June 25, 2018

Australia Day ruffles cormorant feathers

The cormorants had to move over from their prized pontoon at Long Beach, Lower Sandy Bay.

It was Australia Day and the pontoon anchored just offshore was in great demand from revellers taking a dip during and after the festivities on the lawns of the adjacent Long Beach Park.

The three species of cormorant – great, black-faced and little pied –  are used to giving up their roosting and preening site from late morning during the summer months, but on January 26th the swimmers had arrived a little earlier.

Cormorants moving over for Australia’s human inhabitants, especially new arrivals only recently setting foot on these shores: it is an apt metaphor for what has happened to Australia’s original inhabitants, both animal and human, for the past 200 years.

The cormorants, representatives on this occasion of Australia’s fauna and flora, have lived in harmony with humans for forty-odd thousand years but it is only during the past two hundred years that they have felt out of step with the dominant species with which they share the planet.

Australia, in fact, has the fourth most extinct species; most of these extinctions occurring since the arrival of the First Fleet in January 1788, the occasion now marked by the Australia Day public holiday.

Without getting into the Australia Day debate – and whether what the first Australians term an “invasion” should be celebrated in such a way – there is certainly cause to consider the devastating impact the settlers have wrought on the country’s wildlife.

In Tasmania, we have a notable extinct mammal species, the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, and the next biggest marsupial carnivore, the Tasmanian devil, fighting for survival. We can hardly blame the settlers for Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease which has reduced devil populations by up to 90 per cent in some areas, but certainly persecution by farmers and death under the wheels of speeding cars on Tasmanian highways has contributed to the devil’s demise.

Of bird species, we have two parrots fighting for survival, both species notable because they are the only parrots known to undertake migration. The orange-bellied parrot, which maintains a foothold at a breeding site at Melaleuca in the far south-west, has suffered the draining and development of its winter feeding areas on the saltmarshes along the Victorian and South Australian coasts and the swift parroting’s breeding has been affected by the clearance of its favoured blue gums, and the introduction of the sugar glider which eats its young in cavity nests.

Against this background of human interference in the everyday lives of our wildlife – the sugar glider, for instance, was introduced by Tasmanians wanting this cute little creature from the mainland as a pet –  the cormorants on the pontoon at Sandy Bay could be forgiven for casting a wary eye on the festivities taking place beyond the shore.

Out of three  birds species which can be killed at will in Tasmania without a permit, two of them are cormorants – the great and the little pied – because they are  considered to be a threat to the fish farm industry. The third is the forest raven.

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