There are 14 wild orange-bellied parrots left – this summer is our last chance to save them

Thursday 24 November 2016

Dejan Stojanovic and Rob HeinsohnThe Australian National University

When only 14 of any species are left in the wild, you know they are in trouble.

Such is the crisis faced by the last remaining population of orange-bellied parrots in southwest Tasmania. To make matters even worse, very few of these birds are females.

On our trip to southwest Tasmania on Tuesday, we found four nests. We will be returning to the site soon to count the fertile eggs.

There have been some heartening stories of the reversal of fortunes when endangered species crash to such low levels, but these stand against a bleak backdrop of increasing extinction rates in the 21st century.

In perhaps the most dramatic success story, there were only five Chatham Island black robins left in 1980, with the survival of the species hinging on just one breeding pair. The outlook was bleak, but a dedicated team of New Zealand scientists took the daring step of cross-fostering eggs and young to another species to boost productivity.

The fostering program developed to save the black robin worked so well that it became the benchmark for how to save endangered birds around the world. There are now more than 200 Chatham Island black robins in the wild.

Difficult birds

Orange-bellied parrots have an awkward habit that makes them an especially difficult bird to conserve: they migrate.

Every autumn the parrots leave their breeding grounds in Tasmania and fly across Bass Strait to spend the winter in the salt marshes along the Victorian coastline. Migration is a dangerous business and many do not return.

Parrots often move around in flocks looking for food. Knowing where to go, and when, is cultural knowledge held in trust by the flock. Older, experienced birds lead the younger ones and share their knowledge of vast landscapes. This transfer of information from parents to offspring, and between all flock members, is essential.

When numbers fall and birds cannot draw on that reservoir of knowledge, or indeed benefit from the safety of numbers, things begin to go wrong.

Numbers are now so low that it is doubtful whether enough experienced parrots are left to lead the flock to food and safety. The value of the remaining wild birds is especially high.

Last chance

Several years ago the Tasmanian government showed tremendous foresight by setting up a captive breeding colony of orange-bellied parrots. These were the "insurance population" for gradual release into the wild to bolster the critical mass of wild birds.

However, the captive-raised parrots have not proved to be as hardy as their wild cousins. Numbers in the wild continue to dwindle in spite of several decades of bird releases at the breeding site. A major outbreak of parrot beak and feather disease in 2015 also wiped out many of the nestlings hatched by wild parrots.

With only 14 wild birds left, difficult decisions must be made and dramatic action is required. The "insurance population" remains our trump card.

We recently launched a crowd-funding campaign to cover the costs of an emergency intervention using the insurance population.

The extent of the crisis only washed over us about a week ago. But hamstrung by the slowness of raising funding via usual methods, and with the agreement of all parties involved, we decided to raise funds quickly to enable the required emergency actions.

We reached our initial target of A$60,000 in less than two days. As we write, we are crashing through the A$100,000 mark in pledges from concerned members of the public. We have just lifted the bar to A$120,000 to fund our work well into next year.

We feel truly humbled by the generosity of the public reaction. It shows the extent to which people from all walks of life care about saving this species from extinction.

Our immediate plans are simple by necessity. As the few remaining orange-bellied parrots have already laid their clutches, we have little time to act if we are to help them breed to full capacity this season.

We will closely monitor the breeding birds and wherever necessary replace any infertile eggs with fertile ones from the captive birds. We will bolster with eggs and nestlings the brood of any female who has too few, and we will remove and hand-rear back to full health any nestlings that appear to be ailing. We will also boost the number of female nestlings to try to overcome the imbalance of the sexes.

In short, we will use the precious insurance birds in the best way possible, by turning their young into fully wild birds, who are fighting fit thanks to close bonds with their wild foster parents.

It will be a long road to recovery and there are no guarantees of success. But we simply cannot let these beautiful birds go extinct without joining the courageous team who have nurtured them this far and throwing absolutely everything we have at getting them back on their feet (or on the wing) in the wild.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation

Updated:  09 December 2016/Responsible Officer:  Science College Directors/Page Contact:  Science Web Services