Scientists race to stop parrot massacre in Tasmania

Australian scientists are racing to save critically endangered swift parrots from being “massacred” by sugar glider predators in Tasmania’s ancient forests.

The rare parrots migrate to Tasmania to breed, and this year abundant food supplies will draw them to forests “infested” by marsupial sugar gliders that love to feast on eggs, chicks, and even sleeping adult birds.

“If we don’t intervene immediately, this year could be a huge blow to the conservation of this species,” Dr Dejan Stojanovic, a researcher at the Australian National University, told Sky News.

But he thinks the birds can be saved – using a new light-sensitive nesting box that closes during the night to protect the sleeping parrots from marsupials searching for food after dark.

A swift parrot feeds a chick in a nest box. Pic: ANU
Image:
A swift parrot feeds a chick in a nest box. Pic: ANU

“It’s literally like locking the front door,” said Dr Stojanovic, explaining that tests of the boxes, in areas with no sugar gliders, boosted the parrot population by 300.

“They just used the boxes and got on with raising their babies,” he said. “Now we know the birds are okay with it we’re ready to roll it out.”

Scientists have installed nest boxes to protect the parrots during the night. Pic: ANU
Image:
Scientists have installed nest boxes to protect the parrots during the night. Pic: ANU

The swift parrot is one of just two migratory parrots in the world, and there are estimated to be fewer than 2,500 left in a declining population.

Much of the drop is thanks to humans. In recent years deforestation has seriously depleted Tasmania’s ancient forests, slashing the birds’ habitat and making them more likely to come face-to-face with a sugar glider.

“In areas where deforestation is worse, the likelihood of being eaten by a sugar glider is higher,” Dr Stojanovic said. “Habitat is the most important issue and it’s still being lost by industrial forestry.”

The parrot’s defence strategy of nesting in hollows where larger predators cannot reach is also useless against squirrel-like sugar gliders, which were introduced to Tasmania by people.

The boxes close at night, ensuring the sugar gliders cannot reach the chicks. Pic: ANU
Image:
The boxes close at night, ensuring the sugar gliders cannot reach the chicks. Pic: ANU

A crowdfunding campaign to finance the boxes had on Wednesday raised nearly AUS $33,000 in less than 24 hours, a success Dr Stojanovic described as “overwhelming”.

“People really identify with this parrot that’s in trouble and needs a helping hand,” he said.

But he added Australia must do more than install nest boxes and address logging if the parrots are to survive.

“Unless we address the broader issue it’s fiddling while Rome burns.”

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