16 September 2011

State of Australia’s birds report 2009

I commend Birds Australia on the work it has put into this Report, and previous reports, since the first Report was initiated in  2003.  I congratulate the various scientists and researchers who have produced this year’s Report, and I acknowledge my debt to some of you, such as David Paton, whose research and findings I have made use of quite regularly in my endeavours to alert Australians to the threats facing the Australian environment in general, and our birdlife in particular.  Sadly, these Reports have been chronicling the decline of our once abundant birdlife from a variety of causes, such as the extraction of water from our rivers and wetlands, invasive species, and climate change.

Rapid human population growth, both in Australia and worldwide, has had a dramatic and adverse impact on Australia’s native bird species.

Let me briefly refer to four examples of this impact – ocean-going birds, migratory shorebirds, resident water birds, and woodland birds.

First, ocean-going seabirds such as albatrosses have suffered greatly from the impact of long-line fishing – they get caught on the hooks and drown – and it would appear, also trawling.  The Humane Society International has asked Parliament’s Treaties Committee, which I chair, to examine the impact of trawling on albatrosses and other seabirds, citing evidence in a study by the Bureau of Rural Sciences that the rate of albatross by-catch in the Commonwealth Trawl Sector is alarming.

Of course the increase in long-line fishing and trawling is a consequence of the world’s growing population.

Second, growing population has led to the reclamation of mud flats in South Korea and the Yellow Sea.  This has had a huge impact on populations of migratory shorebirds, which use places like the Yellow Sea to stop and refuel and recharge the batteries as they wing their way on their epic journeys between Siberia and Australia.  The loss of these staging sites is the cause of enormous decreases in the global population of many species.

Third, in Australia, population growth has driven the over-allocation of water from the Murray-Darling Basin, which has had very adverse impacts on wetlands like the Macquarie Marshes and the Coorong, and therefore on populations of resident water birds.  A large scale aerial survey study covering a third of the continent by researchers at the University of New South Wales identified that migratory shorebirds populations plunged by 73% between 1983 and 2006, while Australia’s 15 species of resident shorebirds – such as avocets and stilts – declined by 81%.

And fourth there is the impact of population on woodland birds.  Tree clearing, loss of habitat, loss of corridors through which to safely travel, and climate change–driven drought have caused a collapse in Victoria’s woodland bird numbers.

The Victoria Naturally Alliance produced a fact sheet using research by Professor Ralph MacNally, Professor Andrew Bennett and Dr Jim Radford carried out for the past 15 years across northern and central Victoria.  It shows that about two-thirds of bird species, including lorikeets, pardalotes, thornbills and honeyeaters, have declined dramatically, essentially from a shortage of habitat and food.

Given all these impacts it is not that surprising, though quite distressing, that over 100 species of Australia’s 760 bird species are listed as threatened with extinction.  Over 100 species.


The theme of your 2009 Report is “Restoring Woodland Habitats for Birds”.  It includes a report on re-vegetation and birds in New South Wales which challenges the view that re-vegetation sites are ecological traps in which birds fail to persist and breed.  In this Report, the proportion of mist-netted birds recaptured was similar in both planted and remnant woodland sites.  Shrub-dependent little birds such as Blue Wrens and Red-browed Finches were actually more likely to be recaptured in planted sites, suggesting that the increased volume of low, dense vegetation cover made these sites preferable to remnant woodland sites.

Re-vegetating sites also improved the health of canopies of paddock trees occurring within re-vegetated sites.  Birds in replanted sites are providing ecosystem services.  This report concluded that their research to date has indicated that replanting areas can make an important contribution to on-farm bird conservation and some species clearly benefit from them.  However other birds, including a number of declining species that are of conservation concern, respond most strongly to remnant native vegetation rather than re-vegetation.  It says conservation efforts for these species might be best focused on farms that already exhibit high levels of native vegetation cover.

Another key finding is that the attributes of plantings matter.  Isolated strip plantings support significantly lower bird species richness than block plantings or intersecting linear plantings.

