Rosemary Low discusses how Parrots have been affected by the fires in Australia.
In August last year the devastating fires in the Amazon region of Brazil hit the headlines. The fires spread south, laying to waste huge areas of different but precious types of habitat. At the same time, but never making the headlines, fires in Bolivia ravaged 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres).
Other countries rich in Parrot species, including Indonesia, are also experiencing fires which are destroying massive areas of crucial importance to wildlife, including those that contain species with very limited areas of distribution.
In Australia the fires started at the end of last year. They were still burning as I write on January 15th. The year 2019 was described as the hottest and the driest on record there – the first time ever both records were broken together.
Fires are part of most ecosystems in Australia. However the present fire crisis is not normal in extent and severity -- in fact the worst recorded in Australia in human history. These fires are unprecedented in size and ferocity.
More than six months ago the climate-change denying Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, did not implement the necessary action to minimise fire damage in the coming fire season. This is why the crisis went out of control.
Of course this follows decades of abusing the unique environments in which hundreds of endemic forms of wildlife survive. The black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus and Zanda species) are a case in point. These magnificent birds, as imposing as the Macaws of the American tropics, are especially vulnerable to habitat loss.
The Glossy Cockatoo is the least known species to Parrot enthusiasts in Europe as only in very recent years has the Australian Government permitted its export to a couple of mainstream zoos. One of these was Loro Parque, where this Cockatoo is on exhibit.
Nearest in appearance to the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii), at about 48cm (19in) the Glossy is the smallest of the black species. It has a crest of dense head fathers that cannot be raised. The male is dark brown and black with a broad scarlet band on each tail feather.
The female has a varying amount of yellow feathers on the head, or none at all. Her tail band is red and yellow with horizontal black bars.
They are specialist feeders. South Australia’s Endangered Glossy Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami halmaturinus) was found only on Kangaroo Island, which is 160km (100 miles) long. This sub-species became extinct on mainland South Australia when the she-oak trees were cut down to fuel paddle steamers on the River Murray.
The nominate race is found in eastern Australia in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. It is patchily distributed due to loss of habitat in some areas but its IUCN status is Least Concern, mainly due to the fairly large range.
These Cockatoos are almost entirely dependent on one food source, the seeds of a she-oak tree Allocasuarina cladocalyx. Only some 50km² (19 square miles) of food habitat exists on Kangaroo Island. It is believed that most of this has now burnt down.
The blazes have ravaged nearly half the island. This includes much of its forested areas, with Flinders Chase National Park virtually destroyed. On January 7, Lloyd Marshall, Editor of the Australian on-line magazine Talking Birds, told me:
“I just spoke to a lady on Kangaroo Island. She said that 65% of the Glossy’s nesting area was burnt out. Artificial nests are available and will be installed when the volunteers can get into the relevant areas.”
It is a heart-breaking scenario. Especially considering the intense efforts over the past 15 years to save this sub-species from extinction. A recovery programme started in 2005 when only 200 survived, up from the previous low of 158 in 1995.
The organisation Friends of the Glossy Cockatoo saw numbers increase to about 370 before the fires, due to their protection, repair and provision of nests. The local volunteers, including the Friends, meet annually on a planting day.
In July 2017 the five-year Biodiversity Fund project was completed. Feeding habitat of 27ha (69 acres) was replanted with 14,525 seedlings, most by volunteers, with a total of 3,123 hours of work. These should have contributed significantly to the available feeding habitat.
As I write it is not known how many Glossy Cockatoos there have survived the fires. The press has reported that Australian university scientists estimate that in Australia one million mammals, birds and reptiles, plus countless smaller creatures, are now starving or were burnt to death.
No one has pointed out that many creatures will die from respiratory disease as the result of smoke inhalation.
There has been little or no mention of Parrot species affected. Will it be the end for those already on the verge of extinction, such as the Orange-bellied Parrot (Neophema chrysogaster) and the Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor)? Dejan Stojanovic has been at the forefront of Swift Parrot conservation for the past few years.
On January 14 he told me: “Unfortunately we can’t give you much information. We guess that there’s been a very major impact on the winter habitat of Swift Parrots, but we don’t yet have numbers. The spotted gum forests of the New South Wales south coast are an important winter drought refuge for Swift Parrots and these areas are among the most severely impacted by the fire.”
A number of well-known and wealthy people have donated funds for different aspects of the disasters caused by the widespread fires in nearly every Australian state.
I received some good news on January 13, when a friend in Germany, Roland Wirth, told me that he had sent information about the Australian fires to Tomas Pes, Curator of birds at Plsen Zoo, and to Radoslaw Ratajszczak, the director of Wroclaw Zoo in Poland.
This triggered an immediate response in the Czech Republic. All the big zoos combined to launch an emergency appeal for Australian wildlife. Prague Zoo collected 40,000 Euros in the first three days! Roland said: “OK, with the magnitude of the problem it will only be a drop in the ocean, but what a wonderful response! Again the Czech zoo people have shown that they really care and are at the forefront of the zoo world.”
In Wroclaw Zoo the director started a fundraising campaign in Poland and other Polish zoos are participating. One does not feel so lost and hopeless about the terrible situation for Australian wildlife with such good friends.”