Orange-bellied parrot numbers have fallen so sharply in recent years that scientists consider it at risk of extinction within five years
. Just 23 birds arrived at the species’ breeding site at Melaleuca, deep in the Tasmanian world heritage wilderness area, last spring.at risk of extinction within five years
But a year on, scientists are expecting to double that number af...er the successful release of parrots from a captive breeding program a year ago.
Tasmanian government scientists released 34 adult birds, and the mix of wild and captive parrots produced 37 fledglings. The flock was further boosted in February with the release of 49 captive-bred juveniles, increasing the total number heading north for the winter to 118.
total number heading north for the winter to 118 Protecting the budgie-sized species when it is on the move is difficult given migrating birds fan out across the southern mainland and Tasmania’s north-west. At the time, scientists hoped at least 40 would return to Melaleuca for the spring.
That number has been reached relatively early in the season, with 23 females and 17 males having made the journey back.
“It’s very good news,” said Paul Black, the orange-bellied parrot program manager with the Tasmanian environment department. “Given it’s reasonably early in the season we could still surpass that number, which would be very exciting.”
Previously, the largest number of parrots to have returned to Melaleuca over the past decade was 35 in 2014-15. At its lowest point three years ago, the breeding population in the wild fell to 17, including just three females. It means the species has a significantly reduced gene pool, increasing the risk of disease having a species-wide impact as remaining birds have similar patterns of immunity.
Despite the increase in numbers, the parrot population is still considered perilously low and reliant on scientific intervention.
A study published earlier this year found up to 2017, the work at Melaleuca, which includes providing nest boxes and food, had increased the number of birds that leave the breeding ground but had no impact on overall survival.
published earlier this year Its lead author, Dejan Stojanovic from the Australian National University, said at the time it suggested the recovery program needed to be holistic and attempt to deal with risks during migration as well as boosting numbers during breeding. He recommended “headstarting” – capturing juveniles after they leave the nest and holding them in captivity for their first year of life to allow them to develop before they attempt migration.
On Tuesday, he said the new numbers were good news – the best in years. “The biggest threat to the species is its small population, so I will celebrate every time there’s more birds that survive migration and winter,” he said.
Scientists are working to again increase the flock by releasing captive-bred parrots, starting with 31 adults released last month. More juveniles bred at the government facility at Five Mile Beach, near Hobart airport, will join them in the new year.
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