Environment

Indigenous leaders shoulder duty of saving parrot in peril

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Being the totem for an indigenous clan and having spectacular plumage and unusual nesting habits turn out to be no guarantees for survival.

That's the case for the golden-shouldered parrot. Known as the "Alwal" to the Olkola traditional owners, the birds once soared in huge flocks over savanna woodlands and grasslands of the central Cape York Peninsula in Queensland.

Endangered: Golden-shouldered parrots in a termite mound in Cape York.

Photo: Via Bush Heritage

Reduced to fewer than 2000 individuals in the wild, the parrot is now listed as endangered both nationally and in Queensland, a status also recognised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

A bid to restore numbers fizzled out 15 years ago before the recent launch of new revival plan. And for the first time for a threatened species program, it will be led by an indigenous person, support group Bush Heritage says.

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"It's exciting for us," says elder Mike Ross, chairman of the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, which took back control of some 800,000 hectares in the region less than four years ago. "We know the country, and we know how important it is to look after the totem."

Mr Ross said early work has identified six other species placing pressure on the bird.

Goannas eat their eggs and pied butcherbirds ambush fledgling chicks and adults, as do feral cats. Pigs, horses and cattle compete for food, particularly after "storm burns" – wildfires ignited by lightning – that trigger growth of cockatoo grass and its rich seeds.

"During the wet season, there's competition with other animals," Mr Ross said. "Everything runs for the green shoots after the storm burns.

Olkola elder Mike Ross, leader of a national recovery team aiming to boost parrot numbers, with Bush Heritage ecologist Allana Brown.

Photo: Brian Cassey, via Bush Heritage

The nesting needs of the parrot add to the complexity of recovery efforts.

The Alwal typically prefer termite mounds of a certain vintage – 30-50-years-old – to burrow in and lay their clutch of up to six eggs.

Getting the timing right is crucial, as active termites can fill in holes or even cement the eggs in, Bush Heritage says.

Cattle can trample the mounds, while pigs rug against them.

The toughest period for the parrots is often during the wet season, when immature birds can die of starvation.

Those termite mounds play another usual function. During the wet season when food is scarce, the parrots sometimes use clay from mounds to neutralise the toxins in new growth from Cooktown ironwood.

"We know the [parrot's] population is still in decline," said Allana Brown, an ecologist and healthy country manager for Bush Heritage, who is working with Mr Ross and his team.

The aim is to bring indigenous culture and Western science together to tilt the odds back in favour of the parrot.

"When you see them up in the trees, they look like little jewels," she said.

As few as 2000 of the alwal, or golden-shouldered parrot, remain in the wild.

Photo: Geoffrey Jones

One crucial task may be realigning traditional burning practices that, in combination with natural burns, helped keep grasslands relatively free of invading woody species such as tea-trees. The Melaleuca provide cover for predatory birds while reducing grass.

A first step is creating the opportunity for traditional owners to return to the land, bringing their mosaic landscape burning patterns with them.

"The Olkoli are coming back and they are bringing back the Alwal as well," Ms Brown said.

Peter Hannam

Peter Hannam is Environment Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. He covers broad environmental issues ranging from climate change to renewable energy for Fairfax Media.

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