I was sitting at my desk at home last week typing busily away when I became aware of a flurry of activity in the native cherry outside the window. I thought it might be one of the varied-trillers; the male and female can often be seen around the garden, most recently with a hungry chick in tow. The trillers would have been a lovely enough distraction, but in fact it was a rose-crowned fruit-dove. The male’s bright colouring of yellow, orange, green, grey and pink really stood out against the dark green foliage.

Rose-crowned Fruit-dove. Credit: Mischievous Magpie

I’d never seen this dove before let alone found one in my garden. Rose-crowned fruit-doves are notoriously difficult to see as they tend to sit in the canopy hidden amongst the leaves where they look remarkably leaf-like themselves, so the fact that a male was foraging in a tree right outside my office window was a pretty special thing. This one was quite bold and not at all fazed by the yellow figbirds and olive-backed orioles also foraging noisily nearby. In fact he seemed to be posing and it would have been rude not to sneak outside and take his photo. Once back inside I added him to the growing list of species I’ve recorded on my bush block in the last couple of years. He’s number 88, but he’s so much more than just a number.

We all have birds on our blocks and we probably can hear more of them than we’ll ever see. But what do they actually contribute to our lives? Birds mean many things to many people. For some people birds are a means to an end, for example their meat is used for food or their feathers for decoration; others appreciate them for their colours or songs and may create paintings or write poetry about them. The thrill of the chase drives some enthusiasts to travel thousands of kilometres just for a sighting of something unusual. Scientists get excited about birds too as they can teach us not only about their own life histories but also about the workings of our natural environment. Some people find them a nuisance when they eat the best of the veggie patch. But for many of us they simply make the experience of rural living that bit more enjoyable.

Large-billed Gerygone. Credit: Mischievous Magpie

Exploring the values that Australians hold for native birds has shown me they play a far greater role in our lives than we might realise. Over three hundred different birds lend their names to Australian streets, towns and waterways. Would it surprise you to know that swan is the most popular breed with over 250 locations named after it? We see images of native birds on our coins and stamps, while government, councils and the defense forces use birds as emblems to reflect their values. And of course Australia’s love affair with sport would be far different without the Crows, the Roosters, the Magpies, the Sea-Eagles, the Kookaburras and all the rest. Birds add richness to our language giving us colorful and unique idioms such as ‘ostrich policies’ and ‘budgie smugglers’, someone can be a ‘drongo’ and something can be ‘grouse’.

Bird watching is a popular activity and contributes significant amounts of money to regional and remote economies around Australia, not just from local twitchers, but also from international visitors. Overseas our international identity is wrapped up in many of the creatures unique to our country: tourists flock to buy gifts such as tea-towels, post-cards and posters illustrated with parrots, emus and kookaburras. And what economic value could we place upon the environmental services birds provide such as pollination of plants and pest control through feeding on insects and rodents?

Tawny Frogmouth. Credit Mischievous Magpie

Yet for all our native birds contribute to our society, they are neither as loved nor as protected as they need to be. There are over 800 species of native birds in Australia but around a quarter are currently endangered. Take for example the orange-bellied parrot. It is one of only two migratory parrots found in Australia. It is also one of the world’s most endangered animals. Experts estimate there are about thirty adults left in the wild. Another hundred or so exist in a captive breeding program and it’s hoped that in a few years’ time their offspring can be released back into the wild. But will the habitat they need still be available to them or will it have been developed for our own purposes? That so many species of birds face extinction is a national tragedy. When I see a logo of a Tasmanian Tiger on a beer bottle, I wonder what society must have been thinking to drive such a creature to extinction; what will future generations make of us, with our resources and riches, if we allow so many more of the species we’re entrusted with to perish on our watch?

Orange-bellied Parrot. Credit: Chris Tzaros

In the Top End we are lucky to live with bountiful biodiversity, but even so, over 200 species of wildlife found in the NT are endangered.

Our birds face threats on many fronts and habitat loss is the most significant. While the rate of development around about us can seem daunting, through the Land for Wildlife program we have an opportunity to stall habitat loss to some degree. That’s why I think Land for Wildlife is so important: we can contribute towards the protection of native birds through managing our properties in an appropriate way. By working with our neighbours and other Land for Wildlifers to protect existing habitat and plant new bird-friendly areas, we can provide essential nesting and foraging resources for our Top End birds. This gives them a far better chance of survival against the threats they may face elsewhere.

During my research, I’ve been interviewing many people involved in recovery efforts for some of our threatened birds. One story emerged that should encourage all “Land for Wildlifers”. A lady in rural Victoria noticed a large flock of unusual birds feeding on the ground near her property. She identified them as the endangered swift parrot and contacted a member of the swift parrot recovery team at Birds Australia. These birds hadn’t been recorded in this area before and the grazing behavior she observed was previously unknown to scientists studying these birds. She gathered hours of video footage which resulted in the scientific knowledge of this species being rewritten and her local area has become an important reserve for the endangered birds. This passionate lady has gone on to become a champion in the cause of swift parrot recovery.

