Regent honeyeaters (Anthochaera phrygia) once flocked everywhere from Adelaide to Rockhampton, but their population has plummeted in recent decades. Now, there are fewer than 300 birds left in the wild, and they could be gone in under 20 years.
But there’s still time to restore the birds, according to new research published in Biological Conservation – as long as resources are allocated to three key endeavours: nest protection from predators; the release of zoo-bred birds into the wild and increased habitat for the species. The researchers say these need to happen in the next five years to prevent the birds from going extinct in the wild.
Professor Robert Heinsohn, lead author on the paper and a researcher at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, says habitat loss is the main reason for the loss of regent honeyeaters.
“Over 90% of their original habitat has been converted to farmland, and they’ve been pushed into these tiny little remnants of their preferred eucalyptus trees that are at the end of valleys and on poor soils – just a few trees [which] don’t flower or produce a lot of nectar,” says Heinsohn.
“The other thing is that they used to occur in big flocks, and part of their strategy was safety in numbers.”
Now that there aren’t enough honeyeaters to flock, they’re more vulnerable to predation from other birds and possums, as well as competition for food.
More on regent honeyeaters: Songbirds without a song
This is particularly a problem for nesting birds – another of the conservation priorities.
“Their breeding success is about half of what it was 20 years ago, and probably about a quarter of what it needs to be for them to succeed,” says Heinsohn.
This is where another of the priorities – increasing captive-bred releases into the wild – can help.
“The very clever people at Taronga Zoo have worked out how to breed them in captivity,” says Heinsohn. “And they’re working all the time on making the birds better and more fit for the wild, so that when they’re released, we know they’re tough enough to make it.”
The researchers’ modelling found that as few as 100 birds released into the wild every two years for the next two decades would increase the honeyeaters’ chances – as long as there is sufficient nesting protection and habitat restoration.
“None of that will be to be of any avail if we don’t secure more habitat for them,” says Heinsohn.
“At the moment, we’re losing habitat still, which is very frustrating. But there’s been a lot of effort to restore old habitat that’s been degraded and to plant new trees so that when they grow up, they’ll be good food resources.”
While the situation is critical, Heinsohn says the research demonstrates that there is a clear way to save the species.
“It’s daunting, really daunting,” says Heinsohn.
“But there’s also a glimmer of hope there. It tells us just what is needed to be successful. We can’t just do what we’re doing at the moment – there’s a lot of good work going on, but it’s not enough. We really have to ramp it up.”
With increased resources, Heinsohn says that it’s possible to succeed with a consistent, 20-year program.
“Regent honeyeaters are just a really beautiful bird, and they used to occur in such big flocks. And they’re such an important part of the landscape, very important as pollinators of eucalyptus trees, and just a good indicator of the health of the Australian bush. The fact that they’ve gone to such low numbers really shows how badly wrong things have gone.
“[But] they’re also a species that tells us what we have to do to get the health of our natural landscapes back again.”
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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