How rare regent honeyeaters learn their mating song despite fears of extinction

How rare regent honeyeaters learn their mating song despite fears of extinction

The numbers of one of Australia’s rarest birds, the regent honeyeater, are so low that this breeding season conservationists have struggled to spot any in the wild.

Birdlife Australia’s NSW Woodland Bird program manager Mick Roderick said it set off alarm bells.

“The official line is that there are 250-350 regent honeyeaters left in the wild, that’s the ballpark,” he said.

“However, not being able to find virtually any birds in the middle of a breeding season suggests that this figure is optimistic. This has been a real concern for the people behind the bird recovery.”

In an effort to save the critically endangered species, a captive breeding program is underway and recently there was a large scale release of 50 birds near Kurri Kurri in the Lower Hunter region in New South Wales.

Mr Roderick said it was a crucial part of efforts to boost the wild population.

A medium sized black and yellow bird feeds a chick, sitting in a tree.
A conservation reared regent honeyeater chick enjoys feeding.(Provided: Lachlan Hall)

“Earlier this year, the Australian National University, in conjunction with other groups, did a population viability analysis, and that’s basically mapping the future of a species,” said he declared.

“They concluded that if we did nothing, the regent honeyeater would almost certainly be extinct within 10 years.”

Successful exit on the country of Wonnarua

The breeding program is led by the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, Birdlife Australia and the NSW Government’s Saving our Species programme.

The regent honeyeaters have been released into an endangered forest type on Wonnarua Country, land owned by the local Mindaribba Aboriginal Land Council (LALC).

A smoking ceremony, people stand around smoking gum leaves on the ground in a bush area.
A smoking ceremony took place when the regent honeyeaters were released into the land of Wonnarua.(Provided: Alex Pike, ECD)

This follows a similar large-scale release of 58 regent honeyeaters on the same ground last year.

After last year’s release, breeding activity was documented as well as the assimilation of zoo birds into wild flocks and this year’s birds also appear to be thriving.

“It’s a very productive area, the habitat is amazing, the ironbarks are blooming and the birds are doing very well,” Roderick said.

A medium-sized, black, white and yellow bird sits among a native flowering tree.
Mistletoe is an important food source for regent honeyeaters.(Provided: Mick Roderick)

“Now that we’ve let go of this year’s zoo birds, we’ve rediscovered some of the wild birds…which is amazing.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to see birds reared in a zoo form mixed flocks with wild birds.”

LALC Chief Executive Tara Dever said the successful release to the lands of Mindaribba LALC reflected the deep relationship between the birds and the country at the foot of Mount Tomalpin.

“This country, like its people and this wonderful bird, has survived massive change and upheaval over the past 250 years,” Ms Dever said.

“While conditions must be ideal to ensure the birds have enough food and shelter, the deep connection between First Nations people and this land contributed to the success of the liberation.”

Bird movements monitored

Tiny radio transmitters, designed to eventually fall off, were placed on just over half of the released birds to allow the program to track the birds over the next two months.

A medium sized black and yellow bird on a branch, with a small tracking device attached.
Tracking devices are already providing intriguing snippets of information about bird life in the wild.(Provided by: Mick Roderick/Mindaribba LALC)

“Monitoring will involve a small radio tracking team, following transmitter signals and recording the locations and behavior of individual birds to understand survival, breeding attempts and dispersal patterns,” Roderick said.

“Every day there’s a team of about four or five people there, stalking birds, following their movements, trying to find birds that have strayed, it’s really exciting.

“Every day we discover new things about what these birds are doing.”

Regent honeyeaters learn their song

One of the breeding program’s recent goals has been to help regent honeyeaters regain their unique culture of voice and song.

A black, white and yellow bird sitting on a bare branch with its beak open.
Juveniles have difficulty learning the unique song of regent honeyeaters due to the low number of mature birds.(Provided: Murray Chambers)

Due to their decreasing numbers, wild regent honeyeaters have gradually lost their distinctive mating song, as younger birds do not have much to learn from older birds.

The Taronga Conservation Society has tried to teach captive-bred birds the species’ unique call.

“Juvenile Regent Honeyeaters reared in a zoo are now housed in aviaries with wild adult birds to be exposed to their wild Regent Honeyeater song prior to release,” said the society’s wildlife conservation manager, Monique VanSluys.

“This crucial step allows the birds to learn and refine their distinctive song.”

Mr Roderick said there was evidence the approach was working.

“We’re trying to teach some of the very young birds that hatched this year the right wild regent honeyeater song, because a lot of the birds that are released to our ears don’t sound much like wild regent honeyeaters.

“So potentially there could be a problem with zoo birds attracting a wild female… so this tutoring is ongoing and the results have been really amazing,” he said.

A medium sized black and yellow bird sits among the flowers of a tree.
The release site is carefully chosen for its food sources and habitat.(Supplied: Supplied: Mick Roderick/Mindaribba LALC)

“Just from spending time with some of these birds, from this release I’ve already noticed a big difference between this year’s cohort and last year’s cohort…some of the males there this year sound certainly better than last year’s birds.”

Since 2008, a total of 400 regent honeyeaters have been released into the wild in the Hunter Valley and primarily in northeast Victoria in Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park.

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