Orange-bellied Parrots
 
 Captive Breeding Program
 
 By Iain Stych, Threatend Species Supervisor, Healesville Sanctuary

 

Orange-bellied Parrots (neophema chrysogaste),listed as critically endangered under the EPBC Act 1999, are a migratory species, annually leaving their breeding grounds in Tasmania's South-west Wilderness World Heritage area in March when the adults move north along the west coast, island hopping across Bass Strait to mainland Australia, the journey can take up to several weeks involving long feeding stops. Juveniles follow a few weeks later in April. Once on the mainland, they disperse as far west as Coorong in SA and east as far as coastal southern NSW. The southern migration is far more rapid with observations of transit times between Victoria and Melaleuca of less than two days, taking place between September and November.

Fragmentation and degradation of over-wintering habitats is the prime cause of decline in this species, along with predation by foxes and cats, competition for food from introduced finch species and competition for nest site with starlings. Other factors such as disease, and loss of genetic variation within the population are also likely to have had an impact on population declines. It is also the case that the bird's breeding distribution in Tasmania had diminished dramatically to just one known site by the mid 1980's.

Organized monitoring of the population of parrots in their breeding, and wintering-locations has been conducted since 1979. The wild population comprises approximately 200 birds.

Although many parrot species have a long and well-documented history in captivity, due to their conservation status the Orange-bellied parrot is not common among aviculturists (Sindel and Gill 1992). A pair of orange-bellied parrots was exhibited at London Zoo in the early 1900s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s many orange-bellied parrots were illegally trapped and exported to Europe (Jolly, 2003). In Australia the first authenticated documentation of breeding orange-bellied parrots in captivity was in South Australia in 1973 (Shephard 1994).

In 1984, a recovery plan was initiated by wildlife authorities from Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, along with representatives from Australian National Parks Wildlife Service, Royal Australian Ornithological Union and the International Council for Bird Preservation.

The recommendation to establish a captive colony was followed, with aviaries constructed and managed by Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries and Water. DPIW has been breeding birds in captivity in Hobart since 1986, following the capture of ten juvenile birds from south-west Tasmania. They undertook small releases of birds into the Melaleuca breeding flock between 1991 and 1994. Growth of the captive group allowed a first trial of reintroduction of captive-bred birds to a mainland wintering location and a former breeding site, Birch's Inlet, in 1996.

Captive breeding programs for threatened species play an important role in the recovery and future survival of that species. They act as a safeguard against catastrophic decline in the wild population, they increase wild population numbers through reintroductions and they provide opportunities for research and public education.

The specific goals of the Orange-bellied Parrot captive breeding program are;
1) maintain a captive breeding population of 30-40 pairs in a minimum of two sub-populations,
2) retain 95% of wild heterozygosity in captive group,
3) breed 20-30 birds per annum for release,
4) maintain birds for research and public education (Smales et al 2000a).

Healesville Sanctuary maintains the ASMP studbook and has been involved with the OBP captive breeding program since 1995. A detailed captive husbandry manual has been produced by the Captive Working Group.

Starting in 1999, releases of about 30 parrots per year have been undertaken at Birch's Inlet (occupied by Orange-bellied parrots until 1985 but had not been reoccupied since) with the objective of re-establishing this as a breeding colony and thus to bolster the overall population. A total of 186 captive-bred birds have been released at Birch's Inlet to date.

Presently, Orange-bellied Parrots are held by institutions that contribute to the Recovery Program, namely: Department of Primary Industries and Water in Tasmania; Healesville Sanctuary; and Adelaide Zoo of South Australia. The entire captive population numbers approximately one hundred, consisting of 40 pairs and their resulting offspring (most of which are released in Tasmania each year). Birds that are surplus to the breeding program and which cannot be released are maintained in single-sex groups for display and educational purposes.

As a summary of figures, at Healesville Sanctuary we had 14 pairs 2003/2004 season, 17 pairs 2004/2005 season, fledged 47 over the 2 seasons, most of which were released.

This season we have 18 breeding pairs, 6 non breeding birds and 27 young birds (from 2005/2006) ready for the next release in 2007.

19th Feb.2007, To date 32 chicks have fledged, 3 more chicks ready to fledge.



 

 

UPDATE FROM ADELAIDE ZOO
 

By Brett Backhouse, Bird Keeper, at the Adelaide Zoo

 

The Adelaide Zoo has kept the Orange Bellied Parrot since August 2000, and has kept pairs in the hope of breeding for the recovery program. We have had mixed successes, and unfortunately a lot of losses of chicks, especially in the first two years.

We are starting to find that our survivability of the chicks is increasing, and I do think it is due to techniques that we have learnt.

One of the major problems here in Adelaide is the heat, which caused substantial problems early on but is relatively under control now. We have used boxes with ice tray attached to the base, the use of Pedi stool fans, and a good misting system that has helped a lot. This year we are trailing a new type of nest box, in a hope that the chicks can move further apart and also with a greater air space for better heat dissipation. We do get some good 40+ degree days for a decent time in January, and the trick seems to be keeping the enclosure and nest box down to no more that 34. We have been able to do this with the aid of all of the above mentioned techniques, and it seems to be helping keep chicks alive in the crucial time while in the nest box.

For figures, the first few years we only managed to get around 20% of chicks to survive through to adulthood. Since then, and this is not including this year its around 46%, and this is from the better boxes and cooling systems, and without jinxing our little guys in the box, this year is looking like potentially 75% surviving.

Now just to put this all into perspective, we only hold and breed from around 4 pairs per year, and only get around 2 chicks per year on average. This year we have only have 2 pairs, but still have 3 chicks so I am hoping that next year we can give it a red hot go and hopefully get a lot more on the perch to help out Healesville and also the institution in Tasmania. I hope this all makes sense,I think it shows that we have worked hard on trying to rectify problems in the past and hopefully we can continue to work with this amazing species with continuing success.

 

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