|Male in South West Tasmania|
The orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster) is a small broad-tailed parrot endemic to southern Australia, and one of only two species of parrot that migrate. As of late 2013, there were fewer than 50 in the wild and fewer than 300 individuals in a captive breeding population. The species is at risk of extinction in the wild in the near term.
The adult male is distinguished by its bright grass-green upperparts, yellow underparts and orange belly patch. The adult female and juvenile are duller green in colour. All birds have a blue frontal band and blue outer wing feathers. The diet consists of seeds and berries of small coastal grasses and shrubs.
The orange-bellied parrot breeds in Tasmania and winters near the coast, foraging on saltmarsh species, beach or dune plants and a variety of exotic weed species on southern mainland Australia. With only 44 wild birds known to be alive after the summer 2012/13 breeding season, it is regarded as a critically endangered species.
Orange-bellied parrots are being bred in a captive breeding program with parrots in Taroona, Tasmania, Healesville Sanctuary, Adelaide Zoo, Melbourne Zoo, Halls Gap Zoo, Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Park and Priam Parrot Breeding Centre. The captive population consists of around 300 birds, with a target of 350 birds by 2016–17. Because of the decline in the wild population in recent years, an additional 21 birds from the wild population were captured in 2010–2011 to improve the genetic diversity of the species' captive breeding program. Taken as a whole, the captive population, an example of ex situ conservation, is termed an "insurance population" against extinction.
Taxonomy and naming
The orange-bellied parrot was first described by ornithologist John Latham as Psittacus chrysogaster in 1790, from a specimen (since lost) that had been collected from Adventure Bay in Tasmania in March 1773 on the second voyage of James Cook or in January 1777 on his third voyage, and subsequently been in Joseph Banks' collection. The specific name was derived from the Ancient Greek words chrysos 'golden' and gaster 'belly'. John Gould described it in 1841 as Euphema aurantia, from an adult male specimen collected in southeast Tasmania that became the lectotype. The species name was the Latin adjective for "orange". T.J. Ewing named it Nanodes gouldii, in honour of Gould, who he believed had discovered it.
Italian ornithologist Tommaso Salvadori erected the new genus Neophema in 1891, placing the orange-bellied parrot within it and giving it its current scientific name. One of six species of grass parrot in the genus Neophema, one of four classified in the subgenus Neonanodes; it is most closely related to the rock parrot, the other two species being the blue-winged and elegant parrots. No subspecies are recognised.
It has previously been known as the 'orange-breasted parrot'—a name given to the orange-bellied parrot in 1926 by the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union or RAOU (now Birdlife Australia) when the word 'belly' was considered inelegant. Other names include yellow-bellied parrot, orange-bellied grass-parakeet, and trumped-up corella.
The orange-bellied parrot is a small parrot around 20 cm (8 in) long; the adult male has bright green upperparts, and yellow below with a prominent, two-toned blue frontal band, a green-blue uppertail with yellow sides, and an orange patch on its belly. The under wing-coverts and flight feathers are dark blue, with paler blue median wing-coverts. Its iris and beak is dark brown while the feet are a greyish colour. The adult female is a duller green with a paler blue frontal band. The juvenile is a duller green colour.
The orange-bellied parrot utters soft tinkling notes, as well as a distinctive rapidly repeated chittering alarm call unlike that of other members of the genus. The alarm call is a quickly repeated tzeet.
The blue-winged and elegant parrots can be mistaken for the orange-bellied parrot, however their tinkling alarm calls and lighter grass-green upperparts distinguish them.
Distribution and habitat
Orange-bellied parrots only breed in South West Tasmania, where they nest in eucalypts bordering on button grass moors. The entire population migrates over Bass Strait to spend the winter on the coast of south-eastern Australia. These few sites contain their favoured salt marsh habitat, and includes sites in or close to Port Phillip such as Werribee Sewage Farm, the Spit Nature Conservation Reserve, the shores of Swan Bay, Swan Island, Lake Connewarre State Wildlife Reserve, Lake Victoria and Mud Islands, as well as French Island in Western Port.
Important bird areas
The orange-bellied parrot is found in pairs or small flocks, and generally remain on the ground or in low foliage searching for food. Early in the breeding season, they prefer areas that were burnt 7 to 15 years previously, while by mid-breeding season, they seek out areas that are 3 to 5 years post fire. Their most important food plants are Beaded Glasswort Sarcocornia quinqueflora and Shrubby Glasswort Tecticornia arbuscula. Other foods include the seeds of the grass Poa billardierei, saltbush (Atriplex cinerea), Austral seablite (Suaeda australis) and sea heath (Frankenia pauciflora), as well as berries, such as those of Coprosma. They have also been reported eating kelp.
Breeding is restricted to southwestern Tasmania, generally within 20 km of Melaleuca. The breeding season is October to January. They nest in hollow trees—usually Smithton peppermint (Eucalyptus nitida) or sometimes swamp gum (E. ovata) , generally less than 5 m (16 ft) above the ground. Four to five white eggs are laid measuring 20 mm x 23 mm.
This species has a very small population and is on the verge of extinction in the wild. It is listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered. The current wild population is estimated at under 50 individuals, with around 300 birds in captive breeding programs. Recent modelling suggests that on current trends the species will become extinct in the wild within five years.
