December 12, 2017

Tiny parrot in peril

Diagonal streaks of freezing rain, and a little parrot sits on a thin twig, blinking and shaking its head. The rain drops cling to the bird’s plumage like diamonds, sparkling as shuffled, ruffled feathers toss them into the air.

The scene comes from a new documentary on the orange-bellied parrot and demonstrates the power of film, bringing what could be considered a small, insignificant piece nature to life on the big screen.

The orange-bellied parrot braving the elements on its twig certainly loomed larger than life. Lime-green breast, darker lemon-green shimmering back, steel-blue flight feathers and a tiny azure-blue streak spreading across the parrot’s forehead. And of course, that orange belly.

The Desperate Plight of the Orange-bellied Parrot was given its premier at the State Cinema on November 13th.

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen this critically endangered bird in the wild, at Melaleuca in the far-south west of the state, late last year.

To say this little bird – barely 20 centimetres in length – is critically endangered is a gross understatement. In fact, only 12 exist in the wild, the migrants returning last month from their wintering grounds in Victoria. This population is being augmented once again by releases at Melaleuca from a captive breeding program.

I won’t go into detail about this complex and costly plan, and concentrate on the documentary by photographer David Neilson.

Perhaps we have to see the bird in close-up, freeze-framed in some shots, to appreciate its beauty and feel a sense of sadness that it is so close to extinction.

Not only does Neilson’s photography serve to showcase the parrot’s sheer beauty, we learn that these little creatures have personalities and character, and behavioural quirks.

We see them pairing and bonding, mating, rearing young and then encouraging the young to fly.

There are also amusing scenes of captive-bred birds being released. When the doors of their quarantine aviary at Melaleuca are opened some immediately fly to freedom. Some sit twittering on the outside of the cage, clearly showing doubts about going out into the wide world, and some shoot back into the safe confines of the aviary. Others return after a few minutes and there is even a shot of wild bird arriving to coax the captive-bred birds out of confinement. Quite possibly this male bird is looking for a mate.

Like all cinematic epics, this film has a hero. This is a nine-year-old male survivor who has made possibly 18 crossings of Bass Strait in his lifetime. This male’s longevity might hold clues to parrot survival.

The documentary also features interviews with the scientists and supporters who have been at the heart of the campaign to save the parrot, including Bob Brown who on the day of the screening launched an appeal for $1m in federal government funding.

During a question and answer session after the screening, Neilson said he hoped the documentary would inspire others to help save the parrot and it would not become a record of extinction like the black and white footage we see of the last Tasmanian tiger filmed in the 1930s.

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