For the first time we've looked at every threatened bird in Australia side-by-side

Monday, Nov 26, 2018, 07:02 PM | Source: The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Alienor Chauvenet, April Reside, Brendan Wintle, David Lindenmayer, David M Watson, Elisa Bayraktarov, Hayley Geyle, Hugh Possingham, Ian Leiper, James Watson, Jim Radford, John Woinarski, Les Christidis, Martine Maron, Molly K Grace, Paul McDonald, Sarah Legge

Success with conservation of Kangaroo Island’s Glossy Black-Cockatoos can now be compared with other bird conservation efforts around the country. Ian Sanderson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Glossy Black-Cockatoos used to be common on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island until possums started eating their eggs and chicks. After volunteers helped protect nest hollows and erect safe nest boxes, the population more than doubled.

But how do you measure such success? How do you compare cockatoo nest protection with any other investment in conservation?

Unfortunately, we have few ways to compare and track the different efforts many people may be making to help conserve our natural treasures.

That’s why a group of us from a dozen Australian universities along with scientists and private researchers around the world have created metrics of progress for both our understanding of how to manage threats of different intensity, and how well that management has been implemented. We also provide guidance on what still needs doing before a threat no longer needs active management.

For the first time, we looked at every threatened bird in Australia to see how well – or not – they are managed. Hopefully, we can use this to avoid compounding our disastrous recent track record of extinctions in Australia.

Read more: For whom the bell tolls: cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day

The state of Australian birds

What we did differently was collect the same data across different species, which meant we could compare conservation efforts across all bids.

The mallee emu-wren is unique to Australia and endangered due to habitat loss. Nik Borrow/Flickr

When we applied these metrics to Australia’s 238 threatened bird species, the results were both encouraging and daunting. The good news is that we understand how to reduce the impact of about 52% of the threats – although of course that means we know little about how to deal with the other 48%.

But the situation is decidedly worse when we consider how effectively we are putting that research into practice. Only 43% of threats are being managed in any way at all – and just a third of the worst threats – and we are achieving good outcomes for just 20%.

But at least we now know where we are. We can celebrate what we have accomplished, appreciate how much needs doing, and direct our efforts where they will have the greatest benefit.

The threats to our birds

Introduced mammals, particularly cats, have been (and continue to be) a significant threat to Australian birds. Although we have successfully eradicated feral animals on many islands, saving many species, they remain a grave threat on the mainland.

The effect of climate change is becoming the top priority threat for the future. About half of all threatened birds are likely to be affected by increases in drought, fire, heat or sea level. Given the policy prevarication at a global level, targeted research is essential if birds are to be helped to cope.

By looking at multiple species, we can also identify what helps successful conservation. Monitoring, for instance, has a big impact on threat alleviation – better monitored species receive more attention.

The orange-bellied parrot is amongst Australia’s most critically endangered birds. sompreaw/Shutterstock

There is also – unsurprisingly – a strong connection between knowledge of how to manage a threat and successful application of that knowledge. Often policy people want instant action, but our work suggests that action before knowledge will squander money.

Where to from here?

So what can we use this analysis for? One use is helping species close to extinction.

Using the same approach for multiple species groups, it is apparent that, while birds and mammals are in a parlous state, the most threatened fish are far worse off. We can also identify some clear priorities for action.

Finally, we must acknowledge this work emerged not from a government research grant, but from a non-government organisation (NGO). BirdLife Australia needed an overview of the country’s performance with threatened birds and was able to draw on the volunteered skills of biologists and mathematicians from around the country, and then the world.

Read more: Australia relies on volunteers to monitor its endangered species

Indeed, one of the future projects will be using the new assessment tool to see just how much of the conservation action around the country is being driven by volunteers, from the many people who contributed their knowledge and skills to this paper through to those keeping glossy black-cockatoo chicks safe on Kangaroo Island.

The Conversation

Stephen Garnett receives funding from the National Environment Science Program and the Australian Research Council. He coordinates the BirdLife Australia Threatened Species Committee

April Reside is a scientific advisor for the Black-throated Finch Recovery Team and is on Birdlife Australia's Research and Conservation Committee and Threatened Species Committee.

Brendan Wintle receives funding from the Australian Research Council, the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Parks Victoria, and the Australian Government through the National Environmental Science Program.

David Lindenmayer receives funding from the Government of Victoria, the Australian Government (the National Environmental Science Program Threatened Species Recovery Hub) and the Australian Research Council.

David M Watson receives funding from the ARC, the NSF, and Hermon Slade Flundation

Elisa Bayraktarov receives funding from the National Environmental Science Program.

Hayley Geyle receives funding from the National Environmental Science Program

Hugh Possingham receives funding from the Australian Research Council and The Australian Federal Government Environment Department. He is employed by The Nature Conservancy (USA) and The University of Queensland (20%)

James Watson receives funding from the National Environmental Science Program and the Australian Research Council. He is Director of Science and Research Initiative at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Jim Radford receives funding from the Victorian Government's Virtual Centre for Climate Change Innovation. He is Chair of Birdlife Australia's Research and Conservation Committee.

John Woinarski receives funding from the Australian government's Threatened Species Recovery Hub of the National Environmental Science Program

Les Christidis receives funding from the Australian Research Council. He is Head of the Coffs Harbour Campus of Southern Cross University and Dean of Graduate Studies.

Martine Maron receives funding from The Australian Research Council and the Australian Government's National Environmental Science Program's Threatened Species Recovery Hub. She is Vice-President of BirdLife Australia and Governor of WWF-Australia.

Molly K Grace receives funding from the Natural Environment Research Council as a Knowledge Exchange Fellow. She is a postdoctoral researcher in the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Paul McDonald receives funding from the Australian Research Council. He is a Councillor on the board of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

Sarah Legge receives funding from the National Environmental Science Program. She is a Deputy Director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

Alienor Chauvenet and Ian Leiper do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Melbourne Researchers