Bilbies: What can history teach us about these ‘gorgeous creatures’?

Bilbies have a lot going for them. Biologically and ecologically the small, furry marsupials should be thriving, and yet they’re not, says University of Queensland biologist Dr Jennifer Silcock.

“They’re this omnivorous, non-specialist, generalist fast-breeding species,” she says. “They should be a pest, but they’re not, they’re really endangered. If we’re losing a species like the bilby, we’re really doing something pretty wrong with land management.”

Silcock is the lead author of research published in CSIRO Wildlife Research investigating historical records to find more information about where bilbies used to live and what factors led to their rapid decline.

The research is designed to fill gaps in knowledge due to the lack of specimen records. 

The decline of the bilby was so rapid following European settlement, that there wasn’t much chance to collect records, she says. Bilby sightings also tend to be rare because the species are nocturnal and shy, making them hard to see, especially in timbered areas.

To address this, the historical research weaves together a huge assemblage of information from explorer and early settler journals, newspaper records, interviews with Aboriginal people and pastoralists, and ethnographic and language sources.

Crucial information came from two unpublished masters theses, Silcock says. One, from the late Peter McCrae, a zoologist based in Charleville, who had spent decades collecting historical records of the bilby. The other, from scientist Dr Rick Southgate based in New South Wales, who had also amassed bilby records.

Silcock also used Trove, the digitised newspaper and online archive managed by the National Library of Australia, to search for bilby reports as far back as the 1870s. It’s a resource that has “revolutionised” how scientists do these sorts of historical studies, she says.

“Back in the day, there was this amazing interest in natural history. All the newspapers had these columns about ‘bush notes’ and ‘walkabout’. People would write in with sightings of animals and plants, and things about the changing of the seasons, and interesting sightings they’d had. People would write back […] I mean, imagine having a column like that in The Australian today,” she says.

Silcock shares a few examples.

RAR writes in The Queenslander in 1883, “my wife kept one as a pet for nearly twelve months, when it died from the effects of an excessive feed of succulent saltbush […]”

In 1900, one ‘Scotty the Wrinkler’ writes in The Bulletin, “As a last word about the bilby, let me say that I have caught at least 40 this season in my rabbit-traps…  The bilby skin is tender, difficult to tan, and practically unsaleable except as a curio. One skin makes a beautiful child’s muff. A dozen or so would make a fine trimming for a lady’s jacket edges, pockets, collar and cuffs: especially if the dress were tailor-made French-grey tweed. I took a lot to Melbourne, and got a smile and nothing more for each […]”

Bilby shot at blackall 1912 the telegraph copy
A photo of a bilby shot in the sandhills near Blackall in central Queensland, published in The Telegraph 1912 / Credit: National Library of Australia

Silcock says while the historical records didn’t expand the extent of bilby’s known range much, the information did expand understanding about the species’ known habitats.

Bilbies used to occur across about 70% of the Australian mainland and have now retracted to small little pockets mostly in the central desert lands. “So sandy country, big deserts, mostly Aboriginal land, just hanging on in a few pastoral stations, national parks,” Silcock says.

She says bilbies are surviving today in some extreme locations: “impressively barren landscapes – you can stand out there and not see a tree or shrub anywhere on the horizon. Absolutely baking in summer, very little ground cover.

“This probably isn’t the bilby’s ideal habitat. This is just where they can survive where nothing else can, where there’s pretty low densities of cats generally and hardly any foxes.”

Active bilby burrow coorabulka 18dec12 peter mcrae copy
Current bilby habitat in south-west Queensland / Credit: Peter McCrae

But those historical records show bilbies once occupied a much broader range of habitats and ecosystems, including heavily forested areas in southeastern Australia, and sand ridges along major rivers.

“I was really surprised at how widespread they were across such a huge range of vegetation types. And many vegetation types we don’t typically associate with bilbies,” she says.

While bilbies rapidly disappeared from populated areas from the 1890s, by the 1990s things seem to have stabilised a little. 

Silcock says that’s no coincidence given the ‘90s marked rising public awareness about the bilby, thanks to the efforts of ‘bilby brothers’ McRae and Frank Manthey in Queensland, South Australia’s Foundation for Rabbit Free Australia and many others around the country.  

“It’s not a coincidence that the Easter Bilby took off then,” she adds.

Read more about bilbies: Social lives of bilbies more complex than previously thought

This year, Haigh’s Chocolates is marking 30 years since it first produced chocolate Easter Bilbies as a replacement for traditional rabbits. The company’s website says the idea was proposed to the company by a park ranger hoping to draw attention to the environmental damage being caused by rabbits, and the bilby’s struggle for survival.

Naked bilbies copy
Easter bilbies / Credit: Haigh’s Chocolates

Haigh’s says the chocolate marsupials “were an instant hit with our customers”, leading to a complete phase out of Easter Bunnies two years later.

More than a million chocolate bilbies have since been sold, with part proceeds of the sales donated to bilby conservation efforts. Other chocolate makers have also taken up the idea.

Peter Day is the executive officer for environmental charity, Rabbit-Free Australia, the first to propose the Easter Bilby concept in 1991.

The idea sprung from wanting to bring public attention to the harm rabbits cause in the landscape and efforts needed to bring back native plants and animals, he tells Cosmos.

“The bilby has been a great champion for the cause,” he says. For the organisation it’s a way of highlighting the impact of rabbits have on the environment more broadly and the need to control introduced species if we want to see the return of native plants and animals.

For Silcock, seeing a bilby in the wild remains “one of the most goose-bumpy moments you’re ever going to get”. 

“They’re just so charismatic, the way they hop around. They’re amazing creatures.”

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