Reading Time: 7 Minutes Print this page

In 1922 bird collector William McLennan was exploring the country outside Coen, on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, when he stumbled upon a vast grassy flat populated with thousands of termite mounds. Nearly every conical mound showed signs that the golden-shouldered parrot (Psephotus chrysopterygius) used it as a nesting site.

Fast forward 100 years and the number of these stunning parrots has dwindled close to extinction, as have numbers of many of the peninsula’s other grassland bird species, which travelled together in great flocks, filling the sky.

Although much of the region might look ‘undeveloped’, pastoralism has significantly changed the ecosystem and caused the unravelling of this once vast bird community. Along with the parrot, that community included the buff-breasted button-quail, which was last sighted in the year William penned his field notes about the grassy plains.

The golden-shouldered parrot, also known as the antbed parrot, nests in burrows inside termite mounds. Flitting to and from its nest, the bright plumage of the golden-shouldered parrot is a flash of colour against the muted tones of the termite mounds and grassy plains.

Video credit: Braydon Moloney/Conservation Partners

Its unusual nesting location provides a stable temperature and humidity for developing eggs and chicks –and offers protection from fires. The dwelling also comes with domestic help from the antbed parrot moth, which eats the nestlings’ droppings, keeping the nest clean. This unusual moth is entirely dependent on the parrots’ nests; its fate hangs on the fortunes of the bird.

We will never know exactly how many parrots have been lost, but at the time of European colonisation, there were many thousands of golden-shouldered parrots across Cape York. The parrots were once part of mixed-species foraging flocks, now greatly diminished, and shared a symbiotic relationship with a mix of other grain-eating birds such as finches.

Moving over the ground, the grain-eaters flushed out insects, which black-faced woodswallows swooped down to collect. From their high vantage points, the woodswallows raised the alarm when they spotted predators, such as pied butcherbirds, prompting the flock to take wing. 

Today, there are as few as 700–1100 golden-shouldered parrots across the species’ entire range. During the past 70 years the northern boundary of the species has contracted south by 120km. Artemis station, a beef cattle property halfway up Cape York Peninsula, on Kuku-Thaypan and Olkola Country, sits on the northern boundary. Even here the population declined to an estimated 300 by the 1990s and is now as low as 50–70. Artemis, named after the ancient Greek goddess of nature, is owned by pastoralists Sue and Tom Shephard. They are collaborating with not-for-profit group Conservation Partners in a dedicated project to halt the parrot’s decline

How did the circumstances for the golden-shouldered parrot become so dire? At the core is a story about how modern land use has transformed ecosystems.

The key habitat of the parrot and its companions was open grasslands and woodlands, which provided clear visibility of approaching predators. The birds typically occurred in run-on areas that were seasonally swampy; around the perimeters stood conical, spire-like termite mounds. Trees were kept in check by the thick grass layer and traditional burning. But today, both the grasslands and termite mounds described by William in 1922 are gone, replaced by trees (mostly broad-leaved paperbark).

When First Nations people were pushed off Country, their traditional burning stopped and cattle ate the grasses. There was nothing to prevent the trees from taking over. Although the trees are small, spindly things, they’ve emerged en masse and are efficient water pumps, drying out the flats and robbing the soil of moisture, further damaging the already stressed and dwindling layer of grasses.

“Right through Cape York Peninsula we have lost this unique ecosystem. And right through Cape York it is the same story – pastoralism reduces grasses and increases trees,” says Dr Steve Murphy, ecologist, CEO and co-founder of Conservation Partners. “The death knell is the increase in predators that comes with the trees. Without clear lines of sight, the original predators, such as pied butcherbirds and goannas, get much closer. The trees also bring new native predators, such as tree snakes and black-backed butcherbirds.”

Ecologist Dr Steve Murphy co-founded Conservation Partners to provide scientific and operational support to private land managers. Image credit: David Stowe

Saving the species at Artemis could not happen without the Shephards, who have run the station since 1976. They’ve always had an interest in the parrot. “It’s such a pretty, special little parrot, and we knew it was going backwards,” Sue Shephard says.

In the 1990s she began collaborating with Professor Stephen Garnett, from Charles Darwin University, and Dr Gay Crowley, from James Cook University, on work that would prove pivotal to their current efforts – including the first detailed surveys of the vegetation and mounds at the station.

