Are They Or Aren't They - Just What Might Be The Truth?
Depending upon whom you listen to the Gouldian finch, Erythrura gouldiae,
is either in dire straights in the wild or in 'vast' numbers at many 'secret'
locations. Unfortunately it usually becomes vividly clear that in many cases it
is the scientific versus the anecdotal!
One has only to visit the Kimberley region to marvel at the diversity of avian life that abounds there and maybe, just maybe, you might be tempted to believe that the small flocks of Gouldians that reside there are but the tip of an avian iceberg. Perhaps you were even staying at the Australian Wildlife Conservancies (AWC) Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary watching a flock in the waving sorghum grasses feeding merrily on the ground amongst the fallen seed. Then you might have journeyed out from that Sanctuary and marvelled at the change in vegetation brought about by the cattle that are in most other areas of the region. Gone are most of the tall grasses laden with seed and the suspicious hoof marks around every waterhole tell their own story. The Savannah grasslands are in bad shape right across the top of Australia.
Do all the regionally extinct small marsupials also reside at these 'secret
spots' well away from the prying eyes of the scientific researchers known only
to a select handful? Unfortunately not I suspect - it must be getting fairly
crowded there by now me thinks!!
Given the tomes of scientific literature I've had to wade through there must be that many botanists, ecologists, zoologists and their researchers trudging about the Top End that they would have fallen across them by accident if not by good local knowledge!
However, I must admit to secretly wishing it were so. That somewhere there are these oases of Gouldians waiting for us to locate so that we may contrast their environment and use this information to further enhance the work at Mornington and other places.
Maybe there are the same sorts of locales for the Thylacines down here in Tasmania. Then reality bites and I read more from the finch trapping data and it tells me a somewhat more depressing story.
Even as the AWC locates and plots more and more waterholes in and around Mornington during the dry season - by both foot slogging and from the air - there are no such oases coming to light. As this small army of scientists and researchers trudge through the Top End still no oases.
The work being undertaken on the Gouldian finch at the AWC's property has presented some interesting findings for us to contemplate. One is that the Gouldian is adapted for long distance flight by virtue of its wing shape. Researchers found, with the aid of radio-telemetry, that the Gouldians were covering upwards of 17km a day in search of food and water. So this must pose the question of whether the large numbers that some report to have seen are not the same birds at different locales given their large home range.
Also many of the reports of 'large flocks' are reportedly composed of a
majority of juvenile birds - as has been the case at Mornington I might add -
which must necessitate the question of where are all the adult birds? What can
be happening to them?
Hopefully by continued research and our funding of the work of the AWC we can have answers to these very same questions and leave the anecdotal reports of 'secret spots' where they belong - in the past!
Now I can hear the detractors already saying "What would he know, he's only
been there once!" Very true but I can guarantee it won't be the last time
So how can I defend the claim that these birds are in peril? Again I must say 'unfortunately' it is relatively easy. For decades these aforementioned zoologists and botanists have been mapping the Tropical Savannah regions of Australia and their findings do not paint a pretty picture of the ecological health of the region. Even the bird trappers that once plied their trade in the area started to log fewer and fewer Gouldians in their traps until it was the first finch officially taken off the legal trapping register in the early 1980's.
Doubly sadly it is not just the Gouldian finch that is thus affected.
One has only to read through the recent literature to see that the Star finch; the Parson finch and the Purple-crowned wren are but a few in what is a very large decline in Passerine species. Throw in Golden Shouldered and Hooded parrots - both ground nesters - in Queensland and you have more of an avalanche gathering momentum.
Botanists became alarmed by the increased incidence of firing of these grass lands to supply green fodder for the cattle which are big business in the savannah regions. The shift from Aboriginal 'patch work quilt-type' firing patterns to a more intensive and frequent ranching-style system also started alarm bells ringing. In simplistic terms the more frequent the fires the less chance the grasses have to set seed and it was this reduction in available seed that got researchers worried. Not a problem you reckon? Might just throw into the mix that I'm told some Spinifex grasses set seed only every two years, is that unease I sense!
