The last time Australia experienced a quarter of national negative economic growth, the Soviet Union still existed, Nirvana were on the cusp of releasing Nevermind, and the first serious attempt to analyse and catalogue our threatened birds – The action plan for Australian birds – was about to be published.
In the 28 years since, the lucky country has recorded the longest period of continual economic growth of any modern nation. Whether this was due to 1991 being “the recession we had to have”, the fundamentals of a strong, modern economy having been put in place, or the sheer dumb luck of being a beneficiary of the China boom, if ever there were a country in a prime position to be able to invest in protecting its precious wildlife, it was us.
So how has that worked out?
Not so well. Each decade since, lead author Professor Stephen Garnett has produced a further action plan for Australian birds. By the time of the 2010 action plan, the conservation status of 49 species of Australian bird had deteriorated since 1990. That is, they had been recognised as taking the next step towards extinction.
Garnett was in Melbourne last month ‘’, consulting with threatened-species experts in final preparations for the 2020 action plan. Final population estimates and other data are still being thrashed out; the early indications are not so promising for a turnaround in fortune for the majority of our threatened species. In fact, a 2018 report by the National Threatened Species Hub, with which Garnett collaborates, indicated that some of the birds in this year’s Bird of the Year poll, such as the regent honeyeater and the orange-bellied parrot, may not exist in the wild if the vote were to be run in 20 years’ time.
On a more positive note, Garnett did point out that some birds have bucked the overall trend and had their status “downlisted” to a category that is less imperilled or taken off the threatened species list altogether. In such cases, the downlisting was due to targeted conservation action and programs: the kangaroo glossy black-cockatoo has had its nesting trees protected from predators and competing hollow-nesting species; the declaration of conservation reserves in its rainforest home has meant the Albert’s lyrebird is no longer considered vulnerable to extinction; and in the near future, a raft of seabirds that breed on Macquarie Island will come off the threatened species list entirely now that the rabbits that were eating them out of house and home have been successfully eradicated.
Feral animals and invasive weeds have been identified as one of the biggest threats endangering our birds. Historically, the impact of foxes and rabbits has wreaked enormous damage, but recent research estimates that feral, stray and domestic cats now kill more than a million birds a day in Australia, and cats have now been recognised as a major threat for rare species such as the western ground parrot and the night parrot that spend most of their life close to the ground.
As much as we would like to point the finger at one villain for our loss of birds, cats are not the sole driver on the extinction bus. Loss of habitat – something that Australia still excels at – takes a major turn at the wheel. On one level, conservation is not rocket science – a species loses the place where it lives, it cannot survive. Building a 3,000-unit marina complex in Moreton Bay, the most important site in Australia for eastern curlews, or digging an enormous coal mine directly where the largest population of southern black-throated finch survives, is going to do nothing to reverse the downward trend.
Elsewhere in Australia, it is not necessarily the loss of habitat itself but the quality of what remains – increasingly fragmented and degraded – that is leading to losses. As temperatures and severity and frequency of droughts increase in a hotter climate, our birds are starting to lose out. Endangered Carnaby’s black cockatoos have been reportedly falling dead from the sky during recent heatwaves in Western Australia. Species that live in the cool, upland rainforests of north Queensland will lose territory as will the shorebirds that rely on mudflats and beaches to feed.
We are seeing an increase in the area, intensity and frequency of bushfires across the country. Every year fires are nibbling further into rainforests that previously were thought flame-proof. In drier areas, uncontrolled burning is directly wiping out populations such as the Mallee emu-wren, which went extinct in South Australia after a series of massive wildfires in the conservation reserves that were supposed to protect them. And even if birds survive the initial inferno, the country is opened up for predators such as feral cats.
We know that conservation actions work. We know that for the past 28 years we have been in a fiscal position to fund the conservation programs that we know work. Yet we have chosen to invest very little of the boom to turn the fortunes of those 49 birds. Our current nature laws are demonstrably inadequate. There is little political will to strengthen them. While the Bird of the Year vote may seem to be just a bit of fun, it is actually an expression of the love Australians have for our birds, and that perhaps one day we will demand that our leaders do something to save them.
Perhaps one day, the bin chickens will finally come home to roost.