Above: This wild female feeds a fledgling. The Taronga Conservation Society programme supports the Critically Endangered Regent honeyeater and helps to raise and release birds to help boost the wild population. Photo: Glen Johnson

 

A CAPTIVE-BRED REGENT honeyeater’s success in attracting a wild female mate has been hailed as a sign that an Australian conservation programme is making real headway.

The Critically Endangered Anthochaera phrygia is down to as few as 300 mature birds in the wild, so the pair’s successful raising of two chicks in the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park, Victoria, is a major boost for the efforts of Taronga Conservation Society (TCS).

TCS’s programme manager Andrew Elphinstone explained that while captive-bred females have mated with wild males before, this is the first captive-bred male (bred at Taronga Zoo) to surmount the considerable hurdles to attracting a mate in open competition.

Preparing male birds for the battle outside means meticulous, detailed work for zookeepers, collecting insects and flowers to allow natural foraging – and poking forked sticks into the building eaves to harvest the specific fresh spider webs wild birds use to make nests. But even that was not enough.

Mr Elphinstone said: “Male regent honeyeaters sing to attract a mate and there’s research to suggest they have regional dialects and their songs can change over time.”

The birds were played audio recordings in captivity. But the question remained: could a captive-bred bird ever win? With this breeding suggesting yes, the programme will be extended from Victoria to New South Wales.

Mr Elphinstone added: “It’s a really positive step in the right direction.”

Like a third of all Australian bird species, the Regent honeyeater is dependent on Australia’s woodlands, which have been reduced by 80 per cent since European colonisation. As well as the swift parrot (see “In Brief”, left), the Regent honeyeater faces predation by the marsupial sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps), as detected three years ago via CCTV set up by the Zoological Society of London’s Gemma Taylor.

BirdLife Australia’s Woodland Birds for Biodiversity project aims to improve the management, protection and monitoring of this precious habitat and improve habitat connectivity.

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