Driving through Kingston one chilly afternoon I caught a glimpse of the last of the swift parrots heading north at the start of winter. I stopped the car to study the birds closely because I didn’t want to fall into the age-old winter bird-watching trap – confusing swift parrots with musk lorikeets.
Not a year goes by that I do not receive calls from readers during the winter months saying they have seen swift parrots. One well-known politician was on record one winter a few years back saying he was pleased to see swift parrots at Hobart airport on his arrival home from an overseas trip. He was mistaken, of course, because swift parrots are migratory and it is the lorikeets that choose to brave the Tasmanian winter.
The “swifties”, largely because they are endangered and their fragile status has long been cited in campaigns to halt logging in old-growth forests, tend to grab the headlines. The musk lorikeets, meanwhile, dart around forest and suburb largely unnoticed.
The two species are of a similar size – between 20-25 centimetres long – but differ greatly in form. The swift parrots are far more slender, with long tails, while the musk lorikeets are chunkier, with rotund bodies and short tails. Both have red in their shimmering, bright green plumage. The lorikeets carry a red mask, and a red forehead, while the swift parrots have a splash of crimson around the bill, and crimson on the underwing.
Both species fly at great speed through the skies and what appears to be recklessly closer to the ground, where they dodge tree truck and bough.
The musk lorikeet is far more common in the suburbs and is the small parrot most likely to be seen. I always see small flocks flying over North Hobart, chattering with high-pitched calls as they go, and I can only surmise that they raid gardens there, looking for fruit in autumn and nectar and pollen on winter-flowering exotic plants.
Lorikeets differ from other parrots, including swift parrots, in having special tongues for feeding in blossoms. The tip their tongues are tipped with small papillae which sweeps up pollen and nectar. The honeyeaters have feather-like tongues for the same purpose.
Like all Tasmania’s parrots, the musk lorikeets nest in tree cavities, making a scrape in wood dust at the bottom of a hollow, often high above ground. A clutch consists of two pure white eggs and after leaving the nest the young fly together with parents in post-breeding flocks that travel far and wide looking for food.
Musk lorikeets, although now protected, once suffered relentless persecution in country districts because of their fondness for fruit, especially in areas like the Huon where there were extensive orchards.
They are still capable of doing considerable damage to orchards and I remember being invited to a fruit farm once so the exasperated farmer would show me the lorikeet menace at first hand.
The solution is easy, and something to be seen more and more in country areas. The netting of fruit trees and, in vineyards, grapevines guards against attack from both lorikeets and other birds partial to fruit, like starlings and silvereyes, but it can be expensive for the orchardist.
Amid the dramatic decline of some species – the swift and orange-bellied parrots among them – the musk lorikeet appears to be holding its own and increasing in some areas.
It is evidence of a more tolerant attitude towards our wildlife and, as with other once persecuted species like the white goshawk, Tasmanians are now prepared to give the lorikeets an even break.