1 November 2011

Australian birds face extinction crisis

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The future of Australian birds is bleak, according to a new report which says their conservation status has generally worsened as the country fails to adequately deal with ongoing threats.
 western ground parrot

With only 140 left in the wild, the western ground parrot is in danger of becoming extinct. Credit: Brent Barrett/Department of Environment and Conservation

DUBLIN: The future of Australian birds is bleak, according to a new report which says their conservation status has generally worsened as the country fails to adequately deal with ongoing threats.

The report, called The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2010, was carried out by researchers from Birds Australia (formerly the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union), Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory and the national science agency CSIRO. It classifies every Australian species and subspecies of bird according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List guidelines, which is the international standard for measuring risk of extinction.

Birds moving into the danger zone include the western ground parrot, the regent honeyeater and orange-bellied parrot. The grey-headed albatross from Macquarie Island in the southwest corner of the Pacific Ocean is listed as ‘critically endangered’, with rabbit damage pushing it close to the brink. In total, 13% of bird species in Australia are under threat.

“Northern Australian species such as the partridge pigeon are threatened by the perennial problems of over-frequent fire and habitat invasion by weeds and feral mammals. Much of tropical Australia looks pristine but is suffering from decades of inappropriate burning which is causing a shift to fewer, fire-tolerant plant species,” said co-author Guy Dutson from Birds Australia.

Offshore perils

The report applies current knowledge to change the conservation standing of 66 birds since the last action plan report in 2000. It lists 27 as extinct, 20 as critically endangered, 68 as vulnerable and 63 as near threatened.

Most of the additions to the threatened list in 2010 were migratory waders, mainly due to reclamation or degradation of habitat along their migratory pathway. “The biggest threats are offshore – numbers of many migratory wader species have collapsed as a result of development along the East Asia Australasian Flyway – particularly in China and South Korea,” said lead author Stephen Garnett from Charles Darwin University. “Also many seabirds that visit Australia are threatened by fishing practices, although there is some hope there through long term legal and educational campaigns and technological development.”

The report gives information on each species’ conservation status, range, abundance, ecology and threats. It also outlines what actions might be needed to recover that species. Numbers of western ground parrot have plummeted over the last decade and the species could be lost; fox baiting has allowed feral cats to proliferate, which have then preyed on the parrots before being removed.

“One important lesson of the last 10 years is that pest management must be integrated – remove one pest and another may proliferate,” Garnett said. Most threatened birds are on oceanic islands, where invasive species have wreaked devastation.

The ‘Dow Jones’ of biodiversity

“Sadly we are losing species and subspecies very quickly,” said co-author Hugh Possingham from the University of Queensland and Birds Australia. “This is an embarrassing record for a developed and rich country.” Possingham described the data gathered for the Red List Index as the “Dow Jones” of biodiversity for Australia’s birds. It is a credible, if depressing, numerical representation of how bad things are, he said.

“The main previous threat was land clearing – but after years of campaigning we have brought that to a halt,” he said. Now, the loss of habitat condition through overgrazing or poor fire management looms as the big threat. Fire threatens not just in the north but also in the arid zone, southern heathlands and mallee, the low eucalypt woodland in semi-arid areas.

The solution

But it is not all bad news. The status of some birds has improved, thanks to some specific conservation actions, and the report spells out ways forward. “When we do spend money to work on species, it does really work,” said Possingham. “We just don’t do enough.” Australia is one of the top countries in terms of the number of endemics it can boast, he said.

Dutson said Australian readers should encourage and congratulate politicians for making decisions that benefit the sustainability of Australian wild spaces and should share their interest in garden and bush birds with neighbours and friends.

For Garnett, a different tact regards policy is required. “The Australian government has been led to believe that threatened species can be saved by preserving their landscapes. As a result, dedicated threatened species funding, which is essential for the rarest taxa, is almost non-existent. A shift in policy to protect the most threatened taxa is essential,” he said.

A turning point

“This is probably the most comprehensive account from anywhere in the world of the perilous state of a nation’s birds,” commented Stuart Butchart of BirdLife International, a global alliance of conservation groups.

“Australia is among the wealthiest countries in the world and is perfectly placed to manage its development sustainably in order to improve the livelihoods of its people while safeguarding its rich wildlife heritage,” he said. “But the litany of extinctions that litter its history over the last couple of hundred years and that have continued even in recent years show that it has failed to do this to date. This book should mark a turning point.”

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