The swift parrot (Lathamus discolor)
is listed as endangered under the
TasmanianThreatened Species Protection Act 1995
and Endangered on the Commonwealth's
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
The swift parrot is 23-25 cm long, bigger than a budgie but smaller than a rosella. Streamlined for rapid flight, it is green with red on the throat, chin and forehead. It also has red patches on its shoulders and under the wings. It has a blue crown and cheeks, blue on its wings and a long, pointed tail. It can be readily identified in flight by its bright red underwing patches.
In the breeding season, males and females form pairs. It is not unusual to find more than one pair nesting close to each other. Nest sites may be re-used but not necessarily in successive years. The use of a particular nest site depends on the availability of food in that area.
After the breeding season, in February and March, the entire population flies north, dispersing throughout Victoria and NSW. On the mainland they are semi-nomadic, often flying around in large flocks, foraging on flowering eucalypts and lerps (lerps are a protective covering secreted by some insects).
Like other migratory species, swift parrots form into flocks prior to migrating. Some of these can be quite large consisting of up to 500 birds. It appears they break up into small flocks of 10-20 birds to cross Bass Strait during the day.
Why is it a threatened species?
The swift parrot fits the criteria because its numbers are low and do not appear to be increasing. In fact, there is some indication that its numbers may be continuing to decline. Summer counts (1995-96) estimated the population at less than 1000 breeding pairs.
Predation by sugar gliders is considered a major threat to the species. Another reason for the swift parrot's threatened status is its blue gum habitat is mostly on unprotected land and is disappearing.
To understand why the swift parrot is threatened you need to have some understanding of its ecology. Swift parrots are what we call breeding endemics. This means they only breed in Tasmania. They spend winter on the mainland, dispersed throughout Victoria and NSW.
Why are blue gums important?
Prior to summer, usually August, swift parrots return to Tasmania to breed. Nest sites in eastern Tasmania are usually located near the coast in dry forests on upper slopes and ridge tops. They make their nests inside a hollow tree branch or trunk in very old or dead trees, which can take hundreds of years to form. They are very important homes for many birds, and animals like possums and bats.The birds mainly feed on the nectar of blue gum flowers (Eucalyptus globulus
). Their breeding range is restricted to the areas in Tasmania where blue gums occur, which is on Tasmania's east coast.
Unfortunately blue gums have been cleared for agriculture and are continuing to be cleared. Also timber harvesting removes old trees so that the age of our blue gum forests is lowered. Old trees produce more flowers and nectar for the swift parrots and other nectar-feeding animals. Loss of old trees means there is less food for the swift parrots to eat during the breeding season and is the major reason for the swift parrot's decline. Old trees also provide nesting hollows essential for the breeding success of the swift parrot.
Its call is a
What is being done?
Protection from sugar gliders
It is estimated that almost 85 per cent of the swift parrot population is at risk each season of being killed by sugar gliders. Sugar gliders eat swift parrot eggs, chicks and even adult birds, drastically decreasing the reproductive success of the species.
Research has shown that sugar gliders can have a devastating impact on swift parrot breeding success, with statistics showing 79 per cent of nests and 65 per cent of breeding females on mainland Tasmania can fall victim to sugar gliders each year.
The impact of sugar gliders was identified by the Commonwealth’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee as a key threat to the swift parrot, resulting in the status of the swift parrot being elevated in 2016 to “critically endangered” under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
The first step in being able to reduce the impact of sugar gliders is to determine if trapping them in swift parrot breeding areas is feasible. The trial involves the deployment of 80 new nest boxes and the monitoring of existing nest boxes for the presence of sugar gliders. The trial is hoped to protect swift parrots from sugar glider attacks and improve breeding outcomes of the species. Nest boxes will be placed in swift parrot breeding areas and monitored.
Since 2001 considerable areas of two threatened forest communities which are important for the swift parrot have been protected through covenants, land management agreements, and management prescriptions delivered through the forest practices system. In November 2015 it was decided that planned forestry operations on Bruny Island would not occur, pending the outcome of a national review of the status of the swift parrot. Bruny Island is an important breeding area as there are no sugar gliders there. Volunteers find and count parrots in mainland States and Tasmania. This helps to gather important information including identification of the bird's habitat.
A report on the outcomes of the trial will be produced in March next year.
There is an Environment Australia sponsored recovery plan in progress for the swift parrot. This identifies the threats to it and the action required to reduce these threats and prevent the species from continuing to decline. One obvious thing is to stop cutting down blue gum trees. Instead we should be retaining blue gums and also planting them on the east coast within their natural range. Education programs have been set up to encourage planting of blue gums and there has been a good response. However, it will be a long time before they can support swift parrots. Much research is still needed to work out the big picture effects of blue gum flowering on swift parrot breeding success.
As with the orange-bellied parrot, the swift parrot is a good example of how co-operation between the States is needed to ensure the survival of a species. In Tasmania it is important that we protect and encourage the parrot's breeding and feeding habitat.
Since 2001 considerable areas of two threatened forest communities which are important for the swift parrot have been protected through covenants, land management agreements, and management prescriptions delivered through the forest practices system. In November 2015 it was decided that forestry operations on Bruny Island would not be scheduled pending the outcome of a National review of the status of the swift parrot. Bruny Island is an important breeding area as there are no sugar gliders there. Mainland States where the parrot spends its winter need to protect this part of its habitat also. Volunteers find and count parrots in mainland States and Tasmania. This helps to gather important information including identification of the bird's habitat.
Another threat to the swift parrots comes from collisions with man-made objects. Collisions can be reduced by placing pot plants in front of windows or applying a stencil to the window. Shade cloths can be thrown over chain mesh fences in areas where swift parrots feed.
The swift parrot distribution map is shown below:
Source: National Recovery Plan for the Swift Parrot Lathamus discolor 2011
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