There has been little good to say about the recent history of the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot. Numbers of the small migratory bird, which makes a return trip from Tasmania’s south-west wilderness to the mainland’s coastal scrubland each year, have fallen so sharply scientists consider it at risk of extinction within five years.
Just 23 birds arrived at the species’ breeding site at Melaleuca, deep in the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area, last spring. But in just six months there are tentative positive signs, with the number of birds heading north for the winter reaching 118, the first time the flock has topped 100 in more than a decade.
Dr. Shannon Troy, a wildlife biologist with the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water, and Environment, says the population has swelled in three ways, some of them the result of work undertaken by a national recovery team. The group of migrating birds arriving in Melaleuca for the breeding season was met by 34 adult birds released from captivity, including some from a new breeding facility at Five Mile Beach.
The adults from different backgrounds together produced 37 fledglings and were joined by another 49 captive-bred juveniles. Not every bird survived the warmer months until the parrots headed north between February and April, and the rigors of long-haul travel mean less than half those that leave are likely to return.
Troy says a good scenario would be 40-to-50 parrots turning up in Melaleuca in September for the next round of breeding. While still a perilously low number, it would be more than double the wild population of a couple of years ago, when it fell to 17.