31 January 2022

ANU outlines three ways to keep the regent honeyeater from singing its swan song

| James Coleman
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Regent honeyeater bird in tree

The critically endangered regent honeyeater is losing its ‘song culture’ due to the bird’s rapidly declining population. Photo: Murray Chambers.

The song of the regent honeyeater is widely regarded as one of the ACT’s most beautiful sounds, but there are fears it could become a swan song within two decades.

New research from the Australian National University reveals that the small and mottled yellow native song bird could be extinct within 20 years if the situation doesn’t improve.

Lead author Professor Rob Heinsohn says that less than 80 years ago, the regent honeyeater was one of the most commonly encountered species in Australia, from Adelaide to Rockhampton, but now it is on track to go the way of the dodo.

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“The regent honeyeater population has been decimated by the loss of more than 90 per cent of its preferred woodland habitats,” he says.

The regent honeyeater was listed as critically endangered in NSW and the ACT in April 1999. Today, there are fewer than 300 of them left, making it one of our rarest bird species in Australia.

It’s a small bird, with adults ranging between 200mm and 240mm in length. It can be recognised by its black head gradually fanning through polka dots into a magnificent yellow tail.

Current management of the species includes maintenance of existing woodlands, limited removal of live and dead timber, and minimising the effects of fire. Habitat loss due to fire and clearing works has forced them to compete with larger species for what’s left.

Regent honeyeater bird in tree

The regent honeyeater showing off its coat of yellow and black. Photo: Murray Chambers.

Professor Heinsohn says the current intensive conservation efforts are still not sufficient, and a huge effort is needed if the bird is to be rescued.

The ANU team commenced a large-scale project in 2015 to better understand the regent honeyeater population decline, but found them to be an exceptionally difficult bird to study in the wild.

Its movements are complex, but mainly governed by the flowering of a small and diminishing group of eucalypts.

After six years of intensive work in the field, the team discovered that the birds’ breeding success has declined due to predation at the nest by species such as pied currawongs, noisy miners and possums.

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The end product of the study, published in Biological Conservation and co-authored by members of the Regent Honeyeater Recovery team, uses population models based on all available knowledge to predict what will happen to the wild population.

“Our models show that current conservation efforts have provided essential life support for the regent honeyeaters, but do not go far enough,” says co-author Dr Ross Crates.

The ANU has isolated three key ways the bird’s future can be secured.

First, the models show nest success rates of both wild and released zoo-bred birds must nearly double. This requires protecting nests from predation.

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Second, the number of zoo-bred birds released into the Blue Mountains must increase and be sustained for at least 20 years alongside nest protection. Taronga Conservation Society has been breeding the birds in captivity and are working hard to increase the numbers for release into the wild.

Third, the models stress that the regent honeyeater population can only be secured into the future if more habitat can be protected and restored.

“Without more habitat, reintroductions and nest protection efforts will be futile because the flock sizes will never reach the critical mass needed for the birds to breed safely without our protection,” says Professor Heinsohn.

“Our study provides both hope and a dire warning – we can save these birds, but it will take a lot of effort and resources over a long time to pull it off.”

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Unfortunately the currawong were driven into the urban environment by the last drought and they have made themselves at home feeding their young the offspring of other bird species. As for the Noisy Miners, as native birds are protected so culling them would be unacceptable to our Green Overlords in the ACT Environment Department despite the damage caused (by the Miners not the Department, however that is debatable? ). Afterall this is the Department that committed $600,000 to a trial involving the release of 67 Eastern bettongs between 2015 and 2017 into the Lower Cotter Catchment, effectively feeding them to foxes and other predators which the Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti says the trial was a “success”. The objective was to determine whether bettongs could survive in fox-controlled areas, or if they would disperse away from the release-site. Good thing these people are not in charge of Education or Health, outcomes could be rather frightening. Anyway, back on topic, the onus should be is on conservation of existing suitable ‘environment’ for the honeyeater and other small bird species through appropriate planning schemes and significant green zones sympathetic to small avian and terrestrial species, something that may be beyond the ACT Government and their developer friends. Once you get addicted to the Rates At All Costs Model of urban expansion is becomes difficult to stop. Sorry for the long post.

It would probably do wonders for many Australia species if we didn’t grow pine plantations.

Yes of course we need the wood and they grow quickly, but they are mostly an ecological wasteland.

If instead of the non-flowering pines we grew flowering eucalyptus plantations there would be much more food for many of our birds and bees.

Their slower growing rate would mean we’d need larger plantations to produce the same amount of timber but that can be achieved.

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