August 20, 2019

The pecking order of protection

Birdwatchers often avoid hunting for the little brown birds, or “LBBs”, which are often hard to identify and offer little reward in terms of beauty and spectacle.

It now appears the LLBs are being overlooked on a wider scale – in the pecking order of birds to be saved from extinction.

This very issue has come to the fore in recent weeks with questions being asked in the Federal Senate about two unremarkable birds on King Island – the King Island thornbill and scrubtit – which have somehow slipped under the conservation radar.

The scrubtit has been declared Australia’s most at risk bird and the thornbill comes in at number three on the list. Squeezed between them is another Tasmanian species, the orange-bellied parrot.

Tasmanians might delight in the state’s prolific and diverse birdlife – there are 12 species here found nowhere else on earth – but it comes as something of a shock to discover that we have a trio of the most endangered ones, too. Another species, the swift parrot, is also on the critically endangered list, although with about 1000 pairs it is less likely to fall off the perch soon.

The migratory parrots, which breed in Tasmania and fly to the mainland in the winter months, have long been high-profile candidates for conservation efforts but little attention has been given to the two King Island LBBs.

The orange-bellied parrot, in fact, came in 20th in last year’s Australian Bird of the Year contest, garnering  2324 votes, but in all the hoopla not one bird lover voted for the King Island thornbill or scrubtit.

Sightings of the thornbill are so rare it is not even certain it has survived. Its decline, along  with the slightly more common scrubtit, has been attributed to habitat loss because of land clearing. In the scrubtit’s case the population collapsed in 2007 when a bush fire destroyed 90 per cent of a favoured melaleuca swamp.

In the Senate, Tasmanian Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson asked representatives from the Environment and Energy Department about the progress of recovery plans for the two King Island species, and the orange-bellied parrot.

The government’s Threatened Species Commissioner, Sally Box, told the hearing the department would contact the Tasmanian Government to see if emergency intervention was required

The birds do not have species-specific recovery plans but are covered by the government’s King Island biodiversity management plan.

The problem for the King Island species is their small size and unspectacular plumage which makes them thoroughly unexciting to the untrained eye. They are both cryptic brown with few markings that distinguish them from other small brown species. And another factor which goes against them is they are both sub-species, with viable full species on the Tasmanian mainland. This makes it difficult to justify funding for them.

But the champions of these King Island sub-species, particularly nature lovers on the island itself, point out that Tasmania’s wedge-tailed eagle is a sub-species, and the Tasmanian and federal governments see merit in directing funds towards these.

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