Gouldian finch: Australia’s winged jewels

By Karen McGhee 1 June 2009
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The exquisite Gouldian finch is one of the world’s most prized caged birds. But will they continue to survive in the wild?

MIKE FIDLER didn’t really want to talk money. But I was hopeful the former UK businessman would set humility aside to discuss the huge financial contributions he’s made to help understand and rescue a threatened Australian bird species.

“Would it be a million?” I asked. Then, as the calculations ticked over in my head, I blurted aloud: “It must be more like millions!”

“Not exactly sure,” Mike murmured, his cheeks flushing pink as if it were the first time anyone had acknowledged his benevolence. “Something like that over two decades.”

The beneficiary of Mike’s extraordinary generosity is the Gouldian finch, one of the planet’s most beautiful creatures and one of Australia’s most endangered birds.

Research into the species’ decline has been under way in Australia for some 20 years. Scientists in the NT, in particular, have made enormous progress in understanding these little birds in their natural surroundings. But the species is slipping away in the wild and we still don’t fully understand why.

That’s where Mike and his chequebook come in. Mike first saw the exquisitely coloured, sparrow-sized Gouldians in the window of a Manchester pet shop in England. Their  physical loveliness literally stopped him in his tracks. He was in his early 20s and just had to have some.

Fast forward 40 years and half a world away. Mike’s now a self-made multimillionaire, and he and his wife, Elisabeth, have recently moved from the UK to a stunning 20 ha property in the shadow of a rainforest-clad NSW mountain – closer to children and grandchildren, and to the home of Gouldians.

Australian yellow Gouldians – a threatened species

In the decades between, Mike’s been involved with and funded research on captive Gouldians with Professor Stewart Evans at the UK’s University of Newcastle upon Tyne. And he’s made about 20 trips to remote north WA to observe wild Gouldians. To date, the benevolent birder’s largest single bequest has been $600,000 – in 2003 – to help conserve and research some of the largest wild populations remaining, on the central Kimberley’s 3120 sq. km Mornington Station, owned and managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC).

Mike’s also funding University of NSW researchers and allowing them free and unfettered use of the aviary facilities he’s developing on his property and the hundreds of birds they contain.

“What is it about these birds that’s so captivated you all these years?” I asked, as Mike gave me a guided tour of his aviaries. He looked askance, surprised that I, or anybody else, should have to ask.

“It’s about the way they look, yes, but it’s also about their behaviour and personality. They’re engaging little birds. . .” He gave up searching for an explanation and then the man I’m told had a reputation in business for being tough, incongruously blushed again and concluded sublimely: “How do you explain falling in love?”

There are perhaps 2000 wild Gouldians existing in tiny isolated groups in WA and the NT: fragmented remnants of a population that once numbered in the tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands, and inhabited huge areas of savannah woodland country right across tropical northern Australia.

A few scratchy historical reports suggest great flocks comprising thousands of individuals once flitted across Australia’s north, turning, darting and wheeling like one mega-organism in much the same way fish shoals do to avoid and deter predators. These sightings, however, were never scientifically documented and researchers believe they may have been enthusiastic but inaccurate exaggerations prompted by the spectacle of large groups of small rainbow-coloured birds in an often monochrome environment.

Certainly, they may have once gathered together in many hundreds but now the biggest flocks, found in the NT and the Kimberley, number little more than a few hundred. They often travel, however, in larger mixed flocks with other seed-eating birds, particularly long-tailed finches.

Their decline was first noted about 30 years ago in Queensland, then in the NT and most recently in WA.

“This east-to-west pattern is thought to be significant,” explains Carol Palmer, an ecologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Unit, Parks and Wildlife Service of the NT (PWSNT).

“It mirrors a change in fire regimes across the country as well as the spread of pastoralism.”

Carol’s colleague, Dr John Woinarski, is forthright about the way much of the land in Australia’s northern third is being managed. In a recent scientific paper he wrote:

“There has been substantial loss of biodiversity in the Australian rangelands… users should be more aware, and concerned about this problem: that we are sullying an international asset; that we are undermining the basis of a major rangeland industry, tourism; that we are sabotaging the potential for the development of alternative rangeland uses…that such losses provide evidence that we are poor managers; that such losses diminish our lives…”

gouldian finches

(Image credit: Bluehand/Shutterstock)

Fire and cattle endangering the finch

Carol explains the Gouldian finch is just one – the most celebrated – of several native bird and mammal species fast disappearing due to habitat change wrought by altered fire regimes or the spread of cattle or both. These include the Carpentarian rock-rat, Carpentarian grasswren and the partridge pigeon. All, like Gouldians, are grass-seed feeders.

Cattle graze on the same fodder as Gouldians. And their manner of grazing restricts regrowth of a variety of grasses important to the survival of whole ecosystems, not just birds and mammals.

The introduction of non-native pasture plants that out-compete endemic grasses further reduces native seed availability. But it’s believed the biggest impacts are wreaked by fire.

Fire in the rangelands is recognised as a natural phenomenon that’s helped shape biodiversity in the continent’s north. It’s also been used as a land management tool by Aboriginals for millennia. They wandered the land igniting small fires over different times of the year, leaving the grasslands like a patchy mosaic. As a result, the very hot, very destructive, late dry-season fires, begun mostly by lightning strikes, burned over relatively small areas.

These days, the fire regimes adopted by many land managers in the rangelands do not achieve the same patchiness. As a result, late dry-season fires, fuelled by hot, dry trade winds from the south-east, can now take out many thousands of hectares at a time. This decimates the resources necessary to sustain many birds and animals, including Gouldians, during a particularly stressful time of the year.

