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ORANGE-BELLIED PARROT
Neophema chrysogaster

Orange-bellied Parrot
Orange-bellied Parrot
Neophema chrysogaster
Photograph courtesy of Ingrid Albion & Ron Sutton, Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service.

Efforts to save this rare bird from extinction are being made by the State Governments of South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria, The Commonwealth Government, Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU) and World Wildlife Fund (Australia).

Australia's Orange-bellied Parrot can be ranked with the Giant Panda, Whooping Crane and Siberian Tiger as amongst the rarest and most endangered of the Wildlife. Only 100 to 200 individuals still exist.

Concern for the plight of the Orange-bellied Parrot is so great that the State Governments of Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, the Commonwealth Government, the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union and the World Wildlife Fund have joined forces in an effort to build up its numbers and save it from extinction.

Your interest and concern can help their efforts. In this Article:

IDENTIFICATION

  • grass-green upper parts
  • bill: grey in adults, brown in juveniles
  • two-tone blue frontal band, edge of wing
  • belly: bright orange, variable in extent
  • yellow under-tail
  • size: 21cm (8 in) (a little longer than a Budgie)

Similar species, with which some confusion over identification may occur:

The most distinctive features of the Orange-bellied Parrot are brightness of the green, size of the orange belly and distinctive harsh, buzzing alarm-like call.

WHERE DOES THE ORANGE-BELLIED PARROT LIVE?

The Orange-bellied Parrot is a migratory bird. It spends its summers in Tasmania and its winters along the coasts of Victoria and South Australia.

THE SUMMER BREEDING SEASON

During the summer, the Orange-bellied Parrot lives on the open coastal plains of South-west Tasmania. It feeds on the seeds of various plants of these "Button Grass" plants and nests in adjacent forests and woodland "Copses".

The Orange-bellied Parrot's food requirements vary at different stages of the breeding season. For this season it will fly up to five kilometres from the nest to forage for food.

Like most parrots, the Orange-bellied Parrot does not build a nest but lays its eggs in the hollow trunks and branches of Eucalypts. Up to six eggs are laid in a clutch.

ON THE MOVE

In March, the birds leave South-west Tasmania and head North for the Mainland. The migration is a protracted affair taking up to two months (the return journey takes far less time). The birds move up the West Coast of Tasmania, feeding mainly on coastal grasses and seeds of sea rocket (Cakile maritima) where it grows directly above high tide.

When they reach the North coast of Tasmania and the Western Islands of Bass Strait, especially King Island, their major source of food is beaded Glasswort (Sarcocornia quinqueflora).

WINTER HOME

The Orange-bellied Parrots begin arriving on the mainland from late March onwards. They disperse along the Coast from as far east as the South Gippsland Lakes to Lake Alexandrina near Adelaide in the west. The main concentrations of the small populations occur in two Salt march areas in Port Phillip Bay and along the beaches of South-East South Australia.

Different groups of the population over winter in places which supply different foods.

Victoria

The Orange-bellied Parrots which remain in Victoria feed mainly on Salt marsh where they favour beaded Glasswort and two shrubby Glasswort species, Sclerostegia arbuscuia and Halosarcia halocnemoides. At Werribee near Geelong, birds also feed on pasture weeds and in the filtration paddocks of the nearby sewage farm.

On the Bellarine Peninsula the birds regularly visit the local golf course to feed on seeding fairway grasses and adjacent Salt marsh.

South Australia

About one third of the known population of Orange-belled Parrots migrate as far as South Australia. Here they live on the beaches and in dune systems immediately behind the shore. These birds live mainly on seeds of sea rocket and 'Buzzies' (Acaena novae-zelandiae).

THE POPULATION DECLINE - WHEN DID IT HAPPEN?

Historical information suggests that the population of the Orange-bellied Parrot has fluctuated since the first European settlement. These are reports of "thousands" from the 1830's, 1880's and the 1910's.

The decline appears to have been most dramatic since the 1940's but the population may have stabilised in recent years (1975 - 1985) at its present very low level off 100 to 200 birds.

WHY ARE THERE SO FEW?

Studies have shown that Orange-bellied Parrot pairs remain together for life, with the same pair occupying a nest for up to five years. At present there are estimated to be forty breeding pairs. As up to six eggs may be laid each season, it may seem surprising that the population is not expanding. However, natural events take a heavy toll. Of all nests studied, the average of young reared is 1.7 per nest: this is a similar fledging rate to the many more successful species.

Then, of course, as a migratory bird it has to face the arduous Bass Strait crossing. The juveniles are mostly unaided by adults, which appear to migrate independently.

The mainland habitats of the Orange-bellied Parrot have been dramatically reduced since European settlement. Within the remaining habitats competition for food has increased since the introduction of other seed-eating birds like Sparrows, Goldfinches and Greenfinches and even by the native Blue-wing Parrot. Predators like the introduced fox and feral cats also take their toll.