A report on seed sourcing suggests that composite provenancing – that is to say the sourcing of seed from multiple locations – is a new and improved approach to seed sourcing compared to the use of local seed.

Reports about woodlands in the Mount Lofty Ranges region produce a number of noteworthy conclusions:-

In the Tungkillo area, if re-vegetation programs are going to provide habitats in which the declining birds can breed, then the patches need to be substantially larger in area, perhaps of the order of 10-100 hectares or more, and close to other patches of woodland vegetation.

Near Monarto, that substantial re-vegetation led to substantial positive bird responses, and provided strong evidence that if suitable additional habitat is re-established and at appropriate scales, then predicted losses of woodland bird species can be prevented.

That the best available science suggests that we can avoid the loss of species from a region by increasing the native vegetation cover to around 30-35%.  For the Mount Lofty Ranges, the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resource Management Plan has a target, ratified by both state and Federal governments, to reinstate native vegetation to 30% cover across the region to prevent further species loss.  To meet the target in a timely way, there’s a need for training, but we shouldn’t delay, because learning by doing is the best way to develop this knowledge. 

Plantings for carbon offsets should be multi-purpose and take into account biodiversity outcomes rather than just carbon sequestration.

David Paton expresses a concern that the carbon market might encourage only basic plantings that fail to address the needs of critical fauna.  I share his concern – this has been an issue of hot dispute at international climate change negotiations.

A very interesting study of re-growth vegetation in Queensland’s brigalow region finds that re-vegetation provides valuable habitat for wildlife, including threatened species.  It finds that over time the habitat value of re-growth for birds converges with that of remnant vegetation – the species richness of woodland birds in re-growth reached that of remnant habitat within 30-50 years.  It also found that passive restoration through the retention of re-growth provides a significant opportunity to achieve significant gains at the landscape level.  This year the Queensland Government has announced a moratorium on the clearing of re-growth of endangered vegetation types while a comprehensive policy on re-growth management is developed.  An important observation in this report from my point of view was that some birds that are declining in southern woodlands – such as the Grey-Crowned Babbler – are still common in southern Queensland, highlighting the opportunity for pre-emptive conservation efforts targeting these species in Queensland.

 This is important from my point of view because I think that in galvanizing public opinion about bird conservation we need to talk about what is happening to Australia’s iconic species – Emus, Kookaburras, Lyrebirds – because people know and love these species, and will be concerned about the dramatic decline in their numbers.  Recently there was a TV report about the re-introduction of a couple of dozen Regent Honeyeaters and I applaud it, but you know the Honeyeaters were all being fitted with radio transmitters.  The same thing happens with other species like Orange-bellied Parrots, and it is now being said that it’s too late to save the Orange-bellied Parrot in the wild.  It seems to me that once we reach the point where individual birds are being fitted with radio transmitters, then their existence is not very meaningful to most Australians, who will probably never see one in the wild, and for whom saving them feels like hard work.  Of course for a species such as the Orange-bellied Parrot to become extinct would be a disgrace, and we should fight that.  But I think we will have more success if we sound the alarm well before individual species get down to their last two or three hundred, and do it about our iconic wildlife – koalas and platypus and lyrebirds and emus and kookaburras.


We’ve seen absolutely tragic outcomes for iconic wildlife overseas, where now we read of wildlife charities using guns and military vehicles to protect elephants, rhinos and tigers from poachers, who in turn are armed with automatic weapons, GPS satellites, night-vision kit and heat-seeking telescopes.  When you arrive at a situation where people are prepared to die to kill an animal, and other people are prepared to kill them to save the animal, it sounds as if the life of the elephant or the rhino or the tiger has become more valuable than the life of the person, does it not?

That is the sad, pretty much inevitable consequence of the cheapening of human life which accompanies runaway population growth in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and the increasing value of individual tigers or rhinos when their numbers collapse into the hundreds.

