The parrot clawing its way back from the brink, one nest at a time04/09/2022
By Miki Perkins
You hear them before you see them; a metallic tinkling sound and a rush of rapidly beating wings as the small flock of parrots swoops down and alights on the wooden feeding platform.
They’re sleek and alert, ready to launch into flight at the first sign of danger. The males have emerald-green feathers on their back that become deep yellow on the breast and blue above their beaks, with a distinctive splash of orange on their bellies. On females, these hues are more subdued.
An orange-bellied parrot alights on a branch at Melaleuca, south-west Tasmania. Credit:Justin McManus
They’re here because it’s time for breakfast: a carefully selected mix of millet, canola and flax seed that supplements the diet of wild seed they forage from the button grass plains around this tiny outpost of Melaleuca, in the remote, rugged heart of south-west Tasmania.
And you’re here because these are orange-bellied parrots, or neophema chrysogaster, one of Australia’s most beloved critically endangered species.
OBPs, as they are affectionately known, are so rare that most people will never see one in the wild. And bird lovers who make a pilgrimage by light plane or trek to Melaleuca are often moved to tears when they spot their first OBP perched high in a peppermint gum.
A light plane from Hobart or a long trek along the South Coast Track are the only way to get to Melaleuca. Credit:Justin McManus
Only six years ago it looked like orange-bellied parrots were destined for extinction. Their numbers had dropped so low that in 2016 only 17 wild OBPs – 14 males and three females – remained in Melaleuca at the end of the breeding season.
Wildlife biologist Dr Shannon Troy remembers how she eagerly checked nests for new eggs and chicks, but site after site turned up empty.
“I stood under a tree and cried. They seemed to be going extinct right in front of us,” says Troy, who manages the OBP program for Tasmania’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
One of only three migratory parrot species in Australia, for many thousands of years OBPs have spent summers raising their broods in hollow trees in southern and western Tasmania. As the weather cools, they fly hundreds of kilometres through autumn skies to the southern coast of the Australian mainland. They have been seen as far west as the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, and as far east in Victoria as Western Port bay.
Wintering in salt marsh and heath land habitat, OBPs fly back to Melaleuca again in the spring. For millennia before colonisation this region was the Country of the Needwonnee people, whose cultural burning practices promoted the low-lying heath and button grass habitat in which OBPs evolved.
Described as a “trumped-up corella” by an irascible Jeff Kennett in the ’90s, when development proposals were ditched to protect their habitat, the orange-bellied parrot is beloved by the public and has become emblematic of the south-west of Tasmania.
But for many years their numbers have slowly declined for reasons that include human land clearing and degradation of habitat, predation by feral animals and changed fire frequency.
Orange-bellied parrots at the feeding platform in Melaleuca.Credit:Justin McManus
Today, six years after the disastrous 2016 breeding season, the outlook is brighter. This autumn about 140 OBPs will leave Melaleuca and fly north to the mainland. And the collaborative effort to avert their extinction (for the moment) offers insights for conservationists trying to protect Australia’s 1800 other threatened species.
Shannon Troy flies into Melaleuca on an unusually warm, still day in early March. It’s a tiny outpost of wooden huts for rangers and walkers, and the remains of a tin mine founded in the 1950s. With only six hours on the ground before returning to Hobart, she and two volunteers stride through scrub for an hour to get to their destination.
Arriving at a particular eucalyptus tree, Troy slips on a climbing harness and ascends the rope until she reaches a nest box 15 metres off the ground. She pulls on a pair of disposable gloves to guard against disease and is pleasantly surprised to find five fluffy, beady-eyed nestlings inside the box, two more than the last time she’d checked.
The fledglings are brought to the ground to have their blood or feathers taken for genetic screening, and aluminium and stainless-steel bands are placed on their tiny legs. Troy and the volunteers weigh and measure them and examine the contents of their crops – the food storage pouch in a bird’s neck – to check the mix of seed their parents are feeding them. Then Troy shinnies back up the rope and the fledglings are returned.
