The time is now to save one of the world’s most endangered birds

By Shannon Verhagen 2 March 2017
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A crowd-funding campaign is aiming to boost numbers of Norfolk Island green parrots after a rough few decades – being brought back from the brink of extinction not once, but twice.

AFTER DECADES OF conservation efforts, numbers of Norfolk Island green parrots are finally high enough to start an insurance population – quadrupling since 2013.

Norfolk Island National Park staff have collaborated with Birdlife Australia, universities, zoos, not-for-profit groups and passionate locals to protect the birds, which have come dangerously close to extinction twice in the past 50 years.

And with the culmination of two highly successful conservation projects – boosting green parrot numbers and eradicating feral animals on neighbouring Phillip Island – they believe the time for a translocation is now.

“The population has come so close to extinction so many times, it is really just luck that has seen it survive into the 21st century,” said Craig Doolan, National Park manager.

“We can’t ride our luck forever. The population is still just one catastrophic weather event or disease introduction away from extinction. We need to grab the chance while the numbers are good, to create a back-up population and reduce this risk enormously.”

norfolk phillip island

Phillip Island viewed from Mt Bates, the highest point on Norfolk Island. (Image: Parks Australia)

Back from the brink – twice

The parrots were once commonplace on the 3855ha island – located about 1450km off the coast of Brisbane – but have since dwindled to dangerously low numbers.

“We know the birds were common when Europeans first settled on Norfolk Island in 1788,” Craig said. “They would eat the crops of the early settlers and were heavily controlled.”

“People in their 80s and 90s remember them being fairly common,” added Margaret Christian, president of the Norfolk Island Flora and Fauna Society.

However, vegetation clearing and the introduction of black rats – which raid the birds’ nests to eat their eggs – and feral cats have caused numbers to go from bad to worse.

In the late 1970s, just 12 pairs of parrots were estimated to be left on the island, and intensive conservation efforts to restore habitat sustained the population for decades.

However, four years ago, numbers returned to critical levels once more, with a 2013 survey confirming park staff’s fears – less than 100 birds remained, and of those, just 11 were breeding females.

“The action this time was twofold,” Craig explained.

After increasing cat and rat baiting and installing protective covering on 80 potential nest sites, the population has now increased to up to 400 birds – a big enough boost to support a translocation.

norfolk island green parrot nest

Predator-proofed green parrot nest. (Image: supplied)

Translocation timing critical

Park staff hope to take 30 of this breeding season’s chicks to the feral-free safe haven – about 6km south – before they fledge. “We are looking towards the translocation to Phillip Island as a moment of great excitement,” Craig said.

However, timing is critical as the chicks need to fledge on Phillip Island, otherwise they may fly home to Norfolk – leaving just a two-month window of opportunity.

Through crowd-funding, they hope to raise $77,000 for the translocation, which will go towards the construction of aviaries and watering stations, transportation and ongoing monitoring of the insurance colony.

“It would be terrific – their chances of survival are much higher,” said Margaret. “Even if we have 400 birds here, they will always be management-dependent while there are rats and cats.”

norfolk island green parrot

(Image: Parks Australia)

“Our parrot, our pride”

“The green parrots are in many ways the icon of Norfolk Island,” Craig said.

“The increase we have seen in the past two years has energised locals enormously. National Parks staff can’t walk through the town without people coming up and telling us about their sightings in new and unusual parts of the island.

“In shop windows throughout town there are posters of green parrots with the caption ‘Auwas Parrot, Auwas Pride”. ‘Auwas’ simply means ‘Our’ in the local Norfolk Island language.”