As swift parrots are arriving in their wintering grounds in Victoria and southern New South Wales, conservationists who have been studying them in their nesting areas across Tasmania during the past summer have issued a bleak assessment of the little bird’s chances of survival.
Things, it appears, are only going from bad to worst for our lovely parrots and if urgent action is not taken to save them they could become extinct before we know it.
Former environment minister David Llewellyn came under fire several years ago for stating that the swift parrot was heading inexorably towards extinction and the advice he had been given by Parks and Wildlife experts was that nothing could be done to save it.
It now appears Mr Llewellyn, then in the ruling Labor government, was not so far off the mark. A researcher currently studying swift parrots, Dejan Stojanovic of Australia National University, has found disturbing evidence that swift parrots are being affected by not only the loss of their favoured blue gum habitat, but by predation by an animal introduced to Tasmania, the sugar glider.
Dr Stojanovic told the latest meeting of BirdLife Tasmania that his studies of swift parrot nesting habitat had showed that 50 per cent of female parrots were killed and eaten by the sugar gliders where the two territories overlapped.
He said that because the sugar glider was widespread in Tasmania this affected all swift parrot nesting sites, except those on islands where the sugar gliders were not present. These included Bruny Island, a major breeding area for swift parrots.
Swift parrots – notable for making the longest migratory journey of any parrot – once flew in their hundreds of thousands through Tasmania’s blue gum forests, according to accounts by the explorers and pioneers who came to these shores in the early 1800s. The entire population is now only put at about 1000 pairs and Dr Stojanovic said that this could not be sustained if strategies to counter the menace of the sugar gliders were not drawn up along with efforts to preserve forests where the nomadic parrots breed.
The sugar glider is now firmly in the spotlight in efforts to save the parrot and some startling facts have merged about them. Because they are relatively common in some forests it was once thought they might be native to Tasmania but the latest research has confirmed that they are in fact an introduced species.
Genetic testing proves they are descended from a population of gliders found on the mainland and the Tasmanian ones have been introduced to the state sometime in the past 200 years.
This discovery opens the way for a glider eradication program and researchers are now working in this direction. Traps placed near swift parrot hollows might offer a solution.
During the past breeding season scientists also installed 500 nest boxes to provide artificial hollows. These parrot “homes” – funded by public donation – will not save the species, but will at least buy the parrots time until more forest habit can be protected, and the glider menace addressed.