Going ‘extinct by neglect’: the state of Australia’s threatened birds

By Angus Dalton November 28, 2018
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Australia’s threatened bird populations have dropped by more than half in the last few decades. But researchers hope a world-first data project can help save our birds that are at risk of extinction.

EVERY SPRING, conservation biologist Dr Dejan Stojanovic enters the forests of Tasmania armed with a slingshot. He uses it to fire a rope up into the canopy, so he can haul himself up in a harness to find and take measurements of swift parrot chicks.

As nestlings, swift parrots are fringed with light-grey down as their stunning plumage begins to develop: green on the body, red around the beak, teal cheeks and a dark blue band across the brow. This critically endangered species is threatened predominantly by logging and, as Dejan discovered in 2014, predation by introduced sugar gliders.

Dejan is part of the Difficult Bird Research Group (DBRG), a collective of biologists and researchers dedicated to the conservation of seriously endangered birds that populate remote and rugged locations where it is challenging and, at times, dangerous to collect data.

Along with the swift parrot, the group specialises in the conservation of the ‘functionally extinct’ orange-bellied parrot (which at the start of this year had a wild-born population of 16 males and two females), the regent honeyeater, the palm cockatoo, and the forty-spotted pardalote, a canopy dweller that’s smaller than a matchbox.

Dejan and the DBRG are on the front line of a fight to save Australia’s threatened bird species, which are coming closer to extinction as environmental laws fail to protect crucial habitats, and a lack of data hampers the creation of effective recovery plans.

Birds going ‘extinct by neglect’

While Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world, current lists of our threatened and critically endangered species are dominated by birds.

A huge increase to the funding available for species recovery was one of the recommendations made by BirdLife Australia in their submission to the Senate Inquiry into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis, which accepted submissions until September this year.

They’ve called for a $200 million annual recovery fund, and also quote research that estimates that “for just $10 million annually all Australia’s bird species could be secured from extinction”.

In a report released earlier this year, BirdLife Australia also advocated for the strengthening of environmental laws aimed at preventing extinction.

“When governments choose to do nothing to protect and conserve threatened species, enabled by weak national environment laws, they make a de facto choice to facilitate species extinction.”

Out of 67 endangered bird species, only 11 currently have up-to-date recovery plans. Looking to the US, BirdLife Australia wrote that “strong laws can, and do, save threatened birds,” and that birds protected under the US Endangered Species Act boosted their populations, on average, by 624 per cent.

The report also claims that birds are going “extinct by neglect”, and criticises a number of ministerial decisions that failed to consider the impact of proposed developments on populations of endangered birds. These include the Victorian Government’s failure to limit backburning in areas crucial to the south-eastern red-tailed cockatoo and the decision of the Federal and Queensland governments to go ahead with the Carmichael coal mine despite the discovery of a population of black-throated finches on the site.

BirdLife Australia’s Senate Inquiry submission notes that rather than protecting Australia’s unique bird species, we are “facilitating a trajectory towards extinction”.

A world-first data project

In an effort to reverse this trajectory, BirdLife Australia has collaborated with the National Environmental Science Program’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub to create the Threatened Bird Index (TBX), a collection of long-term monitoring data for threatened Australian birds that is the first data project of its kind.

The Index brings together the results of 180,000 bird monitoring surveys from over 5000 locations across the country. By bringing this data together, the aim of the TBX is to form a clear picture of the overall state of Australia’s threatened birds.

Lead researcher Dr Elisa Bayraktarov explains, “You know how every country has national indicators that tell you how, for example, economic health is going? Like the GDP, or stock market indices. We have developed something like that, but for threatened species.

“We’ve made this index for the Australian government, to assist them in their policy making. But also for conservation managers, for NGOs dealing with data, for scientists, and for the general public, because hey, a trend says more than a thousand words. It shows we are not doing that well.”

To create the TBX, researchers used a similar method to the Living Planet Index, a global biodiversity indicator that produces a trend of global vertebrate populations and publishes the results in a report every two years. The most recent report was released last month and showed that, on average, 60 per cent of the world’s birds, mammals, fish and other vertebrates have declined over the last few decades.

“What is interesting is that what the Living Planet Index are reporting for global vertebrates for the 2018 report is ridiculously close to what we have found,” says Elisa. “They’re showing that global vertebrates have decreased between 1970 and 2014 by, on average, 60 per cent. We show that threatened birds, in Australia, between 1985 and 2015 have decreased by 52 per cent on average.”

Researchers behind the TBX have written that one of the main reasons for this decline are cats, which remain a “grave threat”, and that the effect of climate change in intensifying heat, fire, drought and sea level rise will put at least half of all threatened birds in danger.

The TBX is a world-first because of its specific focus on threatened and near-threatened species.

“There is no threatened species index anywhere in the world. Why? It’s tricky. Threatened species live in remote locations and it’s very difficult to get robust monitoring data on them,” says Elisa.

While the Living Planet Index extracts data from already published literature, Elisa and her colleagues have spent the last two years tracking down data directly from places where it may have never seen the light of day.

“There is not much data published on threatened species because the data sits on people’s computers, in state and territory repositories, on PDFs of reports made by threatened species recovery teams. We really actually had to go to the data providers, the data custodians, and hassle them to get this raw data to us.”

A ‘powerful communication tool’

 Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner, Dr Sally Box, launched the Threatened Bird Index along with its accompanying web app in November 2018.

“Science informs policy and investment and I welcome the development of new tools that can help us better understand threatened species trends and focus our efforts,” she said.

The app allows you to see the data yourself and generate trends that show how particular types of bird are doing in different areas.

For example, you can use the web app to show you that populations of shorebirds, between 1985 and 2015, decreased by 72 per cent on average.

“I think this index will be a really powerful communication tool, not just for the politicians but also for the general public,” says Elisa. “If we didn’t have the tool we wouldn’t know the bigger picture about how Australia’s threatened birds are going. We wouldn’t know whether we’re investing towards the pressing priorities – which are the birds, in which state, territory or region, that really need our attention?”

Elisa says that birds are the “guinea pigs” for this data project, and that the team behind the TBX is already gathering data for an index based on Australia’s 1335 threatened plants. Indices for mammals and freshwater species are also planned.

The long-term goal is to create an overall Threatened Species Index that shows national trends for all kinds of Australia’s threatened species.

As for the TBX, more data will be added as it becomes available, making the Index even more “powerful and representative”, says Elisa. The researchers note that they are in need of more data from species that inhabit desert regions.

“Now that the framework is done, it can just get better.”