Weighing a mere 45-50 grams, the Orange-bellied Parrot is a small bird classified as critically endangered. It is one of only two parrot species, the other being the Swift Parrot, that undertake an annual migration from their breeding grounds in south-west Tasmania to the south-eastern coast of mainland Australia, specifically sites in South Australia and Victoria.
Once seen in groups numbering in the hundreds, the Orange-bellied Parrot now rarely forms groups of more than five individuals. In 2016, the population plummeted to below 20 individuals.
The underlying causes contributing to their low survival rate remain poorly understood. By utilising the newly developed ATLAS (Advanced Tracking and Localisation of Animals in real-life Systems) transmitters, experts from Zoos Victoria and Deakin University hope to evaluate the effectiveness of the system in collecting precise spatial and temporal information regarding the parrots' habitat use and movement patterns, thereby enriching their knowledge and informing recovery initiatives.
Dr. Michael Magrath, Senior Research Manager (Wildlife Conservation & Science) at Zoos Victoria, emphasises the value of obtaining fine-scale data on habitat use and movement for the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Program. Such information enhances understanding of the species' specific habitat preferences, including foraging, shelter, and roosting sites. “This could be of particular relevance when releasing birds from breeding programs into new sites, both in Tasmania and on the mainland,” he said.
In line with the recovery efforts, a state-of-the-art breeding facility has been established at Healesville Sanctuary. Captive populations at Healesville Sanctuary and Werribee Open Range Zoo are being maintained to bolster numbers and provide support for reintroduction into the wild.
However, the population growth remains slow. This year, 74 birds returned to Tasmania for the breeding season, slightly higher than last year's count of 70 individuals.
“Currently, one of the major challenges to recovery of the Orange-bellied Parrot is the low rate of survival, particularly of birds in their first year of life,” said Dr Magrath.
By affixing transmitters to juvenile birds, the tracking project aims to compile comprehensive data on migratory routes and stopover locations. The ATLAS system employs multiple receiver stations to record the locations of the lightweight UHF (Ultra High Frequency) transmitters attached to the released birds. Each receiver station utilises high-accuracy GPS-calibrated clocks to estimate individual tag locations by analysing the time difference between the arrival of signals from a specific transmitter at the various stations.
Tracking tower to help trace Orange bellied parrot movement (Image credit Werribee Open Range Zoo)
The data collected through ATLAS will provide invaluable insights into how to better protect the parrots' habitat, identify and manage threats, and improve the prospects of recovery for the Orange-bellied Parrot population. With any luck, these efforts will lead to a substantial increase in the number of parrots to triple digit returns.
For anyone looking to be involved in saving these beautiful birds, the Orange-bellied Parrot Tasmanian Program team regularly look for volunteers to help care for them. Add a bit of colour to your life by playing your part in helping this critically endangered parrot.
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