A brief look at the increasingly rare Superb Parrot and its unlikely ecological niche.
If you were to look at a map of Victoria where would you expect to find an endangered species? You might assume that some remnant species are hidden in the large green patchwork of National and State parks in the state’s east – encompassing some two million hectares of wilderness. You might consider high country plains or water catchments. Or you might assume that isolated reserves like Wilson’s Promontory offer the best chance for our beleaguered fauna to hold out against the encroachment of civilisation. The one place you probably wouldn’t expect to find a threatened species is beside the bright lines representing the highways and byways of Victoria’s most productive agricultural land.
But that’s exactly where you’re likely to find Australia’s Superb Parrot (Polytelis swainsonii) which is similar in size and shape to the much more common Eastern Rosella but is differentiated by its striking green plumage. In terms of colour the females are somewhat subdued while males are recognisable by their bright yellow mask and scarlet band across the upper chest. Like most brightly coloured birds the Superb Parrot’s feathers aren’t made of anything that would be considered a green pigment – instead the microstructure of each feather bends white light into green – so that the brighter the day the greener they appear. Those fortunate enough to come across them will usually find Superb Parrots foraging in family groups or small flocks.
These days the surviving parrot population is scattered along the Murray Riverina and grassy woodlands in the north of Victoria between Echuca and Albury. Only a few thousand remain but they were once much more prolific and much more widespread. Before the arrival of Europeans the breeding range of the Superb Parrot in Victoria would have included the large River Red Gum Forests along the Murray River and likely extended south along major River Red Gum corridors such as the Ovens and Goulburn River systems. Outside of breeding season, the parrots would have dispersed and foraged across the vast Box-Gum Eucalypt Woodlands and grasslands which covered much of northern inland Victoria and there are early atlas records from European settlers noting birds as far south as the outskirts of Melbourne.
With the expansion of broad-scale agriculture and the establishment of irrigation, this woodland landscape has been almost completely erased to the point that the dominant pre-European vegetation community (Grey Box Grassy Woodland) is now listed as critically endangered under federal legislation.
Likewise the population of Superb Parrots has continued to decline over the last fifty years with fewer than 8000 individuals estimated to be left in the wild. Implicated in the decline of the Superb Parrot are the usual suspects including habitat loss, introduced predators and competition from non-native herbivores such as rabbits and livestock.
The land use-history of this intensively farmed area has heavily influenced the distribution and occurrence of the Superb Parrot over the 200 years since European settlement. The broad-scale clearing of woodland to create grazing pastures (and later cropping) dramatically reduced the available habitat and would probably have completely wiped out the parrots if not for some accidental good fortune. This reprieve took the form of planning provisions designed to provide a buffer for the state’s transport network. The formal establishment of government road reserves and railway easements occurred very early in Victoria’s history and, over time, as more and more land was cleared for pasture these narrow corridors became pseudo-conservation reserves.
While the rest of the native vegetation was cut back, cleared and churned up these small strips of land remained largely undisturbed. The resulting network of narrow linear corridors supporting remnant vegetation have allowed a few determined native species like the Superb Parrot to hang on for close to two centuries.
Grain cropping remains a significant component of the local economy in this area and many of the small farming towns dotted across the landscape are centred around enormous grain silos – the economic ‘pillars’ of these rural communities. Unfortunately for the Superb Parrot, (a keen granivore also) the loss of the native grassy woodlands means that they are now confined to the narrow relic corridors of vegetation along roadsides, railways and creek-lines. Adapting as they can, the parrots do take advantage of spilt grain and silage to supplement their diets.
Driving north through the cropping country near Nathalia in north-east Victoria in early December 2020, a colleague and I stopped along the roadside to investigate what looked, at a glimpse, to have been a pair of Superb Parrot ghosting across the road. As we pulled over, we realised that there were more around – and soon we were surrounded by a loose flock of around 30 Superb Parrots feeding by the roadside. This was an exciting find because although expected to occur in the area, there’s never any guarantee that these birds can be located on a given day. Encouragingly the flock also included numerous juvenile birds – notable by their incessant begging calls and stumpy, partially grown retrices (tail feathers). It was pleasing to record some evidence of successful breeding and recruitment into the local population.
On the return journey we passed through the tiny cropping town of Picola where the imposing twin-grain silos in the town centre had been freshly painted with a mural depicting the local Barmah Red Gum forest wetland with the towering profile of a male Superb Parrot as the focal point. Designed by artist Jimmy D’Vate Picola’s parrot is one of many local birds that he’s rendered larger-than-life on sheds and walls and silos across Australia.
Over the last decade or so the emergence of ‘silo art’ has prompted renewed interest in regional Victoria – offering a network of tourist trails and furnished by local art grants that have trickled though rural towns and communities. Iconic local native species have been well represented in these projects and it is fascinating to observe these portrayals of Australian wildlife enveloping the quintessential foundations of Australian primary production. Beyond this juxtaposition, as an ecologist, it is encouraging to see that some of the natural history of the local area is being acknowledged and celebrated. We can’t care about what we don’t know – so if nothing else, hopefully a great big glamorous parrot on a silo can evoke the first step in conservation – awareness.
Further information – Superb Parrot Action Statement