The bilby, also known as the rabbit-eared bandicoot, is a rare and endangered rabbit-like marsupial. It used to be found only in South Australia, but today can be found in central Australian deserts and dry forests. The bilby is a very important part of traditional indigenous culture in Australia.
They are often referred to as ”Rabbit-eared bandicoot”, “Dalgyte”, “Pinkie”, “Ninu”, “Walpajirri”, or more commonly the “Greater bilby”, the Lesser bilby is now extinct, with the last known reported one alive in 1931.
The bilby is a burrowing marsupial, with strong claws, long hairless ears, soft grey fur, with white underneath, and a black and white tipped tail. They are the largest members of the bandicoot family, size wise they range from 30 to 60 cm in length, with a 20 cm. tail. The female is smaller than the male, with a fully grown adult male weighing up to 2.5 kg, and a female about half that.
Bilbies have a very good sense of hearing and also smell, however they have very poor eyesight, and because of that, they usually burrow at night, and also feed on small insects, such as termites, ants, centipedes, beetles, and seeds, roots and fungi. They use their strong claws to rake their food out of the sandy soil; often digging holes 10 cm deep to obtain these. Also, like the koala, the bilby can survive on the water it gets from its food.
These nocturnal animals usually feed within 100 metres of a burrow, and may visit several burrows each night before deciding where to sleep in the daylight hours. They build their burrows deep in the soil, to make it hard for predators, such as lizards, hawks, and even in the past, aboriginals, as a long time ago they were a favourite food of the aboriginal people.
The bilby is very solitary, coming together only to mate. They have a very high breeding rate, and breed throughout the year. Even though the female has eight teats, the usual litter is only two. When born, the young live in the mothers backwardly opening pouch for 70 to 80 days, then when they are “released” into the burrow, the mother continues to suckle them for two more weeks. When they are 6 months old, only then can the young bilby take care of itself.
A hundred years ago, bilbies were quite common throughout Australia, from the dry interior to temperate coastal regions. However in recent years the bilby population has dwindled due mainly to habitat loss and the competition with introduced animals, such as sheep and cattle that eat the same plants as the bilby, and even the rabbit has been a threat, as they compete with the bilby for food and their burrows. Bilbies now survive in isolated populations in the driest and least fertile regions of central Australia. Some concerned people are now breeding bilbies in captivity, eventually hoping they can release them into fenced off areas where foxes and feral cats that prey on them, can be controlled.
The Story Of The Easter Bilby
In Australia over the last 20 years or so, there has been a campaign to replace the traditional Easter Bunny with the attractive and uniquely Australian bilby.
No one really know when the concept was started, but research has shown that it was sometime in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s.
In 1979, a children’s author from Queensland, Australia, Rose-Marie Dusting, wrote a children’s book titled “Billy the Easter Bilby”. The book was published in Adelaide, and because Rose-Marie was so passionate about the conservation of the bilby, she soon became known as the “bilby lady”, and is often credited with the original concept of the Easter bilby. She even donated part of the profits of her book towards conservation projects.
Another suggestion on the origin of the Easter Bilby was that sometime in the years 1976 through to 1983, a member of the Hawthorn Junior Field Naturalist Club, Malcolm Turner, decided to replace the Easter Bunny with the Easter Bilby during an Easter egg giveaway on Easter morning, during the club’s annual Easter bush camp.
Another simpler idea was that around the year 1980, it was just an invention of a man named Tony Robinson, who at that time worked for the South Australian National Parks Service.
During the 1990’s, the concept of the Easter bilby was also used by the Anti Rabbit Research Fund Of Australia, currently calling themselves the Foundation For Rabbit-Free Australia, who used the bilby to get the message out on how much damage the introduced rabbit causes to the Australian Native Environment.
In 1993 the idea of producing chocolate Easter bilbies was introduced in South Australia by chocolate manufacturers Haigh’s, Melba’s and Cottage Box chocolates, this continues to this day. Also, large supermarket chains in Australia such as Coles and Foodland, etc, sell chocolate Easter bilbies, alongside the traditional Easter bunnies at Easter. The Coles supermarkets even donated part of their profits of the bilby chocolate sales to wildlife research, but unfortunately Coles stopped their support in 2002. The chocolate manufacturer Darrel Lee, has a website that tells you how much money they donate from the sale of every single chocolate Easter bilby they sell. All of their donations go to the Save the Bilby Fund, which was started in 1999 by a ranger and zoologists from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife services, Frank Manthey and Peter Mc Rae. Since 2001 the money raised is going towards a bilby-safe fenced off area in the Currawinya National Park in Queensland, Australia.
You can read all about Frank Manthey and the Save the Bilby fund on our Interview page.
Length: 50 - 80 cm (including tail)
Weight: 1.1 - 2.5 kg
Survival Status: Endangered (Lesser Bilby is Extinct)