Study: we understand only half the problems facing threatened birds


Research led by CDU’s Professor Stephen Garnett Research has investigated how well we understand the major threats to our threatened birds

Research led by CDU’s Professor Stephen Garnett Research has investigated how well we understand the major threats to our threatened birds

Research led by Charles Darwin University (CDU) has investigated how well we understand the major threats to Australia’s 216 threatened birds and how well those threats are being dealt with.

Lead researcher Professor Stephen Garnett said the results were both encouraging and daunting. 

“In Australia we have a good understanding of how to manage about half (52 per cent) of the threats that threatened birds are facing, but are pretty ignorant about how to deal with the other 48 per cent,” Professor Garnett said.

“We also found that only about a quarter of the threats are being well managed.”

The findings are part of research, published in Conservation Biology which has developed a new way of measuring conservation progress that looks at what is known about threats and how well they are being dealt with.

The research team included a dozen Australian universities as well as the universities of Cambridge and Oxford in the UK, senior scientists from four of the world’s largest conservation organisations, management agencies and private scientists.

“Applying this assessment to all threatened Australian birds has highlighted which threats need attention most urgently,” Professor Garnett said.

“Until now introduced species, particularly cats, have posed the greatest threat. 

“In future climate change will become a big issue. About half of all threatened birds are likely to be affected by increases in sea levels, heat, fire and droughts.

“Drought and fire are nothing new to Australian birds,” Professor Garnett said. “But the frequency and intensity will be beyond what they have previously coped with.

“The assessment also highlighted that the efforts of people around the country are having a real impact on preventing extinctions of many species, such as the seabird Gould’s Petrel.

“Thirty years ago, it was only found on a tiny island north of Sydney. Its numbers were dwindling fast, but no-one knew why.

“Timely research by NSW Government scientists identified that the key problems were rabbit grazing, currawong attacks and trees whose fruit stuck baby petrel’s feathers together.

“After they eliminated these threats, Gould’s petrel started to thrive. Now the petrels also nest on other islands and the population is increasing rapidly.
“Eradications of cats, rats and other introduced species on islands have also saved many species,” Professor Garnett said.

The assessment first scored knowledge of how to manage each threat a species faces then the effectiveness of efforts made so far. The work on birds shows a strong relationship between the two.

Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy, Professor Hugh Possingham said that without research on a threat, money spent attempting management would probably be wasted.

“With research, action can be swift and effective,” Professor Possingham said.

“Our work suggests that action before knowledge will squander money – common sense of course.”

Director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program, Professor Brendan Wintle said the assessment measures could aid the management of other threatened species, not just birds.

“Governments need to know their investments in threatened species are having a quantifiable benefit,” Professor Wintle from the University of Melbourne said.

“At the same time, they need to know the size of the task ahead. With this approach we can tell them both.”

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