I am aware that many scientific papers tend to be a little heady and long winded for many bird people, myself included at times, but I urge you to avail yourself of this mountain of research and maybe you'll find that your dreams and visions of these 'secret places' might take a nose dive. They might provide a cushion for your conscience but very little else I'm afraid!
Yes, I have only visited the Kimberley once but in order to present you with
a balanced view of the Gouldians status it became necessary for me to tackle
those very same scientific papers plus the accounts and diaries from the early
explorers of the 1800's - the Gilbert's, Elsey's and Gould's of the time. I must
admit to being a little sceptical at times myself given the records of the vast
flocks even as close as the early 1960's.
However, when the seeds of doubt creep in you must remember that although Mornington is a vast property it is but a pin-prick on the map of the Top End and that outside that area the burning patterns and cattle grazing methods take little account of the needs of a small, yet vividly coloured finch - our avian gem the Gouldian.
Then I was presented with a set of articles written by those previously mentioned finch trappers operating in the same areas and the same story was there for all to see. As the finch trappers had a monetary reward for collecting these birds it would stand to reason that they would have extra incentive to track the flocks of Gouldians but even they failed in this pursuit.
Again many of the seed and grain eating birds of the savannahs of northern Australia are in big trouble - not just the Gouldian yet interestingly enough this bird is seen as a 'marker species' for what is wrong with the region. Simplistically? Save the Gouldian and you will have gone a long way towards solving the problem that may very well mean salvation for the savannah grasslands themselves. Secret spots or not what more incentive could we need!
Suffice it to say that if you hear of any of these lauded 'secret spots' please let researchers in on the secret as I fervently prey that such spots do exist - and if you believe they will not help only hinder then get yourself to the AWC's Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary. The work being undertaken there by Dr's Sarah Legge and Steve Murphy will put anyone's mind at rest! They have created a finch Mecca and I aim to ensure they have the continued opportunity to add to their already impressive data banks on the wild Gouldian.
So you must excuse me if I'm just not prepared to wait until there are only a hand full of birds left and the sceptics satisfied before I try to make a difference. Far, far too late by that stage and remember, I want to preserve and multiply the existing stocks rather than have to rely on some organisation to supplement these with captive breeding!
We applaud the efforts of the Mareeba Wetlands Foundation Gouldian Finch Reintroduction Program in Queensland but we would like to ensure that such a program is NEVER needed in the Kimberley region. Is this what the "knockers" require to alter their thinking, letting them get so low in numbers that we need to prop up the population with captive breeding programs - god help the Gouldian if that is the prevalent thinking!
However, please don't take my word for the plight of the Gouldian in the wild! Feel free to disbelieve or distrust me but also avail yourself of the opportunity to check with bodies such as the World Wildlife Fund, The Threatened Species Network, the Tropical Savannahs CRC, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, the Northern Territory and Queensland Departments of Conservation & Environment, CALM from Western Australia and some of the Australian Universities that are currently working on the status of the wild Gouldian. Even a simple "Google" search online will shake the beliefs of even the strictest detractor or doubter.
Maybe then you might like to rethink your stance and help the Save The
Gouldian Fund (www.savethegouldian.org) by becoming a sponsor and showing that you care enough to want
to help make the difference for the wild Gouldian.
● Australian Wildlife Conservancy (2005) In:" Wildlife Matters" - May 2005 pp 6-9.
● Franklin, D.C., Burbridge, A.H. & Dostine, P.L. (1999) "The harvest of wild birds for aviculture: an historical perspective on finch trapping in the Kimberley with special emphasis on the Gouldian Finch." Aust. Zool. 31(1) pp.92-109.
● Franklin, D.C. (1999) "Evidence of disarray amongst granivorous bird
assemblages in the savannahs of northern Australia, a region of sparse human
settlement." Biological Conservation 90 pp.53-68.
● Mareeba Wetland Foundation (2006) "Gouldian Finch (Erythrura gouldiae) Reintroduction Program." www.mareebawetlands.com/gouldian.html
● Martin, S (editor) "Birds of the Savannahs - Seedeaters in Strife" In: Tropical Topics No.73 May 2002.