In 2007, its status was upgraded from endangered to critically endangered on the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
- The 2000 Action Plan for Australian Birds lists it as critically endangered (Garnett and Crowley 2000).
- In a report on threatened and extinct birds in Australia in 1992, it was listed as endangered (Garnett 1992).
- In a report on threatened birds in Australia in 1990, it was listed as endangered (Brouwer and Garnett 1990).
The orange-bellied parrot has been recorded from four states within Australia; Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. Its conservation status varies from state to state within Australia. For example:
- The orange-bellied parrot is listed as threatened on the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (1988). Under this Act, an Action Statement for the recovery and future management of this species has been prepared.
- On the 2007 advisory list of threatened vertebrate fauna in Victoria, the orange-bellied parrot is listed as critically endangered.
In early 2011, 21 new 'founders' were collected from the wild in order to improve the captive flock's genetic diversity. These birds were shared among the three core institutions with previous orange-bellied parrot breeding experience (Taroona, Healesville Sanctuary and Adelaide Zoo) and were paired with existing captive birds to begin spreading new genes through the captive population.
In May 2011, media attention focussed on the 10 individuals transferred by aircraft from Tasmania to Healesville Sanctuary near Melbourne, which was described as a last-ditch effort to save the species from extinction. It is hoped that the new additions from the wild will improve the genetic diversity of the 80 birds at Healesville Sanctuary, which are all descended from three pairs. Captive populations in Hobart and Adelaide are also important to the aim of releasing captive bred birds back to the wild.
In July, 2012, it was announced that 19 of 21 pairs with founders had produced eggs and that across all three institutions, 31 fledglings had been produced from these new pairs.
Captive breeding was expanded at the end of 2011 when Priam Australia Pty Ltd, a commercial parrot breeding centre in New South Wales, received five pairs of orange-bellied parrots.
In August, 2012, a private zoo, Moonlit Sanctuary in Pearcedale, Victoria, received seven birds for display and possible breeding. The same month, another private zoo, Halls Gap Zoo in western Victoria, received five pairs of birds for breeding. With three larger breeding facilities and four smaller groups of birds involved in the captive breeding program, it is hoped the captive population will increase quickly.
The 2000 Action Plan for Australian Birds identifies the following potential threats to the orange-bellied parrot:
- Fragmentation and degradation of over-wintering habitat
- Competition with introduced seed-eaters
- Abandonment of former breeding habitat due to altered fire regime and competition for hollows (with the introduced common starling)
- Random events due to the small size of the population
- Disorientation from brightly lit fishing boats (during the migrations across Bass Strait)
- Introduced predators
- Disease (such as psittacine circoviral disease)
Other identified potential threats include:
- Lack of safety in numbers for a small bird attractive to avian predators (Brouwer and Garnett 1990)
- Historically was trapped for aviculture (Garnett 1992)
- A stomach virus is threatening a breeding program for the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot.
In 2013, the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team's Annual Report for 2012/13 (published October 2013) outlined the reasons for its decline and the threats to the orange-bellied parrot as follows:
'...Current knowledge suggests that habitat loss and degradation, particularly in the non-breeding range, has caused the decline. Low breeding participation by females has been implicated in recent declines (2000-2010). The species is also at risk from climate change, and the small population size places the species at increased risk from factors such as loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding, stochastic environmental events, predators and competitors, disease, and barriers to migration and movement.'
Impact on industrial development
The orange-bellied parrot earned the wrath of Victorian premier Jeff Kennett in the 1990s. A proposed relocation of the Coode Island Chemical storage facility to a location near Point Wilson, Victoria was jeopardised by the potential impacts upon orange-bellied parrot habitat. Mr Kennett described this species as a 'trumped-up corella'. (This epithet was later adopted as the title for the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team's newsletter.)
Orange-bellied parrots were considered in the impact assessment for the Woolnorth windfarm on Tasmania’s north-west coast. The planning proposal was thoroughly assessed by both State and Commonwealth regulators (having been determined to be a controlled action under the EPBC Act).
Surveys and collision risk modeling was undertaken as well as a population viability analysis to assess the impact on the species. The wind farm is not in the flight path of OBPs, but they do pass near by. In 2001, then Australian federal environment minister Robert Hill approved the wind farm.
To date no orange-bellied parrots have been found to collide with the turbines. Monitoring continues today as well as measures to reduce OBPs coming near the wind farm.
In 2006, the potential threats to the orange-bellied parrot were cited as the key reason for Commonwealth Minister rejecting the proposal to build the Bald Hills Wind Farm in eastern Victoria. It was found there were no significant risks to the species, and the decision was reversed. The company was provided with approval to proceed (under certain conditions). The intense media scrutiny at this time placed the orange-bellied parrot temporarily into the spotlight. In the subsequent months additional funding was provided for the parrot's recovery, and its status under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 was raised from endangered to critically endangered.
The orange-bellied parrot was first bred successfully in 1973 by South Australian aviculturist Fred Lewitska, after five years with no success. He repeated his success in 1974 before being directed to release the birds into the wild by authorities. He found that the species could be inactive in an aviary and was prone to obesity, like the related rock parrot.
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- Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team Annual Report 2012/13
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