After years of being told it was about to drop off the perch; of grabbing the headlines for supposedly stopping a range of development projects from windfarms to chemical complexes, without ever actually being responsible for halting a single project; years of being sniggered at for its somewhat Pythonesque name, the orange-bellied parrot is officially about to become extinct.
The announcement by federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett that the orange-bellied parrot will be gone from the wild in the next three to five years is due to the fact that there are fewer than 50 birds in the wild, down from an estimate of about 140 only a couple of years ago.
It will be the first species of bird to disappear in Australia in more than 70 years, yet the announcement seems to have been met with thunderous silence. Sure, we had a lot on our plates, news-wise, what with celebrity crims being murdered in prison and holiday plans disrupted by Icelandic volcanoes, but Garrett's announcement is very big news, and not just for the parrot. How in a prosperous, Western country, one that is not averse to lecturing others about their environmental stewardship, can we be witness to the demise of a high-profile species living on the doorstep of one of our biggest cities?
Never a common bird, habitat clearance and, to a lesser extent, trapping for the caged bird trade had seen the orange-bellied parrot drop to perilously low numbers. To counter this, the OBP Recovery Team was formed in 1984, the first threatened species team in Australia. Aided by various and varying government funding, and by thousands of volunteers, the team staved off extinction for the best part of two decades by monitoring birds, protecting and managing their preferred habitat both on the breeding grounds in south-west Tasmania and at key mainland wintering sites, establishing a captive breeding program as insurance, and even giving supplementary feed to breeding birds.
But something went wrong. A study by Birds Australia showed that the parrots relied on high-quality coastal saltmarsh to survive the winter. This tends to occur primarily where there is a regular inflow of fresh water - where there is fresh water coming in, the plants set more seed, providing vital food resources. With the changing climate, the past 15 years of drought has meant minimal freshwater inflows and very little seed; a situation exacerbated in the Coorong where overallocation of Murray-Darling water has seen crucially important saltmarsh completely die off. Basically, the birds have been starving on the mainland, and the journey across Bass Strait has become ever more perilous.
With the situation so dire, the recovery team has recommended drastic action be taken. While they claim they are not going to give up on the birds, the main thrust of the new approach is to capture up to 20 of the remaining wild birds to breed in captivity, in order to bolster the genetic resilience of the insurance population. Females are to be targeted, because they have better breeding success in captivity than in the wild. How the figure of 20 birds has been arrived at has not been explained. Neither has it been made clear why adult birds will be taken from the wild when usual practice would be to raise the first clutch of eggs laid, allowing the wild birds to re-lay and produce another potential future wild generation.
While this last-ditch attempt will keep the species alive, it will be effectively as a living museum piece, consigning the bird to permanent exclusion from the wild. Successfully reintroducing such a migratory species will essentially be impossible - without wild birds to guide them, how will the aviary-raised parrots possibly find the feeding grounds in their widespread natural range?
The loss of any species is surely a tragedy, not just for the sake of the creature in question, but because it is a loss of an essential part of a delicately balanced system - lose too many constituent parts and the system begins to fail. We are part of the same ecosystem as the orange-bellied parrot.
My two-year-old daughter heard me discussing all this and, being something of a parrot herself, looked up at me seriously and said, ''Orange parrot is going away,'' before adding, ''I want to see the orange parrot, daddy.'' It then hit me - by the time she is four, I won't be able to show her one in the wild. Ever. And dammit, I reckon that is something to get in a flap about.
Sean Dooley is the author of The Big Twitch and has been a volunteer with the orange-bellied parrot recovery program. He is speaking on this issue at 12.45pm tomorrow at the Wheeler Centre in the State Library of Victoria.