial feeding.
The oriental pratincole is an atypical wader, a bit larger than a banded dotterel. It is sandy brown above, paler below, with a white rump and black primaries and tail. The buffy throat is edged by a thin black band. The underwings are chestnut. The bill is short and black, with red at the base. The legs are slim and dark, of medium length. Juveniles are mottled above, with wide buff tips with dark sub-terminal bands to feathers of the upperparts, and lack the black throat band. Oriental pratincoles are graceful in flight, and feed mainly while flying.
Voice: tern-like chick-chick or kirri-kirri uttered when flying.
Similar species: none in New Zealand.
Distribution and habitat
The oriental pratincole is a rare vagrant to New Zealand with about a dozen records. It is widespread in East Asia. Most spend the non-breeding season in Australia, where an amazing 2.88 million were reported in February 2004. Oriental pratincoles prefer open habitats, such as grassland and farmland, over which they hawk for insects.
The oriental pratincole population was thought to be only about 75,000 birds until an enormous non-breeding population was discovered in Northwest Australia in 2004. The population is now estimated at about 2.8 million birds.
New Zealand records
Westport (1898), Appleby, Nelson (May 1959), Tia Island, Port Adventure, Stewart Island (April 1963), Raoul Island, Kermadec Islands (May 1976), Lake Wainono (March 1977), South Turnbull, Westland (May 1977), Kaipara Harbour (November 1985, and 1986), Ruapuke Island, Foveaux Strait (February 1988, and 1989), Farewell Spit (January 1994), Bell Block, New Plymouth (May 1999), Lake Ellesmere (February-May 2002).
Threats and conservation
The apparent increase in numbers is a result of difficulties in assessing the population, not a result of changing conservation status.
Oriental pratincoles breed in colonies in Asia, from Pakistan through to north-east China. They lay 2-3 eggs on bare ground in open areas.
Behaviour and ecology
Pratincoles are usually gregarious in flocks of up to 40-50, although the largest group in New Zealand was ‘at least 5’ near Nelson in 1959. Most New Zealand records are of single birds.
Oriental pratincoles feed mainly on flying insects (e.g. moths, termites, beetles), but at times of grasshopper plagues they will catch prey by running on the ground. They often forages in flocks, exceptionally of up to 25,000 birds.
del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J. (eds). 1996. Handbook of birds of the world. Vol. 3, hoatzin to auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Falla, R. A. 1959. Pratincole records in New Zealand. Notornis 8: 126-127.
Falla, R. A. 1963. The oriental pratincole, another record. Notornis 10: 355.
Hassell, C.; Piersma, T. 2010. Record numbers of grass-hopper eating shorebirds (oriental pratincole, oriental plover, little curlew) on coastal West-Kimberley grasslands, Western Australia in mid February 2010. Stilt 57: 36-38. Downloadable at:
Heather, B.D.; Robertson, H.A. 1996. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Viking, Auckland.
Higgins, P.J.; Davies, S.J.J.F (eds). 1996. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds.Vol. 3, snipe to pigeons. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Pierce, R. J. 1978. Feeding methods of an oriental pratincole. Notornis 25: 290.
Sitters, H.; Minton, C.; Collins, P.; Etheridge, B.; Hassell, C.; O’Connor, F. 2004.Extraordinary numbers of oriental pratincoles in NW Australia. Wader Study Group Bulletin 103: 26-31.
Wetlands International. 2012. Waterbird Population Estimates.
Melville, D.S. 2013 [updated 2017]. Oriental pratincole. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
- Breeding season
- Egg laying dates