Resurveying those sites in 2019, Steve discovered paperbarks had significantly increased – and conical mounds decreased – in the intervening decades, coinciding with the parrot’s shrinking population. “We suspect that the mounds decline because of increased shade and/or something related to groundwater changes caused by the trees. But surprisingly little is known about the ecology of Australia’s termites,” Steve says.

With help from Conservation Partners, Sue and Tom Shephard are working hard to restore habitat around the remaining termite mounds. “Just reinstating traditional fire patterns isn’t enough to remove the trees once they’re established, because they just keep resprouting high up,” Steve says.“We had to physically remove trees, and that required permission under the Queensland Vegetation Management Act, which is designed to stop rampant clearing of native vegetation.

“What enabled us to get the approvals, and also gave us confidence that clearing the trees was the right thing to do, was being able to provide that survey evidence of exactly how the landscape had changed. So far, we’ve treated 60ha of habitat, spread over a large number of parrot-breeding territories. And when the trees are finally out, we can use fire, which replicates traditional burning, to maintain the landscape. It’s really important to prevent overgrazing in the recovering grasslands, especially after fire, or we will re-create the original problem,” he says.

From an ecological point of view, completely removing cattle from the station is ideal – so far, the Shephards have permanently destocked cattle from 2200ha. 

“The only thing better than saving the parrot is saving the parrot and having a viable cattle business, so we are working with the Shephards to test when, and how much, grazing can be allowed into the treated areas,” says Steve.

“The important thing is doing continuous monitoring of the parrots and their habitat, so we can see when we are on the right track – or when we need to make adjustments.”

In the treated areas, parrot food has increased and new termite mounds are growing. There’s also been a reduction in butcherbird activity – but predators such as goannas and feral cats are still taking too big a toll. “Last year we were monitoring 10 nests and were devastated when each one failed because of predators,” Steve says. “When you only have 50 parrots, every chick is really important. So we searched out six more nests and trialled small electric fences around their bases to keep out the predators. It was hugely successful, because all of those nests survived.

“That single action has given us so much more confidence in our ability to achieve a population increase,” he adds. “This is a numbers game, and before that we just seemed to be going backwards. But now, knowing we can get these babies successfully out of the nest has been such a morale booster for our team.” 

The golden-shouldered parrot is one of two Australian parrot species that nest in termite mounds. A third, the paradise parrot, is now extinct. Image credit: Barry Baker

They are now fundraising to protect 20 nests in the May–July breeding season. Because there are about five eggs per nest, that could result in an extra 100 parrots in the population in just one year – more than doubling the population at Artemis.

“Long term, we can’t go around protecting every nest. But while their numbers are so critically low, it’s worth it,” says Steve.

Our national conservation strategies must consider privately managed land, according to Biodiversity Council member Professor Martine Maron, from The University of Queensland’s School of the Environment. “To have any chance of halting biodiversity declines, we have to think about biodiversity across all land tenures,” Martine says. “Conservation can’t just be a Noah’s Ark approach, ensuring every species occurs in at least one national park somewhere. We need healthy, functioning biodiversity right across our landscapes, to provide all the ecosystem services that we benefit from.”

Like most farmers, Sue and Tom care deeply about the ecology of their property. But after a long day of mustering, it’s difficult to have the bandwidth to think about vegetation monitoring and management, or how to increase parrot recruitment rates. Sue likes the collaborative approach with Conservation Partners “because they come along and help organise everything needed for us to look after the parrots”. 

Steve agrees. “Our model is about bringing real capacity to support private land managers in their conservation of threatened species, and other important natural values on their property. 

“We bring scientific expertise,” he says, “a trained conservation workforce, and we help fundraise for the activities, but we make all the decisions together. And I think this model is the only way we’re going to get real traction on private land conservation in Australia, especially on these big holdings.”

While challenges persist, the recent successes at Artemis offer hope. Combining conservation action with ongoing monitoring and fundraising will be essential for the parrot’s long-term survival. Looking ahead, collaboration with First Nations people, national parks, and other farmers offers new possibilities for widespread conservation efforts to re-establish these magical little birds throughout their former range.

Jaana Dielenberg is communication manager of the Biodiversity Council.

Help protect golden-shouldered parrot chicks

The Australian Geographic Society is supporting a project, being run by not-for-profit group Conservation Partners at Artemis station on the Cape York Peninsula, to protect 20 nests from predators during the May–July breeding season.

Your donations will be used to buy, install and maintain mini-electric fences around the bases of termite mounds where the parrots nest.

Please make a tax deductible donation today.