The Red Kangaroo

(Macropus rufus)


Bob Cleaver


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Macropus is derived from the Latin meaning ‘big-footed’ and rufus meaning ‘red’.     There are a no documented subspecies.


These animals have a number of localized common names such as, the Marloo, Blue Flyer and Plains Kangaroo.




The term ‘Red’ is often confusing, especially for overseas visitors.     We have had many overseas people visit our place who are always surprised at the colour variation in the Red Kangaroo.      The ‘Red’ can be basically any colour from a deep gunmetal blue (hence ‘Blue Flyer’) right through to a rich rusty red.    There is also the misbelief that the male will be red and the female ‘blue’ (or grey).    This is not the case.   Either gender can be either colour as we have often demonstrated with our animals.     Having said that, it is more usual for the males to be red and the females grey, but a lot will depend on where they are found.    The colours will vary quite markedly with location and also the season.   We find that our ‘red’ roos will be much redder during the summer months and even the greys will get a slight tinge of brown.    Conversely, during the winter they will all revert to the grey end of the scale.    We have one female who is such a dark grey from a distance she looks black.     What is constant, are the white markings around the nose and mouth.   Also the skull shape is somewhat distinctive in that they seem to have a large bridged nose and high forehead that is not present in other large ‘roos (see picture at the head of this article).     They do not possess the ‘delicate’ features of the Western or Eastern greys, for example.    You could almost describe them as ‘boof heads’.     The forearms, lower belly, legs and the latter half of the tail and are generally white to cream.    The paws and feet are black.   




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The Red Kangaroo can be found roaming the greater part of inland Australia but are seldom found along the eastern, southern and northern perimeters of the country.   They are not found in Tasmania.      ‘Roaming’ is the key word here.    Unlike the Grey, they are highly nomadic and will traverse vast distances in search of suitable habitat, food and water.      In very general terms they will migrate away from the centre as the weather warms up and the food supply is depleted and will ‘follow the seasons’ as it were.    Their need to drink is not as intense as that of their relatives, the Eastern and Western Grey and if necessary, can go for long periods without water provided they have access to some browse.    They can often be found in mixed mobs with Greys but do not interbreed.  


Habitat & Diet


They prefer the open plains and savanna of central Australia as long as there are places of shade where it can shelter from the sun during the hottest parts of the day.    For this reason it will generally avoid habitat that is devoid of vegetation or that cannot provide some sort of shade and will often be found in areas of Mallee scrub.      It prefers country of low rainfall of say less of than 500mm and will congregate in mobs of quite large numbers.    The largest mob I have ever personally witnessed was of some 200 animals in an open paddock between Wentworth NSW and Renmark S.A. and they were mixed up with a considerable number of Western Greys.


Captive Husbandry


These would one of the easiest of the kangaroo species to maintain in captivity and will settle down to a life in captivity very well.     They would be the most ‘lay back’ of the macropods with maybe the exception of the Kangaroo Island Kangaroo.     If these animals are handraised as orphaned joeys from a road kill situation they seem to adapt very well to quite small yards.    Having said that, I would not recommend it.    They will be much happier in a large enclosure or on acreadge.     As with the Grey, I am not going to suggest a minimum area as each individual animal is different and some will cope better than others with a relatively small area but in general a standard house block is not big enough.      Again like the Greys, young animals particularly, seem to like charging about at terrific speed for no particular reason other than sheer youthful exuberance.     As they get older they will spend a lot of their time just lazing about.      They will also need to be kept away from any garden you may have otherwise you won’t have a garden for long.     If it’s green they’ll eat it whether it is good for them or not!!    They will ‘test’ anything that looks good but will not return to it if it tastes bad, but by that time it may be too late (either for the plant or the animal).    They have a liking for the bark of most young eucalypts and some of the smooth barked more mature trees and it is essential you protect any plant-life if you want it to survive.


Reds will bond very readily with their carers and can become very affectionate.     For this reason, if for no other, males must be castrated at an early age, usually at around five or six kgs.      THIS IS NOT OPTIONAL.      I don’t like to keep repeating myself but as with the greys, if kept whole, they will become very large powerful animals, growing to six or seven feet tall standing upright and a healthy 80+kgs.     This is not an animal you would want to become over affectionate (or aggressive)!!!!!     You do not want, or need, a full male Red kangaroo in a confined situation and there is no plausible reason for you to breed these animals in captivity – there are literally millions of them out there, many of which will end up being bowled over by a truck or the like, providing yet another orphaned joey for someone to handraise.      There are even more, that end up in our restaurants which is one very good reason why we here in South Australia are not allowed to release handraised animals back to the wild.     After all, why provide an easy target for the first ‘roo shooter that comes along.       


