Thursday, 12 October 2023
This story originally ran in our Spring 2023 issue. To receive our Australian BirdLife magazine, become a member today.
Rare parrots were all the rage in 2013. One of the highlights of my time as editor of Australian Birdlife was publishing the first high-resolution photograph of a Night Parrot on the cover of the September issue. While we knew that the Night Parrot probably wasn’t extinct, due to the fact that, rather ironically, two dead birds had been found in Western Queensland in 1990 and 2006, the news that controversial naturalist John Young had managed to find and photograph a live Night Parrot enthralled the bird world. Around the same time, BirdLife Australia was focused on attempting to resurrect the dramatically declining population of the Norfolk Island Green Parrot which, having already been brought back from the edge of extinction once, was now thought to be down to as few as 46 birds with perhaps only 11 females of breeding age remaining.
We were also dealing with reports of Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoos losing more and more habitat to urbanisation and mining around Perth. Despite enormous efforts, Orange-bellied Parrots were continuing to decline with counts dropping below 100 individuals, while on the other side of the country a similar plight was befalling the Western Ground Parrot. Swift Parrot counts were down and Golden-shouldered Parrot numbers were dropping in their last reliable stronghold on Cape York Peninsula.
It seemed that everywhere we looked, Australian parrots were in trouble. I asked BirdLife Australia’s Head of Conservation, Samantha Vine, to co-author a state-of-play for each of the 12 parrots that had been identified by the Action Plan for Australian Birds 2010 as being either Endangered or Critically Endangered to gauge where we were at.
The outlook then was not promising. Nearly all of the dozen species were in decline and facing continuing threats such as habitat loss through clearing or out-of-control fires, competition for nest hollows including from other more successful parrot species, and predation from feral animals such as cats. The article ended on a note of hope and a call to action. We were able to catalogue successful conservation actions for some populations and outlined what could be done to reverse the declines, vowing that BirdLife Australia would fight for the implementation of properly funded recovery plans.
A lot has happened in the decade that followed. Much of the country was gripped by severe and extended droughts and heatwaves, culminating in the calamity of the Black Summer bushfires. A National Threatened Species Commission was established. New conservation reserves were established, as were new parrot conservation charities and programs. The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2020 was published. On winning government in 2022, the ALP pledged to review our national threatened species laws so that they actually protected threatened species. Now seems a good time to see just how much has progressed in those tumultuous ten years.
Unfortunately, the news is not great. Of the 12 parrots and cockatoos considered Endangered or Critically Endangered in the 2010 Action Plan, only two have improved their official conservation status in the 2020 Action Plan, but one was on a technicality. Four had their conservation status uplisted (shifted to a more threatened category) and while the other six retained the same categorisation, at least three were in worse shape, though not quite bad enough to warrant an uplisting. Even more disturbingly, eight new parrots debuted on the threatened species list, five of them jumping straight to the Endangered category with a sixth, the Gang-gang Cockatoo, being moved officially from Vulnerable to Endangered under the EPBC Act, our national nature and threatened species legislation, in March 2022.
How did we get to this point? A lot of conservation work has been carried out to drive the recovery of parrot populations in the last decade, and there have been some instances of great success in with individual populations. But with the overall picture looking even bleaker than it did ten years ago, it is time to take another look at the state of Australia’s threatened parrots and see if there are any common themes that emerge to explain the patterns we are seeing.
Only one of the original 12, the Norfolk Island Green Parrot, has genuinely increased in numbers. Concerted conservation efforts such as feral predator control, construction of nest boxes and maintenance or protection of existing nesting sites and the removal of competitors for nesting hollows have seen the population increase to an estimate of more than 400 birds. These actions, orchestrated by BirdLife Australia and its conservation partners and implemented by Parks Australia and the local community, have seen the parrot’s conservation status improve two categories from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable.
The Eastern Regent Parrot appears to have also improved its outlook, moving from Endangered to Vulnerable; however, this was primarily on a technicality around the tightening of definitions so that it was retrospectively regarded as having only been Vulnerable in 2010, the same conservation status it has always been under the EPBC Act. While the population of this mallee bird that relies on two habitat types to survive—hollow–bearing river red gums along the Murray River and Outlet Creek for nesting and vegetation corridors that connect these sites to mallee habitats for feeding—appears to continue to decline in South Australia, much larger numbers have been recorded elsewhere, particularly in Victoria. This may simply be birds that were missed in previous surveys, but it appears that the birds in Victoria have adapted well to the establishment of large almond plantations. Whether this industry will survive the looming water shortages associated with the drying brought on by climate change is unclear, meaning that even this lifeline may not persist for the Regents.
Though there has been no change to its Critically Endangered status, there is a strong argument to say that the Orange-bellied Parrot is in better shape in 2023 than it was in 2013. In the same issue that featured the original ‘Parrots in Peril’ article was a lament from Penny Olsen that we may have left it too late to save the Orange-bellied Parrot. For the next few years, her sad prognostication appeared to be coming true. Despite decades of recovery efforts, the numbers of this little migratory parrot that arrived back at its Tasmanian breeding grounds continued to dwindle. By 2017, only two wild females returned.