Swift Parrot. Credit: Chris Tzaros

By understanding what we get out of birds, we can also identify ways that we can give something back to birds. For example as a group, we Land for Wildlifers hold a great deal of knowledge about land management in the Top End. All those hours spent weeding, planting and observing wildlife are worth more if we share our experiences with others. One way we can do that is through citizen science where the public, interested amateurs and professionals can all contribute to scientific knowledge, for example by recording our wildlife sightings on the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA). If you visit the ALA webpage and go to the “Explore” tab (http://www.ala.org.au/explore/) you can view which species have been recorded in your area. Go to “Share” and you can upload your own sightings. I did a search for my immediate area and discovered that of all the 150 odd bird species recorded, there’s only one previous record for a rose-crowned fruit-dove. My record will make two. But I’ve also realised there are at least 70 more bird species to add to my bush-list. Can’t wait to see them all!

So, take note of what you see in that tree or that different call you hear one morning, and share it; it may mean a lot more than you imagine.

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Presentation delivered to CDU Open Day 28/08/11

What do birds mean to you?

Sunday lunch? Birdwatching? Pollination?

I’d like to suggest that Australian birds are much more valuable to us than we may realize.

Over 300 bird species give their names to Australian streets and towns.

85 Aussie stamps feature different native birds.

Our governments, councils and defense forces all use birds as emblems to symbolize their values.

Think about sports teams: we’ve got the kookaburras, the swans, the magpies, the crows, the eagles, sea-eagles, roosters…

Birds also add richness to our language: we talk about budgie smugglers and ostrich policies; something can be grouse and someone a drongo.

 

Examples of bird values

 

The images above represent some of the values our society holds for birds. For example those in the top left corner represent a cultural symbolic value.

In the right top corner we see a scientific interest in particular species of birds.

The artwork represents an aesthetic value.

A spiritual value is found in the role that native birds play in Aboriginal myths.

And of course we also hold a utilitarian value for some species of birds.

 

Like a shag on a rock

 

I chose this picture because many of our native birds are quite literally facing this predicament.

There are over 800 bird species in Australia.

Two thirds are in long term decline.

1 in 5 are endangered.

Habitat loss is their main threat.

So what are the solutions?

Well, my research aims to strengthen the connection between our cultural heritage and our natural heritage by describing how native birds are valued by Australians today.

To do this I’ve established a set of 12 value categories. Several of these are expressed in this picture, such as: conservation, cultural symbolism, anthropomorphism and ecology.

First I measured how each of our native birds is represented in Australian society and you just saw some examples of that.

Then I surveyed the general public and I asked them about their attitudes towards native birds.

Now I’m using qualitative case studies to investigate the social forces at work in threatened bird conservation and how the values held for specific threatened birds may affect the success of strategies used to conserve them.

For example take the orange-bellied parrot.

 

Orange-bellied parrots in captivity

 

The orange-bellied parrot is one of only two migratory parrots in Australia. It’s also one of the world’s most endangered animals. Experts estimate there are between 26 to 40 adult birds left in the wild.

In summer the wild birds breed in the forests of south-west Tasmania, in winter they feed on the coastal saltmarsh of Victoria and South Australia.

Each year these tiny birds fly back and forth across the Bass Strait not knowing whether drought or development will have left them the resources they need to survive.

You might have already heard about the orange-bellied parrot as it’s been the focus of much negative media attention due to supposedly preventing the development of a chemical plant in Victoria in 1994.

The Victorian Premier at the time, Jeff Kennett, made his feelings clear when he called it a trumped up corella.

This parrot is probably even more famous for supposedly preventing Bald Hills wind farm from going ahead 12 years later.

In both cases the media reported that these developments didn’t go ahead because orange-bellied parrots would be adversely affected by them.

For example chemical spillage from the chemical plant could ruin their habitat and the birds could fly into the wind turbines.

But in actual fact it was for economic and political reasons that these developments didn’t go ahead. Nothing to do with concern for the parrots.

This tiny endangered bird was picked up and bandied around like a political football.

There is also an insurance population of about 100 birds which are part of a captive breeding program. If the captive birds breed successfully over the next few years they may be released back into the wild.

But what will happen in the meantime?

Will the scientific community have worked out by then why the population’s declining so dramatically?

Will there be any wild birds left to teach the captive ones where to breed or where to migrate to?

Will landholders on the mainland protect the saltmarshes these birds need or will it be developed to suit our own needs?

Is this migratory bird which has evolved to fly thousands of kilometers over its lifetime fated to exist only in captivity?

Millions of dollars have already been invested in conserving this little bird. Should yet more money be spent trying to keep it alive when the odds for its long term survival seem so low?

And yet, can a wealthy modern society as we have in Australia today allow a species to go extinct under its watch?

The phrase trumped up corella has come to symbolise the significant cultural, economic and attitudinal differences that need to be addressed if we want to succeed in rescuing this beautiful little bird.

These decisions are made by society and are based on the values we hold about preserving our natural heritage.

Society decides whether it’s worth it or not. Society includes you and me.

So, next time you come across a bird….either in a tree, on a label or a coin….think again about what birds mean to us, how diminished our lives would be without them and how we can ensure they remain a valuable part of our future.