How little brown birds get overlooked in the protection pecking order
In January 2016, a keen birdwatcher named Dion Hobcroft walked into the Pegarah state forest on Tasmania’s King Island with a recorded birdcall and took the first blurry photographs of the King Island brown thornbill.
The brown thornbill, Acanthiza pusilla archibaldi, is a subspecies of the Tasmanian thornbill, distinguished from its cousins on the big island by a slightly longer beak.
It is about 10cm long, coloured various shades of brown, and thoroughly unexciting to the untrained eye. Hobcroft’s was only the fourth confirmed sighting since 1974.
According to a forthcoming review of Australia’s avian threatened species programs, the King Island brown thornbill is most likely to be the next bird to be declared extinct.
It shares the podium with the King Island scrubtit, Acanthornis magnus greenianus, which, with a population of fewer than 50 adults spread across three isolated areas of ever-shrinking melaleuca swamp, is No 3 on the list.
The orange-bellied parrot, which stops off on King Island on its precarious annual flight from south-western Tasmania to the Victorian coast, and has a wild adult population of fewer than 20 individuals, is the second.
The difference is, you have probably heard of the orange-bellied parrot. As of Wednesday, it had garnered more than 1,700 votes in the Guardian’s bird of the year poll, and last year a crowdfunding campaign raised $140,000 to fund fieldwork during its breeding season. The thornbill didn’t make the list.
The King Island brown thornbill heads a list of unmarketable, critically endangered little brown birds. Neither it nor the scrubtit, which shares its habitat, have received meaningful funding. Nor have they been the subject of a concerted research effort.
The King Island natural resource management group applied for a share of the $5m federal threatened species recovery fund earlier this year, but was rejected.
The group’s coordinator, Kate Ravich, is trying to raise the profile of the King Island scrubtit, a “happy little bird” whose habitat backs on to her backyard.
“They are a little brown bird. They are not sexy,” she says. “Orange-bellied parrots are very sexy because they are rare and colourful. Some birds are easy to sell and everyone loves them, and others are very hard to sell because they are little brown birds.”
The Australian National University researcher Matt Webb led the most recent published research on the King Island scrubtit in 2015. Scrubtits have been listed as critically endangered since the 1990s and the population fell by 75% after a bushfire in 2007 which destroyed 90% of available habitat at Nook swamp, one of its last remaining strongholds.
When Webb spoke to Guardian Australia he was on the Tasmanian mainland working on the swift parrot conservation program, which is part of the difficult bird research group, alongside the orangebellied parrot. Sugar gliders have been eating the young swift parrots, hampering recovery efforts.
Webb says it would be much easier to save the King Island scrubtit than any of the headline-grabbing Tasmanian parrots if only it could attract some decent funding.
He is not optimistic. There are hundreds of threatened species vying for a share of limited annual funding. Despite being two of the most imperilled birds in Australia, King Island brown thornbills and scrubtits are not high on the list.
“Any money that has gone towards the King Island scrubtit … it’s been through NRMs [natural resource management groups] or other smaller bodies, and it’s really small amounts of money, $5,000 or $10,000,” Webb says. “You look at what’s required for things like [orange-bellied parrots] and swift parrots and the amount of money required is orders of magnitude greater than anything that’s appeared [for the scrubtit]. I would be so pleasantly surprised if serious money was put on the table for the species but really, unless we’re going to try and do it properly, it’s probably not worth doing.”
Preserving the species would mean protecting the remaining melaleuca swamp, controlling hazardreduction burns, managing the acid sulphate soils which can cause significant habitat destruction, and possibly transferring birds between the island’s three isolated populations to give it the genetic diversity necessary to survive the hundred or so years until the burnt-out melaleuca swamp grows back into the ideal habitat.
Not enough is known about the brown thornbill to tailor a recovery effort, but the habitats of the two species overlap, so Webb says it’s a fair guess that what’s good for one would benefit the other.
So far neither species has attracted significant attention.
“One of the issues with the King Island scrubtit is it is a subspecies, and often subspecies don’t get as much attention,” Webb says. “It’s funny how that’s not very consistent, because there’s things like the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle that’s a subspecies – some would say it’s not even that – and that receives a lot of attention.