Perhaps in the spirit of it being darkest before the dawn, the fortunes of the Orange-bellied Parrot seemed to turn the corner after that. Ongoing conservation work, along with new innovations such as swapping infertile wild eggs with fertile ones from captive-bred birds, releases both at the nesting site and the mainland wintering locations, and emergency interventions to ensure individual chicks survived, all seemed to have an impact. In 2022, 77 Orange-bellied parrots returned to the breeding site at Melaleuca, the highest number for 15 years. This bird is not out of the woods (or saltmarsh) yet, but in a salutary lesson in how conservation is a long game, for the first time in 40 years of recovery efforts there is cause for optimism.
While the bushfires that ravaged Kangaroo Island at the end of 2019 could have sealed the fate of the Endangered Kangaroo Island Glossy Black-Cockatoo, the majority of the population survived the flames. In September 2020 at least 454 Glossies were counted on the island, a phenomenal result when compared to the low of 158 birds counted in 1995, when active recovery measures were just beginning, and the 340–360 estimate in the 2010 Action Plan. More recently, Glossies have been seen on the mainland opposite Kangaroo Island, which is either a positive sign of an expansion of population, or a worrying sign that the birds are taking desperate measures in search of their preferred food of casuarinas. The stands of casuarinas destroyed by the fires will take years to regrow sufficiently to provide enough seed to be an adequate food source, so the population remains Endangered.
The final parrot that could be said to be in better shape now than in 2010 is the Night Parrot itself. Bizarrely, when we didn’t know for sure whether it still existed, the Night Parrot was classified as Endangered. Once it had been rediscovered, research could begin, and at least six more locations harbouring Night Parrots have been unearthed in Western Australia. We now have a much better idea of the life history and requirements of Night Parrots and can more accurately assess the state of the species. While this has led to the bird being considered Critically Endangered in the Action Plan, most of the known sites are under some form of protection and research is showing that surviving populations are more stable than previously suspected.
There are three threatened species of parrot whose situation seems to be similar to that of 2013. The Coxen’s Fig-Parrot was actually uplisted to Critically Endangered in March 2023 in recognition of the fact that a species of which there has been no verifiable sightings for decades is highly likely to be a hair’s breadth away from extinction. However, as most of the clearing that reduced this rainforest bird to at best a handful of survivors occurred decades ago, the situation has not significantly changed over the last ten years, though it is thought that increasing frequency of drought and invasion of weeds such as cat’s claw creeper are reducing the availability of any food resources that remain.
While the population estimates of both the South-eastern Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo and Western Ground Parrot were similar in the Action Plans of 2010 and 2020, it is debatable whether either species could be regarded as stable. In particular, Western Ground Parrots suffered further major setbacks in 2015 when 90 per cent of their remaining habitat was burnt in a bushfire, and a significant chunk of the unburnt area suffered more fires in 2020. The ray of hope is in the early success of a translocation program that BirdLife Australia is involved in, which has moved several birds to former habitat to provide an ‘insurance population’ against a wildfire taking out all of the existing remaining birds at their current site.
The South-eastern Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo has been the subject of long-term conservation efforts involving BirdLife Australia and the community of south-western Victoria and south-eastern South Australia. This may explain why numbers have remained roughly stable over the past decade, though regular counts as part of the recovery efforts are showing a rising imbalance of males to females and juveniles foreshadowing a possible population crash. While much practical action, such as revegetation of food plants and protection of remnants and nest trees on private land has occurred, threats like out-of-control fires and inappropriate burning regimes have the potential to undo the success of this work.
Which brings us to the suite of parrot and cockatoo populations that have notably deteriorated over the past decade. The number of species included here is sobering in the extreme. Six appear on the Endangered list for the first time, with the Gang-gang Cockatoo leaping from Least Concern in 2010 to a declaration of Endangered under the EPBC Act in March 2022. While the impacts of the Black Summer bushfires accelerated the Gang-gang’s decline, the 2020 Action Plan clearly states that it was already in significant trouble largely due to “the loss of habitat through land clearing, particularly along the slopes of the Great Dividing Range, and a reduction in nest hollow availability due to forest management practices.”
It is a similar story for the King Island Green Rosella, which has moved from Vulnerable to Endangered as a result of the lifting of a moratorium on land clearing on the island in 2017, which now permits the destruction of up to 40 hectares of habitat without a permit. On an island that has already lost 70 per cent of its natural habitat, this is putting enormous pressures on the remaining population of rosellas.
The Eastern Pink Cockatoo and Australian Palm Cockatoo are also suffering from loss of habitat, though in the case of the Pink Cockatoo most of the physical clearing took place decades ago. The birds that have been hanging on are now suffering from long-term impacts such as overgrazing of regenerating food trees and the loss of the oldest hollow-bearing trees that they nest in as they succumb to the ravages of time.
