More than 80 critically endangered parrots have returned to their breeding grounds in Tasmania, the highest number in 15 years.
Only 3 wild female orange-bellied parrots (Neophema crisogaster) returned from their annual migration to the Australian mainland in 2016. The species was nearly declared functionally extinct, despite decades of dedicated breeding programs and research into the conservation of this colorful bird.
And while its numbers finally seem to be heading in the right direction, there’s still a long way to go.
– Dr. SWIFT PARROT (@teamswiftparrot) July 7, 2022
“It’s a huge team effort,” wildlife biologist Shannon Troy told Georgie Burgess on ABC, explaining how volunteers have been crucial in helping researchers figure out how to help these difficult birds that seemed stubbornly determined to go extinct.
For years, the release of captive-bred birds mysteriously failed to effectively increase the species’ number in the wild. Most young have not survived the journey between their summer breeding grounds in Melaleuca Tasmania and their warm winter feeding grounds in the coastal mudflats of southern mainland Australia.
“Many of us spend all spring holding our breath waiting to see what will happen,” says Troy, program manager for Tasmania’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
Orange-bellied parrots are one of only three parrot species that undergo the dangerous task of long-distance migration, a task that requires a certain level of fitness. Only 58 of the 139 birds that left Melaleuca returned last year, but this number is higher than in previous years.
The threats faced by these small and fragile birds are multiple. Their winter habitats have been decimated by agriculture and urban development since European settlement. The areas that remain untouched are now filled with predators such as invasive cats and foxes.
Changes in fire regimes at their protected breeding sites have also had a slow but steady effect on parrot numbers. Previously managed by Tasmanian Aboriginal people, fewer burnings have led to a decline in their food plants of grasses and sedges, some of the first plants to grow back after fires.
All of these factors have likely contributed to the decline of orange-bellied parrots to the point where they have become increasingly vulnerable to disease thanks to their low genetic diversity.
Their small gene pool has also proven problematic within the captive population. Captive-bred birds have differently shaped wings than their wild counterparts, which may contribute to their mortality when released.
when you’re a delicious little orange belly #parrot It takes some bravery to turn your back on the world as you enter your nest (you can never be too cautious!).
It usually takes them a few tries before they go in to feed the kids 🥺 pic.twitter.com/IWbYeQ9YYX
– Dr. SWIFT PARROT (@teamswiftparrot) April 13, 2022
“Unless juvenile mortality rates can be reduced from 80 percent to around 60 percent, the wild population will not be self-sustaining,” Australian National University conservation biologists Dejan Stojanovic and Robert Heinsohn explain in a recent update on the status of the orange-bellied parrot.
“Currently, there are no known mitigation options to reduce mortality rates other than optimizing chick body condition.”
So for now, these precious feathered jewels are receiving supplemental feeding. New burning regimes are being trialled in Tasmania in the hope of increasing their natural food sources. Troy suggests this may have helped increase this year’s survival rate.
Researchers like Troy have been monitoring the birds down to each individual and each nest. Meanwhile, several institutes, including Moonlit Sanctuary, Zoos Victoria and Five Mile Beach Wildlife Management Facility, have assisted with captive breeding and release programs since 2013.
– Dr. SWIFT PARROT (@teamswiftparrot) June 2, 2022
An army of volunteers helps monitor the birds at Melaleuca, keeping an eye out for predators and health problems. All of this attention provides scientists with exceptional, detailed data for managing endangered species.
“Few conservation programs can examine individual fitness at as fine a resolution as is possible for orange-bellied parrots,” write Stojanovic and Heinsohn.
“Understanding the mortality consequences of early-life body condition has important implications for habitat management in breeding grounds, selection of which captive individuals for release, and diet management to bridge the gap between the body condition of wild and captive chicks.
With continued hard work and a lot of luck, these challenging animals could yet be rescued from the abyss. In the midst of our planet’s sixth mass extinction, every lesson orange-bellied parrots can teach us could help save many other struggling species, too.