I mentioned earlier the Victoria Naturally Alliance fact sheet documenting declines of up to 60% in various woodland bird species in northern and central Victoria.  The Alliance said that National Parks are just not enough.  Now when I was young and first getting interested and involved in environmental causes, National Parks were the holy grail of the conservation movement.  But the woodlands survey shows bird species declining within National Parks as well.  National Parks are being hit hard by drought and climate change.  So we need action to restore habitat in more fertile areas, and adjacent to existing remnant vegetation.  Large-scale restoration of habitat is required to reconnect isolated bushland remnants.

Protecting and restoring habitat for wildlife on private land needs to be a policy priority for both State and Federal Government.

The State of Australia’s Birds Report 2009 closes with an outline of the Birds Australia campaign “Reconnect the Bush”.  And that outline says “the single most important action is to avoid further losses of habitat, not just from large scale clearing and degradation – which continues in some parts of Australia – but from the incremental losses of small remnants, wetlands and natural habitat components that add up to a significant impact on our birds.

I think that’s absolutely right.  In Australia many things are threatening our birds, but none more so than the loss of habitat, the loss of vegetation cover.  If we’re to save our birds, we have to put an end to habitat loss.  What is the driver of habitat loss?  Well that would be us.  Population growth is the key driver of habitat destruction.  Now the truth is that environment groups have been very reluctant over the years to raise the issue of population.  There is no doubt that the issue of population is fraught with religious and racial overtones.  It takes courage to confront it, and I understand why people are reluctant.  But I’ve said to other environment groups, and I say to you, that if environment groups are not prepared to tackle the root cause – population growth – you will be condemned to forever be fighting local battles to save remnant habitat – time consuming, energy-sapping battles which you often lose or are forced to make inadequate compromises.  And even the things we think are saved and protected forever may not be.

One Sydney property developer has suggested that Sydney’s magnificent ring of National Parks may be a luxury we can no longer afford.  Never mind the obvious response that if we can no longer afford something, it sounds like we are getting poorer rather than richer as a consequence of population growth. The fact that such statements can be made shows that the only way we can guarantee that the beautiful bird, animal and plant life we are blessed with in Australia will live on, for the enjoyment and enlightenment of our children and their children, is to move to stabilize our population.

I have produced a 14 Point Plan for Population Reform which proposes that we stabilize our population at 26 million by 2050, rather than the 36 million we are presently tracking for, by cutting our net overseas migration to 70,000 per annum.  This is not anti migration, it’s not no migration, or no net migration.  It’s a return to the kind of migration number we had in numerous years in the 1970s, 80s and even 1990s.  I encourage you to look at the Plan, which is on my website, and contact my office if you want to be on my population supporters database, which I have built up and which is campaigning for population reform.

The other thing I encourage you to do – and I think people in this room have the kind of scientific expertise which makes you ideally placed to do this – is to support the nomination of ‘human population growth in Australia’ as a key threatening process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, by the Australian Conservation Foundation.  I suggested before that environmental groups had been wimping out on the question of population growth, but this initiative by the ACF is bold and deserves our support.  I wrote to Environment Minister Peter Garrett in support of it and have just received his reply.  In it he states that the nomination will be considered by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, along with other nominations received for the 2010-11 assessment period, in June.  The Committee will then provide Minister Garrett with its Proposed Priority Assessment List.  The prioritization process is based on which nominations, if successful, are expected to produce the best conservation outcomes.  The Committee will look at things like the scope and focus of the nomination and the extent to which the process relates to existing EPBC Act-listed threats.

The Minister will then consider the Proposed List, before developing the Finalised Priority Assessment List and publishing it on the Departmental website.  Then nominations are assessed in greater detail by the Committee, which provides a recommendation to the Minister, who makes the final decision.  If a nomination is not placed on the List this year, it will be considered a second time next year.

Can I urge you to contact either the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, or the Minister, or both, in support of the Australian Conservation Foundation nomination?

In doing so you will be acting to arrest the relentless decline of Australia’s remarkable birdlife, which so many of you have borne witness to for far too long.  The battle to stop Australia’s runaway population growth is a battle we can, and need to, win.



Federal Member for Wills

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