Other Animals

There are several smaller parrot species in Australia that deserve our attention, including the superb parrot, the swift parrot, and the orange-bellied parrot. These birds are brightly colored and beautiful, and are often critically endangered as well. There are also growing concerns about the status of the magical palm cockatoo.

Australia’s Difficult Bird Research Group (DBRG) is dedicated to understanding why certain bird species are endangered and to developing new approaches to prevent their extinction. These are the species it labels as “difficult birds” because they are so hard to study. In addition to the smaller species, the palm cockatoo is also on DRBG’s radar because of its extraordinary nature and low reproductive success. DRBG is based at the Australian National University.

Orange-Bellied Parrot

orange-bellied parrot chicks
Orange-bellied parrot chicks photo courtesy of DBRG

The orange-bellied parrot is the most threatened Australian parrot species, primarily due to loss of habitat. With a greatly diminished wild population, orange bellies are also bred in captivity for release to the wild. In 2016 only three females and 11 males returned to their breeding ground in rugged southwest Tasmania. However, data from recent years suggests that urgent conservation efforts are working, with the number of birds returning to their breeding grounds each spring now approaching three figures.

This early-stage recovery has been due to the implementation of urgent new approaches to prevent the extinction of this species, as well as solid research on how to reverse the decline. For example, altered fire regimes may be one cause of population decline. DBRG is working with the Tasmanian government to help manage fires in the buttongrass plains to ensure the preservation of the foraging habitat for orange-bellied parrots. And a proposed wind farm in western Tasmania would be required to shut down for five months so breeding of the orange-bellied parrot is not disrupted.

Swift Parrot

Swift parrots rely on flowering trees as a food source. Photo courtesy of DBRG

The swift parrot is a migratory parrot found only in southeastern Australia, with a breeding range in eastern Tasmania. It has also been threatened by sugar gliders, who kill and eat the females while they are incubating their eggs. Sugar gliders are native to the Australian mainland but were introduced to Tasmania where they are now decimating the swift parrot population. Swift parrots have unique habitat requirements – flowering trees for food and preferred tree hollows for nesting that are now rare. Having the right nest dramatically changes the potential for breeding successfully. With climate change and continued habitat destruction, it’s not always possible to find these nests at the time needed for breeding. Therefore, protecting known acceptable nests is now a high priority.

Superb Parrot

The superb parrot (Polytelis swainsonii), also known as Barraband’s parakeet, consumes a diet consisting mainly of eucalypt flowers, fruits, nectar and pollen. Photo courtesy of DBRG

The superb parrot also faces major nesting and feeding habitat losses due to climate fluctuations and land clearing. By conservation standards, it is considered vulnerable, but it is headed toward endangered status. Action is needed now. DBRG is tracking the breeding pairs, defining territories and tree preferences, and making suggestions for more productive nesting sites.

Palm Cockatoo

A palm cockatoo pair perches near a tree-cavity nest. Photo courtesy of Christina N. Zdenek

Lastly, the unique palm cockatoo is facing a risky future. Planning its protection is essential. Unlike any other animal, palm cockatoos make a tool from a stick that they then use to attract a female by creating their own unique drum-like sound against a hollow trunk. Palm cockatoos are found in small groups in far northern Queensland, but are very hard to locate, so studying them can be a challenge. Females are thought to lay only one egg every two years, and that egg only has a 20% chance of surviving through fledging. Queensland upgraded the palm cockatoo from vulnerable to endangered status in 2021 due to threats from bauxite mining and changed fire regimes. There is clearly a need to better understand how this fascinating species can be conserved!

Lafeber’s GLOBAL PARROT grant this month goes to support the work of the Difficult Birds Research Group at the Australian University. You can learn more about their projects here: https://www.difficultbirds.com/

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