Palm Cockatoos face the threat of habitat loss from expanded bauxite mining on the Cape York Peninsula, but they are also losing vital nesting trees with hollows large enough to adequately house these enormous birds, and bushfires and cyclones of increasing intensity. Conservation efforts to clear flammable material around known nest trees has had some success, but to do this across the cockatoo’s entire breeding range would be an enormous task.
Cyclones are also part of the explanation for two newly listed Endangered parrots, the Cape York Eclectus Parrot and Wet Tropics Australian King-Parrot. Both have suffered recent rapid declines that are directly attributable to the impacts of climate change. In 2019, Cyclone Trevor directly impacted Iron Range National Park, one of the most important sites for nesting Eclectus Parrots. It is thought nesting birds were killed both in the cyclone and from resulting food shortages afterwards, but the real long-term damage was in the loss of significant numbers of nesting trees. With more intense cyclones predicted as a by-product of climate change, there are grave concerns about the impact for this restricted-range species.
There are four species that were already on the threatened species list in 2013 that have had a deterioration in their populations. While Golden-shouldered Parrots also inhabit the Cape York Peninsula, it is not cyclones that pose the greatest threat, but altered vegetation structure at the few remaining sites they occupy through a lack of managed burning practices—this is explained in greater detail in Penny Olsen’s article ‘A Golden Opportunity’ that follows. This has seen the estimated population drop from around 1,500 to fewer than a thousand.
In Western Australia, both Carnaby’s and Baudin’s Black-Cockatoo populations continue to shrink due to a combination of knockout blows from habitat clearance due to urban expansion, forestry and mining for bauxite and rare minerals. While the news of the cessation of native-forest logging in Western Australia gives cause for hope, the other threats continue, and when combined with the increasing occurrence of catastrophic fires, both these species are under enormous pressure. The drop in the estimated population of Carnaby’s from 40,000 to 34,000 in a decade was not sufficient to alter its Endangered status, but, it appears there has been a disastrous halving of the Baudin’s population between 2004 and 2017 (from 10–15,000 birds to 5–8,000), leading to recommendations that it be classified as Critically Endangered.
Probably the greatest tragedy we have witnessed with Australian parrots over the past decade is the continued decline of Swift Parrots. Since 2010, this migratory marvel has been uplisted to Critically Endangered. Already declining, the population estimate was around 2,000 birds at this time, but analysis and count data in recent years puts the population at a maximum of 750 birds and that figure may already be obsolete with an effective breeding population of only around 300 birds. New work on population modelling suggests it may be as little as ten years before the Swift Parrot is effectively extinct.
The prime cause of the disastrous vanishing of the Swift Parrot is clear—logging of the native forests where the birds breed and feed in Tasmania, and in the coastal forests of New South Wales that are vital winter refuges during droughts. While Swift Parrots face other issues, such as competition for nest sites and the predation of eggs and incubating female birds by introduced sugar gliders, these are only exacerbated by the cold, hard fact that native forest logging is destroying the remaining suitable habitat left for Swift Parrots—and this is allowed to continue because our current nature laws are failing.
The incredible amount and array of conservation efforts that have gone into saving our magnificent parrots over the last ten years has made an impact. Species such as Norfolk Island Green Parrot, Orange-bellied Parrot and Golden-shouldered Parrot may already have become extinct if not for such actions. BirdLife Australia is involved in many of these efforts, either leading the charge, or enabling communities and partner organisations to do their on-ground work, but as the exhaustive and exhausting nature of this article illustrates, there are so many battle fronts on which to fight that it is impossible for us and our supporters and volunteers to solve this problem on our own.
While the specific reasons for declines vary between each threatened parrot population, at the heart of almost every threat is habitat loss or degradation—and this almost always results from the lack of strong nature laws that effectively protect our most precious and unique birds. Threatened species recovery is like a massive game of snakes and ladders. For every few squares where you can advance, something may pop up that sends you back again. Tragically, the current situation means that we are repeatedly landing on the snake of failing nature laws, and it keeps sending us right back to the bottom of the climb. If we fix these laws, we will have a chance to climb more and more of those ladders that will lead to successful outcomes.
The Commonwealth Government currently has the opportunity for a once-in-a-generation chance to review our current failing nature laws and implement legislation that actually stops the declines. There are some promising signs but progress is slower than we hoped for in even seeing a draft proposal. It is essential that we keep up the pressure on all of our political representatives to work like hell to ensure we do not lose any of these parrots in peril.
Our cockatoos and parrots show how urgently we need strong nature laws that will protect and restore our birds and the places they call home.
While the government is rewriting our national nature laws, we need to build as much public support as possible for robust laws and an independent national Environmental Protection Agency that will enforce them.
If you love birds, help save them.
Join the fight for strong nature laws that will protect our birds and end extinctions.
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