Detention centre threatens endangered parrot

By Victoria Laurie 4 February 2011
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A population of Carnaby’s cockatoos may have their habitat destroyed if a detention centre goes ahead.

AUSTRALIA’S REFUGEE DETENTION PROGRAM is posing an unexpected threat to the Carnaby’s cockatoo, an endangered bird found only in Western Australia.

The gregarious short billed, white-tailed black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus latirostris) – also known by its Aboriginal name ngoolark by the Noongar people – has suffered a catastrophic decline in recent decades, as nesting and foraging sites in the state’s southwest are destroyed.  Carnaby’s cockatoo, which has lifelong fidelity to its mate and a mournful cry, is considered endangered according to the IUCN’s Red List.

Now, the Immigration Department plans to clear banksia woodland – a favourite bird habitat – for a detention centre at Northam, near Perth, where up to 1500 asylum-seekers will be housed by mid-year. Environmental surveys conducted on behalf of the Immigration Department have recorded the birds feeding in groves of banksia on the site.

The department says it “will ensure minimal clearing of the [birds’] identified foraging habitat”, and that less than a hectare is likely to be affected. It must seek clearing permission from the Federal Department of Sustainability, Water, Population and Communities and WA environmental approvals.

Peter Weatherly, spokesperson for the district’s Avon Valley Environmental Society, says the Department has lodged a report with Northam shire opposing any proposed clearing of bushland. “You can’t get it back, and even with replanting, the complexity of the bush and bird nesting habitats are lost,” he says. 

Threats influencing endangered bird decline

The threat of clearing comes after a disastrous year for the birds; dozens were killed or injured in 2010, when deadly storms, heat waves and bushfires hit areas where breeding birds were gathered. After a violent hail storm in April, WA’s Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) senior investigator Rick Dawson said 57 birds died and many others were injured.

“They had superficial wounds, and in fact when we released them at the rehab centre, they couldn’t fly too well because they’d been pummelled by hailstones,” he told reporters.

In the 1960s, dense flocks of several thousand birds flew over Perth, but the population is now down to a total of 40,000 birds.

Denis Saunders, a former CSIRO wildlife researcher and world expert on Carnaby’s cockatoos, says species recovery is an uphill struggle, since only two per cent of new-born chicks make it to adulthood. Long-term studies by DEC and CSIRO, in which he took part, show slow recovery from an ominous drop in the survival and growth rates of chicks.

“In our latest survey, we recorded 49 breeding attempts, up on 41 last year, but down on the 1970s when it was nearly 100.” He says Carnaby’s cockatoos don’t start breeding until they are four years old, but if allowed, they can live remarkably long, productive lives.

“Nobody really knows how long they live,” he says. “There’s one in captivity that’s 76, and white cockatoos can live a hundred years. They always say that if you’re given a white cockie for your 21st birthday, make provision for it in your will, because it’s liable to outlive you.”  

Documentary reveals previously unseen behaviour

He says a tool in the fight for bird survival is a new documentary film that has captured intimate details of the Carnaby’s life cycle. On a Wing and a Prayer, which will be shown later this year, recorded the birth of nestling ‘Cilla’, the death of its sibling, and adult Cilla’s successful exit from the nest. Four youngsters raised in previous years by Cilla’s parents had been stolen by poachers.
Denis says the remarkable ‘nest-cam’ footage, by film-maker Leighton de Barros, has captured previously unseen aspects of bird behaviour in the tree hollow. “Now we’re seeing the way the female actually digs a little hole to contain the egg. She nurtures the young as soon it hatches, and we know she ignores the second nestling, which usually doesn’t last 24 hours. Now we’ve actually seen that behaviour, how they feed the chick and look after it.”

“Why I love the birds is that they have very strong fidelity to each other, and we’ve seen only one or two divorces out of hundreds of pairs,” Dennis says. “There is something wonderful about seeing them fly over the house, and to think my grandchildren might not have that opportunity is sad.”