Over 80 critically endangered parrots have recently returned to their breeding ground in Tasmania, which is the highest number in 15 years. The species, known as the orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), almost faced functional extinction despite decades of dedicated breeding programs and research into their conservation. In 2016, only three wild female orange-bellied parrots returned from their annual migration to the Australian mainland. However, their numbers now seem to be heading in the right direction, thanks to the efforts of a huge team of researchers and volunteers.

Wildlife biologist Shannon Troy explained to Georgie Burgess at the ABC that volunteers have been crucial to helping researchers figure out how to save these difficult birds from extinction. For years, releasing captive-bred birds had not successfully increased the species’ numbers in the wild. Most young parrots did not survive the journey between their summer breeding ground in Melaleuca, Tasmania, and their warm, winter foraging sites on the southern coastal salt marshes of mainland Australia. While the latest news is encouraging, there is still much work to be done to protect and conserve this beautiful species.

“A lot of us spend the whole spring holding our breath waiting to see what’s going to happen,” says Troy, who is Program Manager at Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania.

Orange-bellied parrots are among the three species of parrots that undertake a dangerous long-distance migration, which requires a certain level of fitness. Unfortunately, out of the 139 birds that left Melaleuca, only 58 returned last year, but this is a higher number than in previous years. These small and fragile avians face numerous threats, including the destruction of their winter habitats due to agriculture and urban development since the European settlements. The remaining areas are now inhabited by invasive predators such as cats and foxes.

Furthermore, the changing fire regimes in their protected breeding sites have also contributed to the decline of the parrots’ numbers. Previously, Tasmanian Aboriginal people managed these sites, but fewer burn-offs have caused a decline in their herb and sedge food plants, which are among the first vegetation to grow back after fires.

All of these factors have led to a significant decline in the orange-bellied parrot population, making them more vulnerable to diseases due to their low genetic diversity. Their small gene pool has also caused problems within the captive population, where captive-bred birds have differently shaped wings than their wild counterparts, which may contribute to their mortality when released.

“Unless juvenile mortality rates can be reduced from 80 percent to about 60 percent, the wild population will not be self-sustaining,” explain Australian National University conservation biologists Dejan Stojanovic and Robert Heinsohn in a recent update on the orange-bellied parrot’s status.

At the moment, there are no known ways to reduce mortality rates for nestlings except for optimizing their body condition. As a result, these precious birds are currently receiving supplementary feeding. In Tasmania, new burn-off regimes are being tested in hopes of improving their natural food sources, which may have contributed to the increased survival rate this year, according to Troy’s suggestions.

Individual birds and every nest have been managed by researchers like Troy. Moonlit Sanctuary, Zoos Victoria, and the Five Mile Beach Wildlife Management Facility have all contributed to captive breeding and release programs since 2013.

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A team of volunteers at Melaleuca is responsible for monitoring the birds, keeping an eye out for predators and health concerns. This close monitoring provides scientists with valuable information for managing endangered species.

“Few conservation programs can scrutinize individual fitness at such fine resolution as is possible for orange-bellied parrots,” write Stojanovic and Heinsohn.

“Understanding the impact of early life body condition on mortality is crucial for the management of breeding grounds, selection of captive individuals for release, and the management of diets to bridge the gap between wild and captive nestling body condition.”

With persistent hard work and a stroke of good luck, these challenging animals could still be saved from the brink of extinction. In the face of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, every lesson we can learn from the orange-bellied parrots could help save numerous other struggling species as well.

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