Nearly 200 endangered orange-bellied parrots have begun their annual migration from Tasmania to the Australian mainland, the largest number to make the trip since monitoring started in the early 1990s.

Researchers working on Tasmania’s orange-bellied parrot program said 192 birds were counted at the end of the breeding season in Melaleuca in the state’s south-west and several had made it to the mainland.

It is more good news for one of the world’s most endangered parrots whose numbers dropped to just 17 five years ago.

“It is a lot compared to every year pretty much since the late 80s and early 90s,” said Shannon Troy, a wildlife biologist in the program. “It is really, really great.”

Orange-bellied parrots migrate to the southern coast of Australia each year for autumn and winter. Not every bird will survive migration but those that do will return to Melaleuca to breed during summer.

In November last year, 51 birds returned to the breeding site, which was the best result in more than decade.

Researchers released another 31 adult, captive-bred birds during the breeding season to balance the ratio of males to females and increase the number of breeding pairs.

The season produced 88 fledglings, a result researchers had hoped for but “didn’t believe it until we saw it ourselves”.

At the end of the season, they released another 49 juvenile birds into that population.

Troy said the reason is that captive-bred adult birds are “really good at breeding but not at migrating”.

The researchers hoped that by releasing a second group when they are juveniles it would enable those parrots to learn wild behaviours. They are also more likely to survive the migration.

Troy said the researchers had observed flocks of 30 to 40 flying around together before the migration this year.

“Every time I see something like that I think that’s more birds than we had in the whole population a few years ago,” she said.

“But we need to string a few years like this together and we need to think about how to expand the population.”

That included finding ways to encourage the parrots – which remain very dependent on management by humans – to develop wild behaviours.

Researchers in Tasmania are working with the state government on planned burns to promote the growth of food trees for the birds. They hope that will increase the supply of natural food sources and reduce the need for supplementary feeding.

They are also expanding nest boxes to try to spread the population.

Dejan Stojanovic, a researcher with the Australian National University who also works with the orange-bellied parrot breeding program, said the small population size had been the biggest threat to the bird for several years.

“The best thing we can do to help the species is to make conditions suitable for their numbers to grow,” he said.

“The high numbers we have seen these last few years show we are on track for that goal. I’m excited and hopeful to see what next year brings for the species as they return from migration.”



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