It’s just dumb luck that I did my PhD on the swift parrot. I’d run into logistic issues with my research on black cockatoos in Western Australia – and at the same time my supervisor and I found out there was a conservation project on swift parrots that needed to happen.
That’s how a lot of our work goes – availability of funding and opportunities for conservation can be a bit random. There’s not really any kind of cohesive strategic approach to the implementation of conservation action on threatened species in Australia. Most threatened species don’t have recovery plans. And for those that do, few have funding for their implementation. We rely on ephemeral funding, and try to make every dollar stretch as far as it can. You have to be almost opportunistic in how you access funding. Underfunding is one of the biggest threats to Australia’s biodiversity, and it’s chronic.
I got lucky. Swift parrots are such fun little birds. But they represent what’s really both great and terrible about society. A lot of people absolutely love the swift parrot – volunteers, interested members of the public. People dress up in swift parrot suits and chain themselves to bulldozers to save the forests – things like that. There’s a huge amount of public love for them – hundreds of thousands of dollars of our research funding has been crowdfunded from an interested public. But the flipside is that they also represent our inability – our paralysis – to actually address threats to their existence because doing so conflicts with industry. Tasmanian logging, for example, has been running at a loss for decades, but yet they still continue to cut down critical breeding habitat of swift parrots, even though we know this deforestation is the primary threat to the species. It’s an interesting research space to work in.
Our research has been focused on understanding what the threats are to the survival of the species in general. We’re in a kind of golden age of knowledge where we know more about swift parrots than we ever have. We’ve spent a decade now collecting information on swift parrots across Tasmania, and their life history.
We’re now fully aware of the threats. We know that deforestation is one of the primary drivers of the population decline of the swift parrots, and as a result of this and other processes they are now critically endangered. But ironically, because governments are effectively captured by industrial interests, we seem unwilling to change our behavior as a society. Deforestation of the Tasmanian breeding habitat is ongoing – literally today. So my job is quite grim in a lot of ways because you identify these problems, raise the alarm, and then watch policy makers just continue business as usual.
I’m just a suburban kid from Western Sydney. Towards the end of high school I realized I really liked animals and that biology was my favorite class. When my parents bought me a couple of pet birds, my interest kind of escalated. I thought, “This is fun. I wonder if I can turn this into a job?” So I knew that I wanted to work with wildlife, but I just didn’t know how, or what the job would look like.
I went to Sydney University and did a biology degree and then a master’s in wildlife health and population management, which really cemented the whole wildlife angle for me. I then got quite lucky and landed a job working on black cockatoos in Western Australia. But after doing that for a couple of years I realized that I didn’t really know anything about anything. So I decided to do a PhD – I wanted to be able to bring more science to practical species conservation, and to learn more about data analysis and the scientific method so I could bring more to the table in conservation projects. That’s where I met swift parrots.
It was during my PhD that we also made a finding that rewrote our understanding of the threats swift parrots face, and fueled the next 10 years’ worth of research: we discovered that there’s actually a relationship between deforestation in Tasmanian swift parrot breeding habitat and the likelihood that their nests will be eaten by sugar gliders. In areas with lots of logging, the parrots have a much lower probability of surviving in their nests rather than places that are relatively undisturbed.
More on Australian birds: Aussie Backyard Bird Count takes flight
This is because the sugar gliders seem to tolerate or even benefit from logging, and they occupy lots of the remaining habitat in disturbed forests. When the swift parrots turn up for their annual breeding season, those little pockets of habitat are full of their main nest predators. It’s like a perfect storm: deforestation destroys the available breeding habitat for swift parrots and pushes them into places where they’re more likely to interact with sugar gliders. As a result, they’re more likely to die. So there’s two threatening processes there which act in synergy, something we never really understood in the past. But we’ve been able to show that logging has this unexpected impact in terms of predation, in addition to the physical removal of habitat.
This discovery took a lot of people, including myself, by surprise. We’d found all these dead parrot mothers, and so we put cameras up across several different sites in the breeding range. What we saw was both amazing and absolutely horrifying.
It was just disbelief at first. I remember sitting on a rock under a tree where I just found a dead parrot with all her eggs broken. It was just awful. And then checking the camera to reveal this sugar glider coming in over the course of a week to eat the mother and her eggs from her. It was just horrific, but also so scientifically interesting – a really awful but amazing moment. This was the first time that possums have ever been shown to be such a major predator of birds. It was a great discovery.
Like the Weekly? You’ll love COSMOS quarterly magazine.
The biggest news, in detail, quarterly. Buy a subscription today.