Critically Endangered Regent Honeyeater sightings spark hope

Monday, 1 July 2024

  • Estimated reading time 3 minutes

Over the past few weeks, our Woodland Birds team, along with local citizen scientists, has located at least 25 Regent Honeyeaters in the Lower Hunter region of New South Wales. It was the largest winter flock for nearly a decade.

This discovery is a huge boost for our conservation efforts and gives renewed hope for the survival of the Critically Endangered species.

“It’s fantastic,” enthused Mick Roderick, BirdLife Australia’s Woodland Birds Recovery Lead, and recovery coordinator for the species. “The birds are hanging on… it gives us a bit of optimism.”

Captive-bred birds that are banded have been sighted with wild populations, a fantastic sign of the success of the species.

With the current Regent Honeyeater population estimated at 250 to 300 birds in the wild – probably at the lower end of that range – this news is particularly exciting.

Following the discovery, BirdLife Australia’s Woodland Birds team has been working closely with local citizen scientists to track and identify the Regent Honeyeaters that are currently in the Lower Hunter.

  • Among the 25 birds found, three were banded, having been released during the 2022 captive-breeding program. This program supplements the wild population with zoo-bred birds, to boost both their numbers and their genetic diversity.
  • Most of the birds observed had not been banded, indicating that there are still wild Regent Honeyeaters that have not been involved in the captive breeding program. This underscores the importance of continuing to monitor and support both captive-bred and wild populations.

Equally as heartening news is that one of the banded birds has paired with a wild Regent Honeyeater – another significant milestone for the species. The ability of captive-bred birds to integrate into wild populations and breed is a crucial aspect of the recovery program’s success.

Remembering a forgotten song

The Regent Honeyeater is so threatened that, due to the very low number of surviving male birds to teach younger birds to sing, the species has gradually lost the ability to sing its own song, and has begun, instead, to borrow snippets of songs from other species. Being unable to sing an authentic Regent Honeyeater song makes the process of pairing much more difficult. This discovery ushered in a program to use recordings of wild Regents so that young captive birds can learn how to sing their song like a Regent Honeyeater, to enhance their chances of breeding once they have been released into the wild population.

And just might be paying off: two zoo-bred birds nearly fooled the Recovery Team with calls that sounded just like those of wild birds. This gives great hope that captive-bred birds are adapting well and retaining essential behaviours.

A zoo-bred Regent Honeyeater like this almost fooled our team, by learning calls like that of wild birds.

Plans for the next release

BirdLife Australia, in collaboration with project partners, including Taronga Zoo and the Mindaribba Local Aboriginal Land Council, is planning to release another 50 Regent Honeyeaters into the wild in the near future to bolster the wild population, to ensure the species’ survival.

The success of releases so far is a testament to the dedication and hard work of everyone involved in the Recovery Program. Each release is carefully planned and monitored to maximise the birds’ chances of survival and integration into the wild.

“The continued success of the Regent Honeyeater Recovery Program shows our efforts are making a real difference,” Mick said. “Releasing zoo-bred birds to join their wild counterparts is playing a crucial role in saving this unique species from extinction.”

“The collaboration between conservationists, scientists and the community remains vital to ensuring the survival of the Regent Honeyeater.”

By supporting these efforts, we can all contribute to the preservation of one of Australia’s most endangered birds.

The involvement of local citizen scientists has been invaluable in tracking and monitoring Regent Honeyeaters. BirdLife Australia encourages everyone who sees a Regent Honeyeater to report their sightings.