A rescue plan is underway to try to save one of Australia’s smallest native birds, the Mallee emu wren, in the eastern parts of South Australia.
The tiny endangered bird, which weighs less than a pen, is under threat after bushfires destroyed much of its habitat and sent bird numbers plummeting.
Now the Mallee emu-wren, described by bird enthusiasts as the ‘holy grail’ of birds, can only be found in Victoria’s north-west after the 2014 bushfires in South Australia.
Researchers like Dr Simon Watson from La Trobe University are worried a severe bushfire season could threaten the remaining bird population.
“The very worst-case scenario is that we have such a fire season that we don’t need to worry about Mallee emu-wrens anymore, because they don’t exist,” Dr Watson said.
“We talk about extinction vortexes, and basically once populations get to a certain point, there’s not enough individuals to breed and bring that population back.”
Scientists, Zoos SA, along with the Victorian and South Australian governments have come up with a breeding program to try to protect the endangered bird.
It is one of the 20 priority bird species under the national threatened species strategy.
“If we had a big fire season, we’d go and harvest some birds from the wild and put them into a captive population and try and breed them there and then release from that captive population,” Dr Watson said.
Government funds to save endangered bird
The Monarto Zoo south-east of Adelaide is where their plan will be put in place.
Liberty Olds, conservation manager at Zoos SA, said the concern was that emu-wrens have never been held in captivity before.
“After the really major wildfires, one of the priorities for the threatened Mallee bird team was to look at whether they could be housed in captivity, and whether a breeding program would be an effective conservation tool for them,” Dr Olds said.
“We’re in the first stages of the husbandry program — we have a lot of learning to do.”
Dr Olds said the breeding program is ready and the team are ready to go out and salvage birds if this summer brings any major fires to the region.
Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg are announcing $210,000 for efforts to save the Mallee emu-wren.
That amount will be part of a $3 million package for 19 projects as part of the national Threatened Species Strategy.
Mr Andrews said the money would be used to move the birds around to different locations.
“At the moment, they’re pretty much all in one place and that makes them highly vulnerable to fire,” Mr Andrews said.
“So we need to safely move the birds and grow other populations where the habitat has been made safe through the National Landcare Program, through local Landcare groups and the national parks in the region.”