Avian Expert Articles

Swift Parrots & Orange-Bellied Parrots: Rare Migrators

swift parrot
Swift parrot (photo by JJ Harrison)

World Migratory Bird Day, which takes the second weekend in May, is an annual awareness-raising campaign highlighting the need for the protection of migratory birds and their habitats. The survival of migratory birds is closely tied to the availability of well-connected habitat networks along their migration routes. What about parrots, do they travel to one region or climate to another at specific times of the year?

Parrots do not migrate in the sense that they fly hundreds or thousands of miles during certain times of the year, such as during breeding season or before the onset of winter. Almost all parrots are sedentary, that is, they reside in an established range throughout the year. There are two parrot species, however, that do migrate in the truest sense of the word — the swift parrot (Lathamus discolor) and the orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster).

Swiftest Fliers

Swift parrots, which are about the size of a lory but have a longer tail, breed in Tasmania in the autumn, and then migrate to mainland Australia in February and March. This journey takes them across the Bass Strait, a shallow channel of water approximately 150 miles wide that separates Victoria, Australia, from the island of Tasmania on the south. As their name suggests, swift parrots are fast fliers, and they travel the furthest of any parrot — reported to be as many as 1,243 miles (2,000 kilometers) a year.

The swift parrot’s migration follows the available abundance of food sources. They are nectar feeders, and like lories and lorikeets, they have a brush-like tongue. According to the Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Services Department, swift parrots arrive in Tasmania in August/September to nest in eucalyptus tree hollows. There is also an abundance of blue gums eucalyptus, which flower in September to December (springtime in Tasmania); these are the months when swift parrots lay their eggs, which take a little over three weeks to hatch. The parrots and their fledglings have a plentiful supply of nectar from the flowering blue gums. Around March or April, swift parrots return to mainland Australia.

Orange-Bellied Parrot

Orange-bellied parrot (photo by JJ Harrison)
Orange-bellied parrot
(photo by JJ Harrison)

The orange-bellied parrot, which is slightly larger than a budgie, also migrates from Australia to Tasmania, arriving around October and staying until the end of March before crossing the Bass Strait back to Australia at the start of winter (June, July, August). According to the Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population & Communities , orange-bellied parrots migrate yearly from their  breeding site in south-western Tasmania, in a northward direction, along the western and north-western coast of Tasmania and through western Bass Strait to spend the non-breeding period on the Australian mainland. They return using the same route.

The orange-bellied parrot’s range in Tasmania is in coastal southwest, Tasmania, while the swift parrot’s is mostly in southeast Tasmania, but with a wider overall range. Unlike swift parrots, orange-bellied parrots are not nectar eaters; they eat regional seeds and grasses.

Critically Endangered

The swift parrot is currently listed as endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List category; orange-bellied parrots are IUCN Red Listed as critically endangered. Unfortunately, both the swift parrot and the orange-bellied parrot face the same challenges many migratory bird species face — namely diminishing and/or changing habitats. Agricultural land clearing of blue gum eucalypts and suitable nest sites are main threats to swift parrots. BirdLife International lists their population as between 1,000 and fewer than 2,500 mature individuals.

BirdLife cites the clearance of more than 50 percent of the original grassy blue gum eucalyptus forest in the swift parrot’s breeding habitat and the selective logging of larger trees from the remaining forest patches as main threats to the species, as well as collisions with windows, vehicles, fences and other man-made obstacles. On the Australian mainland, agriculture, residential and commercial development is said to have had a significant impact on the swift parrot populations.

Orange-bellied parrots face even more challenges, especially since their breeding grounds are limited to a narrow stretch of land in Tasmania. A report by the Orange-Bellied Parrot Recovery team listed their population to be around 50 mature individuals as of June 2010.

According to BirdLife International, the primary threat to the orange-bellied parrot is fragmentation and degradation of overwintering habitat by grazing, agriculture and urban and industrial development. Competition for winter food availability with introduced seed-eating finches, and portions of its former breeding habitat being vacated because of a change in the fire regime are other possible threats.

The Tasmanian Conservation Trust has information for ways to help support the swift parrot and other native species. The orange-bellied parrot has a Facebook page dedicated to helping its survival, as well as regularly updated photos of orange-bellied parrots in the wild.

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