Nearly 200 endangered orange-bellied parrots began their annual migration from Tasmania to the Australian mainland, the largest number to make the trip since control began in the early 1990s.
Researchers working on Tasmania’s orange-bellied parrot program said 192 birds were counted at the end of the breeding season in Melaleuca in the southwestern state and some reached it to the mainland.
It’s better news for one of the world’s most endangered parrots, whose number dropped to just 17 five years ago.
“It’s a lot compared to every year almost since the late’ 80s and early ’90s,” said Shannon Troy, a natural biologist in the program. “It’s really, really great.”
Orange-bellied parrots migrate to the south coast of Australia each year for autumn and winter. Not all birds will survive migration, but those that do return will return to Melaleuca to breed during summer.
In November last year, 51 birds returned to the breeding ground, which was the best result in more than a decade.
Researchers released an additional 31 adult, captured breeds during the breeding season to balance the ratio of males to females and increase the number of breeding pairs.
The season produced 88 newcomers, a result that researchers hoped for, but “didn’t believe it until we saw it ourselves”.
At the end of the season, they released an additional 49 young birds into that population.
Troy said the reason is that captured breed adult birds are “really good at breeding but not migrating”.
The researchers hoped that releasing a second group when they were young would enable those parrots to learn wild behaviors. They are also more likely to survive the migration.
Troy said the researchers observed flocks of 30 to 40 flying together before the migration this year.
“Every time I see something like that, I think that’s more birds than we had in the whole population a few years ago,” she said.
“But we have to connect for a few years like that and we have to think about how to expand the population.”
This included finding ways to encourage the parrots – who remain highly dependent on human management – to develop wild behaviors.
Researchers in Tasmania are collaborating with the state government on planned burns to promote the growth of food trees for the birds. They hope this will increase the supply of natural food sources and decrease the need for supplementary feeding.
They are also expanding nest boxes to try to spread the population.
Dejan Stojanovic, a researcher at the Australian National University who is also working on the orange-bellied parrot breeding program, said the small population has been the biggest threat to the bird for several years.
“The best thing we can do to help the species is to create conditions suitable for their number to grow,” he said.
“The high numbers we’ve seen in recent years show that we’re aiming for that goal. I’m excited and hoping to see what the species will bring next year as they return from migration.”