It’s believed a return to the sporadic, more selective use of fire – as traditionally applied by Aboriginals – could help halt the decline of species such as the Gouldian finch. Experiments under way on the awc’s Kimberley property, where large areas of savannah country are being destocked and managed using traditional Aboriginal fire regimes – including shorter, cooler burns at different times throughout the year – may ultimately provide vindication of what scientists have been saying for several years.

Australian Geographic science and environment editor Karen McGhee on assignment for the Gouldian finch story.

Monitoring the wild Gouldians

Each year, for almost a decade, at the end of the dry season, Carol and other scientists and volunteers have been visiting several key locations in the NT to monitor Gouldian numbers and gain a better understanding of the lives of these little birds in the wild.

I joined them last September at the soon-to-be-gazetted Limmen National Park, an isolated location about 300 km east of Katherine. Carol and her colleague Dave Hooper spend many weeks each year in such remote areas, separated from partners and children, and often putting in pre-dusk to post-sunset hours in temperatures that can range from a few degrees overnight to up around 40 humid degrees by day.

We set up at a campsite at the only large body of water for many kilometres known to be free of saltwater crocodiles – although, you never really can be too sure in the Top End.

I wasn’t expecting too much from this bush camp – perhaps meals of baked beans and a hole in the ground for a toilet. But dinner was Dave’s gourmet cooking. And, while the toilet was certainly a hole in the ground it was sunk deep below an old-style ‘thunderbox’ topped with a plastic seat. It provided unhindered viewing of a huge yellow dry-season full moon rising over the long grasses and scattered trees of the Top End’s spectacular rangelands.

These field trips are the best way to glimpse wild Gouldians and I was particularly excited about experiencing the species in its natural habitat.

I’d seen hundreds in cages and aviaries but had been told their wild colours were more spectacular.

Gouldians are among the most prized of caged birds and, thanks to Mike’s early investigations, the requirements for captive breeding are so well understood they can be encouraged to reproduce like rabbits.

You’d think you could gather together the world’s thousands of caged specimens, release them in northern Australia and the species’ survival problem would be solved. These finches, however, lose their innate response to avoid predators after just a few short generations behind bars. Captive birds released in the wild are rapidly picked off by goshawks, kites, crows and other winged carnivores.

For almost a week we arose pre-dawn to be in place at tiny, rapidly evaporating waterholes before birds appeared magically from the trees and grasses to sate their daily need for precious moisture.

Only two Gouldians were among them, drably-coloured juveniles in pale-olive green pre-adult plumage.

The disappointment was palpable as we packed up camp. Carol sighed the same sort of disappointed but pragmatic sigh I’d heard many times before from scientists studying rare species. “It’s a hard, hard life for a little bird,” she bemoaned softly.

But these are big spaces and previous radio-tracking work indicates Gouldians can travel 15 km seeking resources. Dave felt they may have found food and water elsewhere. “They’ll be around here somewhere,” he said confidently. “Next year we’ll find them again.”

The PWSNT will continue its annual waterhole counts to track the NT’s remaining Gouldian flocks. But they’re now  working with the AWC, the research being steered by conservation ecologist Dr Sarah Legge using Mike’s funding in the Kimberley to look for answers to the species’ future.

Contact is also maintained with scientists and volunteers at the privately run Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve, in North Queensland, where considerable effort is being made to rehabilitate the habitat and re-establish Gouldians in the State, where they’ve barely been sighted in the wild since the 1970s.

Carol and Dave weren’t going to let me leave the Top End without seeing what I’d come for. So they arranged for AG photographer Jason Edwards and me to meet with PWSNT ranger, Kerri Villiers, to take us to a secret location at a tiny soak used by a small breeding flock of Gouldians north of Katherine.

I was in place well before sunrise, fly net over my face and sweat dampening my back as temperature and humidity began their rapid daily ascent. A black ant bit my backside and my legs cramped but nothing could have shifted me. Gouldians are notoriously nervy in the open. If they were spooked, we’d have to wait for the end of the next Dry to see them. We were also mindful that if they missed this opportunity, they’d have to wait another 24 hours for moisture and that could prove fatal.

As the sun’s rays began filtering across the little valley where we perched, a few tiny double-barred finches appeared, chirping and hopping around the soak and a flock of northern rosellas alighted in a nearby salmon gum to wait their turn.

A peaceful dove followed the double-bars but, as the shadow of a black kite passed overhead, the soak rapidly cleared, although fluttering and squawking in the surrounding trees and shrubs betrayed the bird life surreptitiously waiting and watching around us.

By 7 a.m. I was doubting they were going to show. Then I spotted them, apparitions with podgy little bellies amid the leaves of a tree. Suddenly, as if some secret avian all-clear sign had been given, the air seethed with noise and colour and the soak was besieged by a flood of birds – double-bars, long-tailed finches, peaceful doves, a couple of honeyeater species in and out too fast for an accurate identification.

With a sudden flurry of colour rarely seen elsewhere in nature the Gouldians magically materialised for their turn to drink.

Jason began carefully shooting frames, each movement of his trigger finger causing the Gouldians to flutter nervously.

We’d travelled more than 2000 km on mostly dirt roads, copping two shredded car tyres, for this. Tears rolled down my face and I choked back gasps of delight at the extraordinary beauty of these little birds. Then, within 10 minutes, they were gone.

Finally I could move and squash that pesky ant, take a drink and wipe my eyes.

I hope my children get to see what I did that day.


This was first published in Australian Geographic Jul – Sep 2005