Their feed requirements are much the same as the Greys.    All our ‘roos are provided with bins of a dry feed, we use a ‘Ridley’ product called ‘Capricorn Goat Meal’, but any of the proprietary dry feeds will be suitable.     There are special formulas for kangaroos which are very good but we have found that our animals turn their noses up at it and we seem to waste more that we use.     This is probably because they were brought up with the goat meal and have got used to it and they don’t like change.     They also get carrots, apples, meadow hay, oaten hay and a daily hand out of bread, which tends to keep them tame and handleable.    We have also given Lucerne hay but it is expensive and wasteful as our animals will not eat the stalks and we end wasting more than we use.    For this reason we now offer Lucerne chaff which is consumed readily.      There is always fresh water on hand somewhere in their enclosure but we vary the location.    This makes the animals look for it and gives them something to do and it also gives us the opportunity to thoroughly clean out water containers rotationally.


I read somewhere recently that the oldest Red in captivity died at sixteen years and four months but I’m sure you could expect a somewhat longer lifespan that that.    We have a female Red here at the moment that has a recorded lifespan that has already equaled if not exceeded that time.       In the wild the average lifespan for all the large kangaroo species is seven years.




They are highly social creatures and live in mobs of very large numbers and have a well recognised ‘pecking’ order.     There will be an alpha male at the top of the chain who will maintain and defend his harem to the best of his ability against younger males coming up through the ranks.   He will be constantly challenged by these subordinate males until one is big enough and strong enough to take over.


Most female macropods have the ability to have three young simultaneously, all at different stages of development, one in diapause, one pouch young and an at-foot joey.     The Red is no exception.      Mating occurs at any time of the year but only with females who are ready to receive the male.    The alpha male will ‘test’ his females to see if they are ready to mate by sniffing her cloaca and tasting her urine.   If she is ready the male will follow her around for a short period and mating will follow.     This will last for about 15 – 20 minutes.     A young will be born 33 days later and will weighs in at about a one gram.    This ‘jellybean’ will then crawl up from its mothers cloaca into the pouch where it will attach itself to a vacant nipple and there it will stay for about the next 34 weeks.     After pouch emergence the young will continue to suckle from its mother for a further four months.   




Their biggest killer by far would be man and his activities closely followed by starvation during times of drought although there has been a recording of a group of five dingoes accounting for eighty three Red Kangaroos at one watering hole over a seven week period.     These animals are ‘harvested’ commercially and an annual quota is set by the government.    This quota is strictly controlled and will vary in line with population surveys.     In some parts of the country it is a necessary evil to control burgeoning populations and the ensuing meat is not wasted.


Their only real means of defence is to run away (or hop if you like) but they will rear up and kick with their powerful hind feet, although this is usually reserved for fights amongst themselves.    Their only natural enemies would be feral dogs, dingoes, perhaps foxes and sometimes Wedge-tailed Eagles.  ‘Wedgies’ are surprisingly adept at dropping on an unsuspecting joey or an adolescent animal and sinking their talons into the animal’s head.    The Wedgie would not be strong enough to carry the animal away but will devour it wherever it falls.  


Some time ago I had the privilege to witness, from my kitchen window, a wild fully grown male red kangaroo ward off a ‘Wedgie’ who was eyeing off a newly out of the pouch joey.     The joey was enjoying its new found freedom charging about at great speed, stretching its legs.     The Wedgie on the other hand was more intent on turning it into lunch and was dive bombing it, but ‘dad’ was busy standing high on his hind legs and with his arms out stretched, lashed out at the Wedgie each time it got close.     It was a deliberate attack on the Wedgie which I watched for close on half an hour and is something I have never seen since but was impressed and somewhat surprised to see that an old man ‘roo would take such defensive action.    The Wedgie eventually gave up and he joey survived to live another day.   


Copyright remains with the author




Strahan, Ronald (1983) edited by “The Complete Book of Australian Mammals” published by Angus & Robertson.

Cayley, Neville (1987) “What Animal is That” published by Angus & Robertson


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