Plants and Animals

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

The ConversationWhen 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.

Orange-bellied parrots breed only in the south-west Tasmanian wilderness. Dejan Stojanovic

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.

View from the nest box. Dejan Stojanovic

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