Orange-bellied parrot chicks.Credit:Erin Farley
Troy manages the breeding program, which includes providing artificial nest boxes and supplementary feeding and releasing captive-bred parrots to bolster numbers. She also coordinates the volunteers. Since the 1990s, small groups of volunteers from all walks of life have arrived at Melaleuca each summer to spend up to a month monitoring the parrots.
Each morning and evening they wait in three bird hides with binoculars to track the parrots and note their identifying leg bands. They also assiduously clean and disinfect the feeding tables to prevent the spread of disease, which would devastate this tiny population.
At the end of the breeding season, the eagerly awaited results of Troy’s painstaking fieldwork are shared with the 19 other member organisations and agencies that make up the Orange-Bellied Parrot recovery program, the oldest endangered species recovery effort in Australia.
Dr Shannon Troy banding orange-bellied parrot chicks.Credit:Erin Farley
Started in 1983, the program has expanded over time and is a complex collaboration across four states between federal and state governments, public and private zoos, not-for-profit organisations like Bird Life Australia and local community and volunteer-led conservation groups.
These organisations and their staff manage the wild population, breed and maintain a captive “insurance” population and release captive-fledged OBPs to boost numbers in the wild. There is also an emphasis on habitat conservation and restoration.
It’s impossible to estimate how much has been spent on OBPs. A considerable portion of support is in kind and resources have been shared between government agencies over many years. The federal government says it has invested more than $2.2 million, Victoria says it has contributed $295,000 in the past six years, and Tasmania told The Age it has provided financial, logistical and in-kind resources since the 1980s, as well as $2.5 million to develop a captive breeding facility.
Despite the coordinated effort, when only 17 birds remained in the wild (and around 200 in captivity) in 2016, it became painfully clear it was time to change tack.
It was during this period that Dr Dejan Stojanovic, a researcher at the Australian National University, joined the program.
Stojanovic is an expert in swift parrots, another critically endangered migratory parrot species whose future he describes as a “slowly unfolding disaster” because its habitat is being relentlessly logged. He’s also a member of the aptly named Difficult Birds Research Group, a group of scientists who study birds that are extremely endangered, hard to find, occur in wild and rugged terrain, and move around the landscape.
Orange-bellied parrots in a stand of trees at Melaleuca.Credit:Justin McManus
Stojanovic found there were large gaps in the scientific knowledge of OBPs, particularly their survival and reproductive outcomes, and uncertainty about the most pressing causes of the species’ decline. “We concluded we needed a lot more information combined with urgent action to see what was possible when it came to options for recovery,” he says. “At that point we had very little to lose.”
The Tasmanian government began controlled burns of the button grass heath around Melaleuca after a hiatus of 20 years. Two years later, Stojanovic’s research showed that rare food plants had become more abundant and OBPs – which for generations had never experienced burnt habitat – had started eating the seeds.
The recovery program has also successfully trialled chick-fostering techniques used with other parrot species. And the program released juvenile birds in the autumn to accompany wild birds on the journey north.
More recently, Stojanovic has collated and analysed data collected over decades, which has revealed that although the survival rate of adult birds has remained steady, the survival rate of juvenile birds has halved. He doesn’t know why yet, but identifying the problem is the first step.
Michael Johnson owns Moonlit Sanctuary wildlife park, the only privately-owned zoo to breed the orange-bellied parrot.Credit:Joe Armao
Since 2016 there has been a slow but steady increase in population size. But when you pull a rare species back from the brink of extinction, success does not have a simple, linear trajectory.
“We have found that every year people want to say the parrots are saved, or they’re doomed, or they’re saved again. But the reality is that when populations get really small, all their vitals can wildly change,” says Stojanovic.
“We’re in a much better place than 2016, and we are fluctuating around a more positive trend which gives me some hope.”
The most recent breeding season has shown mixed results. A record number of 70 OBPs arrived from the mainland in spring, the highest adult population size in 15 years. But the number of birds remaining at Melaleuca at the end of the season, and the number of nests, were both lower than average.
Observations in Melaleuca suggest only about half of the 70 wild birds that returned remained in the area, and some were only seen sporadically at the feeding tables. About 35 birds remain unaccounted for.