Added to all these burdens is the strain caused by the very fact that the population is now so small. The birds still disperse over much of the original range but are spread so thinly that there is no longer much "safety in numbers".

WHAT IS BEING DONE TO SAVE THE ORANGE-BELLIED PARROT?

A team of specialists has been established to coordinate a recovery effort on the Orange-bellied Parrot based on a Recovery Plan produced in 1984. The aim of this effort is to reverse the population decline by increasing the number of breeding adults through better juvenile survival.

This involves:

Protecting the Home - Most of the areas used by Orange-bellied Parrots at different times of the year are now known. Many of these habitats need very careful management to ensure that they provide a safe home, adequate food and minimum of disturbance. Especially vulnerable are habitats used during migration, the Salt marshes of the highly populated perimeter of Port Phillip Bay and the shores of South Australia, south of Coorong.

Stocking the Larder - Central to any efforts to help Orange-bellied Parrots is the need to ensure adequate food supplies. The birds exploit a variety of foods in the most areas they visit. It has been found that some controlled burning in south-west Tasmania, exclusion of stock from known Orange-bellied Parrot habitats in all three states, and the propagation of plants in some areas, will help improve food supplies.

Keeping Enemies Away - In many areas used by Orange-bellied Parrots, predators abound. On mainland Australia both foxes and cats turned wild are most destructive to the bird. These are no foxes in Tasmania but feral cats are a problem and in south-west Tasmania the European starling competes vigorously with Orange-bellied Parrots for nest sites. Measures to control these enemies are being taken.

The Numbers Game - Each year the young birds are counted in south-west Tasmania and on King Island to determine how successfully they bred. Regular counts are also made throughout the full winter range of the bird to establish how the population is faring. In the future these counts will be most valuable in assessing the success of the recovery effort.

How Can You Help? - The fact that you are interested in the fate of the Orange-bellied Parrot is helpful. It does need friends!

Having read this article, you will know when and where to look for it. State wildlife departments will be very grateful to receive any reports of Orange-bellied Parrot sightings.

Each winter, surveys are conducted over a nominated weekend usually in July to count the population. If you would like to participate and are confident that you can identify Orange-bellied Parrots, please contact the RAOU who will put you in touch with the State coordinator.

If you live in an area where Orange-bellied Parrots occur, be it in summer, on migration, or in winter, you can play a valuable role in the recovery effort. Should you become aware of problems, which may jeopardise the bird or its habitat, please inform you State or Commonwealth Wildlife Authority or the RAOU.

Finally, a brief word of warning, Orange-bellied Parrots are very sensitive to persistent disturbance, so please do not pursue them. It may cause the birds undue stress; it may make them leave the area altogether.

Note: The above article was taken from a leaflet distributed by The Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service, The Victorian Fisheries & Wildlife Service, The South Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service, The Tasmanian National Parks & Wildlife Service, Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU), and World Wildlife Fund (Australia). It was distributed throughout the lower half of Australia to make aviculturists and members of the public aware of the danger of the Orange-bellied Parrot becoming extinct. The survival of this species along with many other species of parrots depends heavily on the efforts of both aviculturists and members of the public.

UPDATES

Notes on the Orange-bellied Parrot from a June 1997 episode of Bourke's Backyard (Australia):

Q: Why are Orange-bellied Parrots declining?

A: Over the years there has been a high level of development and therefore a lot of the saltmarshes needed by the Orange-bellied have been degraded or disappeared all together. So it makes sense to conserve as much as those areas as is possible.

Orange-bellied Parrot
Orange-bellied Parrot
Neophema chrysogaster
Photograph courtesy of Ingrid Albion & Ron
Sutton, Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service

The Orange-bellied Parrot is a very rare species and any major catastrophe could cause the end of it. It is important that we have something in place to preserve this species.

I started out by taking ten Orange-bellied Parrots from the wild for an approved Captive Breeding program. Within three to four months the birds developed Beak and Feather disease and in the end we were left with only three birds. I spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering what on earth I had done.

Of the three remaining birds, we had one cock bird and two hens. Contrary to most beliefs (as with most parrots) the cock bird paired with both hens. One hen produced three young and the other, one young.

Q: At this stage, approximately how many Orange-bellied Parrots have been bred under the program?

A: We have produced over 200 young: 69 of those have been released back into the wild and we know of 8 since being recorded on the mainland or in Tasmania.

The main purpose of all our work is to ensure the survival of the bird in the wild.

"It will be very sad if the only Orange-bellied Parrots we ever see are in cages - but at least that is better than in museums…"

HISTORICAL NOTES

The ornithologist, John Gould collected and skinned Orange-bellied Parrots in the 1830's before sending them back to a British Museum. He found the parrots on the Actaeon Islands off South Eastern Tasmania.

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