“But then, they’re an eagle. This is a little brown bird. If you look up closely it’s actually quite beautiful but barely anyone gets close to it.”
The problem is not endemic to King Island. Two other little brown birds identified as among the most imperilled by the threatened species research are the clumsily named Mount Lofty Ranges chestnut-rumped heathwren, Hylacola pyrrhopygia parkeri, a 20g bird from South Australia’s Fleurieu peninsula; and the Grey Range thickbilled grasswren, Amytornis modestus obscurior, newly rediscovered in western New South Wales.
Neither has a detailed recovery plan because there is little survey data available.
“You would be surprised how many birds out there have a handful left and there’s not much happening,” says BirdLife Australia’s head of conservation, Samantha Vine.
BirdLife is using the threatened species research, led by Charles Darwin University’s Prof Stephen Garnett, to shape its preventing extinctions program, focusing on the 20 most imperilled species.
Vine, who is also an informal expert adviser to the commonwealth threatened species commissioner, says access to threatened species funding takes a lot of lobbying.
“It really is up to those sort of committed champions to raise the alarm and lobby for resources,” Vine says. “You would be surprised how many times a species has been saved from extinction by a handful of people.”
An example can be found in a 10,000km square patch of native grassland in western NSW, just south of Hay, where the plains wanderer, an odd little bird that looks like a cross between a quail and a very short emu, is enjoying something of a reprieve.
The state’s population of plains wanderers, Pedionomus torquatus, declined by 90% since 2001 because successive years of drought, followed by a few years of flood, deprived the fussy bird of its preferred level of grass cover. A similar decline was seen over the border in Victoria.
BirdLife Australia convened a summit on the bird in 2014, as part of a campaign on forgotten species, and warned that the critically endangered bird – the only member of its family in Australia – could be lost.
The NSW government responded. A captive breeding program has begun at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, a national recovery plan was developed, and threatened species officers from the office of environment and heritage have been working with local landholders to develop grazing management strategies to support the birds.
One of those threatened species officers is David Parker.
“A really core part of it is maintaining appropriate grazing regimes and most of the time it’s just status quo with what landholders typically do out there,” he tells Guardian Australia. “In times of drought it’s usually making sure that the habitat isn’t overstocked, or in wet times making sure there’s lots of grazing in there that sort of kept ahead of the grass growth. If it’s too bare they disappear and if it’s too tall they disappear from that area as well.”
Parker said the bird was not widely known among the general population, but “if you’re a birdwatcher, a mad twitcher, it’s one of the birds that’s on the top of your twitching list”.
“I like to think it’s all about the legs,” he said. “The female is more brightly coloured, again a real oddity amongst the bird world … she’s got really strong straw-yellow legs and bill. And she’s got a rufous breast patch and a nice collar around her neck, black and white collar, whereas the male’s quite dull.”
Another species targeted by BirdLife’s forgotten birds campaign, which has since been subject to a concerted conservation effort, is the Mallee emuwren, Stipiturus mallee.
Weighing about the same as a teaspoon of sugar and with a tuft of blue feathers on its chest, the Mallee emuwren has the advantage of being objectively adorable.
A bushfire in 2014 wiped out the South Australian population, and the remaining habitat in Victoria’s Mallee region is increasingly vulnerable to bushfires sparked by climate change. South Australia has now begun a captive breeding program and is working to reintroduce the bird to the state.
The bushfire was the wake-up call needed to direct funding and attention to the little bird, which is rumoured to be a favourite of the threatened species commissioner, Gregory Andrews.
“It shows what can happen if we respond in time,” Vine says. “I actually think in a few years we will be looking back at the Mallee emuwren and seeing a really different story there, but it’s one that could have easily gone off the radar if people hadn’t rallied around it.”
Some birds are easy to sell and … others are very hard to sell because they are little brown birds
A King Island scrubtit: No 3 on the list of birds most likely to be declared extinct. Photograph: Dion Hobcroft
A rare sighting of the critically endangered King Island brown thornbill. Photograph: Dion Hobcroft