A snake wrapped around a nestbox at Melaleuca. This nest was empty before the snake arrived. Credit:Justin McManus
It’s possible some parrots left the Melaleuca region and nested elsewhere. And they might have been eating more wild seed and not using the feeding tables. Or, sadly, they might not have survived. Their fate will remain a mystery until they are either spotted on the mainland or return to Melaleuca in December. At the end of summer 50 captive-bred juvenile parrots were released to bolster the size of the migrating flock.
The missing birds are a puzzle, but Troy says she’s delighted 140 parrots will be winging their way north. And despite a lower number of 18 nests, they produced 62 nestlings, a record success rate.
“It can’t be a record year every year,” says Troy. “If it was that easy to recover them we wouldn’t be here. We’re going to have good years and bad.”
The captive breeding program’s “insurance population” has increased from 200 to 500 birds, spread between a number of institutions. Zoos Victoria contributes to the program with aviaries that encourage captive birds to become fit and forage on wild plants. They’ve also experimented with the use of tracking devices, like tiny backpacks, with variable success.
“The captive population is a reservoir of genetic diversity for the population in the wild,” explains Michael Magrath, a senior research manager at Zoos Victoria.
One of the orange-bellied parrots fitted with a solar-powered satellite tracker and released in the wild in Victoria. Credit:Zoos Victoria
Moonlit Sanctuary, a private zoo near Melbourne between Port Phillip and Western Port, has also bred about 300 orange-bellied parrots and trained birds to encourage site fidelity. Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment releases captive OBPs in mainland coastal habitats such as the Bellarine Peninsula and Port Phillip Bay to encourage naturally migrating birds to these sites.
Volunteers help to survey for parrots on the mainland. Rachel Pritchard, a program officer with the Victorian environment department, helps direct volunteers on where to survey during the winter months, and Birdlife Australia hosts a website for bird lovers who want to get involved.
“It’s exciting in April, when we expect them to start turning up,” says Pritchard. “After all those years of effort we have now hit a few years of positive signs.”
Everyone The Age interviewed says the recovery effort relies on public support and advocacy. Bird enthusiast and writer Debbie Lustig started the Save the Orange-Bellied Parrot Facebook page 11 years ago, which now has 20,000 followers. She writes a blog, makes fundraising T-shirts and has spent a fortnight at Melaleuca as a volunteer.
“There’s worldwide interest, partly because it’s been such a poignant, precarious species,” says Lustig. “When I first heard about them I couldn’t believe the OBP was likely to go extinct in a wealthy country, in my lifetime.”
The recovery program is a good news story of collaboration, says Professor Brendan Wintle, an expert in conservation of endangered species at the University of Melbourne. But the conservation of species affected by land clearing or forestry, such as the critically endangered swift parrot or greater gliders, is far more politically fraught.
A logging coupe in swift parrot habitat in south-eastern Tasmania.Credit:Jason South
Australia currently properly resources the recovery and conservation of less than 10 per cent of the species at risk of becoming extinct, says Wintle. The Commonwealth has a list of 100 species it prioritises for investment, but there are around 1800 threatened species in Australia.
Wintle and other researchers found that in Australia we spend about 5 per cent (around $122 million) of what we would need to recover our nationally listed threatened species.
“We could still lose the OBPs because it’s a precarious existence, but for now this is a good story about groups working together. Unfortunately, it’s the exception, it’s not the rule,” says Wintle.
A federal government spokesperson said the Morrison government’s 2022-23 budget announced an additional $100 million for the Environment Restoration Fund, on top of an earlier $74 million for koalas and $200 million for habitat and wildlife bushfire recovery.
At the end of an intense day of banding fledglings, Shannon Troy hikes back to Melaleuca and chats to volunteer Erin Farley. A wildlife ecologist, Farley grew up in Tasmania and is fascinated by birds but has never seen an orange-bellied parrot until now. Working with a critically endangered species has been an amazing opportunity, she says. As she goes for an evening walk, she watches the parrots flit through the treetops.
“Because Melaleuca is not a densely wooded area, you can almost see the entire OBP population in one moment,” says Farley. “It’s crazy to think this is the only group of birds of this species anywhere in the world.”
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