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Breeding and moulting (management)

Waterbirds breed and nest either as dispersed pairs or in colonies or in loose clusters that are more difficult to define and delineate.

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Breeding colonies of pelicans at Lake Galilee Photo by Roger Jaensch

Quick facts


A feather is a "dead" structure, somewhat like hair or nails in humans. The hardness is caused by the formation of the protein keratin. Since feathers cannot heal themselves when damaged, they have to be completely replaced. The replacement of all or part of the feathers is called a molt. Molts produce feathers that match the age and sex of the bird, and sometimes the season.[1]

Colonial breeding and nesting

There are relatively few sites suitable for colonial breeding and nesting. Consequently, breeding colonies of waterbirds are a rare feature, they are inherently vulnerable to loss and disturbance and are a high management priority. For example, the maintenance and restoration of breeding colonies has been a major factor in the designation of Ramsar sites in the Murray Darling Basin, and in allocations of environmental flows in regulated rivers such as the Gwydir (New South Wales).

Overall, the most fundamental requirement for mainland colonies is water and the main areas for colonial breeding for waterbirds in Queensland are in floodplains of river systems that have not been significantly regulated. Changes to water flow have impacted colonial waterbird breeding in other places and is a consideration in water planning in Queensland.

Some mainland colonies are protected and managed on State land such as parks and reserves, while many are on freehold or leasehold land and need landholder involvement in management. Conservation actions need to be considered as part of the landscape, as well as at a local scale. Actions that reduce woody or shrub vegetation at colony sites should be avoided.

Management strategies may need to be put in place to reduce predation as many colonies at ground level may be at risk due to predators, such as feral pigs, wild dogs, feral cats and foxes. Predation of young and sitting adults may be greatest where the birds nest on land-connected sites, such as spits. Early drying out of a nesting lake may also increase risks from predation.

Dispersed breeding and nesting

As dispersed-breeding waterbirds occupy many more sites and habitats than colonial waterbirds and can nest in very small wetlands, protection or enhancement of their breeding is in some ways easier to achieve but is also more complex to manage comprehensively. For most species, conservation planning is greatly hampered by poor knowledge of breeding habits and requirements and often by the inherent difficulties in determining which waterbird species are nesting at a site.

As with colonial breeding waterbirds, the most fundamental requirement for breeding is water supply and important areas for dispersed breeding by waterbirds are in floodplains of river systems with unaltered water flow. Actions that reduce water supply or wetland vegetation should be avoided or reconsidered, including large scale or persistent burning. Control of weeds and feral animals is likely to be beneficial to dispersed-breeding waterbirds.


Surveys of waterbirds should establish the likelihood of species moulting at a site. Management should include actions to provide suitable habitat for moulting and the avoidance of human disturbance. In particular motorised water craft should be avoided where birds are moulting.


  1. ^ Cormell Laboratory of Ornathology (2007), All about birds - Molting. [online], Cormell Laboratory of Ornathology. Available at: [Accessed 4 July 2015].

Last updated: 25 February 2015

This page should be cited as:

Department of Environment, Science and Innovation, Queensland (2015) Breeding and moulting (management), WetlandInfo website, accessed 18 March 2024. Available at:

Queensland Government
WetlandInfo   —   Department of Environment, Science and Innovation