New ground parrot on the edge of extinction

By Victoria Laurie 14 April 2011
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A parrot only recently distinguished as a new species now comprises fewer than 110 individual birds.

SCIENTISTS HAVE WARNED THAT extreme care will be needed if efforts to save the western ground parrot (Pezoporus wallicus flaviventris) are to succeed.

It is one of the world’s rarest birds, with only about 110 individuals still thought to live in coastal heath in southwest Western Australia. Distinguished by its rich green and mottled black feathers, the bird has a long tail and a plump body shape.

Last month, the Western Australian Government committed $350,000 to launch a cat- and fox-baiting program that it believes will help protect the threatened species. The grant was triggered by the important discovery that the western ground parrot is genetically different from its eastern cousin, making it a unique Western Australian species.

WA Environment Minister Bill Marmion says the grant will allow baits to be laid in two national parks to see whether baiting results in an increase in bird numbers.  “As it nestles mainly on the ground, it is particularly vulnerable to predation by feral cats and foxes,” he says.

More at stake for the western ground parrot

Conservation biologist Dr Steve Murphy, a consultant to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, helped identify the bird’s unique genetic makeup. In a study published late last year in the journal Conservation Genetics, he and two genetic experts recommended that the western ground parrot should be recognised as a distinct species and placed on the critically endangered list.

Steve warns that careful planning should go into conservation strategies, to ensure they don’t backfire.

“When a fox eradication program was run in WA some years ago, their removal left a vacuum that was filled by feral cats,” says Steve. “But we’ve got to do something, whether or not fox baiting is the right way to go. Given the western ground parrot’s new status, there’s a lot more at stake now.”

As its name implies, the ground parrot lives almost exclusively on the ground, clambering across the tops of flowering native shrubs to collect seed and nectar. Curiously for a parrot, it behaves almost like a quail when it is flushed out from dense scrub; it flies low and in a direct line before dropping into bushes.

The shy bird has only been spotted in recent years in the Cape Arid and Fitzgerald River National Parks on the southern coast of Western Australia. But last year, a lone ground parrot was seen in coastal scrub at Conspicuous Beach, west of Albany, the first time in nearly 30 years at that location.  

Director of CSIRO’s Australian National Wildlife Collection, Dr Leo Joseph, says that “Even after 200 years of study, we are still recognising new species of birds in Australia. This finding highlights the need for further research on Australia’s unique, and sometimes cryptic, biodiversity.”

Western ground parrot quietly slipping away

Only a few pairs are kept in captivity in WA for conservation breeding. “The birds are quite clearly slipping away from us,” says Steve. “What’s worrying is that a hundred of the birds live in extremely flammable heath ecosystems – if you drop a match on the wrong day, you’ve lost the lot.”

But Steve says the ground parrot’s problems lie “fundamentally in the fragmenting of the wider ecosystem they live in, and we have to get our head around dealing with a whole lot of factors that have led to their decline.”

The $350,000 conservation bid is being conducted by the WA Department of Environment and Conservation and Friends of the Western Ground Parrot. DEC’s Dr. Allan Burbidge says an influx of introduced predators, such as cats, could rapidly push the species to extinction. “There is now an urgent need to prevent further population declines and to establish insurance populations into parts of the former range,” he says.