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A Look At Barraband Parakeets In The Wild

Native to Australia, the barraband parakeets or superb parrots are involved in a regional campaign to promote their conservation.

By Joseph Forshaw

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“Superb Parrot, Superb Country” is a quote on a roadside sign welcoming travelers to Boorowa, a town in the Southern Highlands of southeastern Australia. The Boorowa community is one of a number of rural communities in the superb parrot’s (also known as the barraband parakeet) range that are very much involved in a regional public awareness campaign highlighting the need to protect this beautiful parrot.

barraband parakeet
The superb parrot is also known as the barraband parakeet.

The Superb Parrot/ Barraband Parakeet Look
A rich, almost luminous green, predominates the plumage coloration of the adult male superb parrot (also known as the barraband parakeet). A blue wash is present on the crown; while the face, cheeks and throat are bright yellow, bordered directly below by a brilliant crescent of scarlet across the foreneck. Dull blue is present on the bend of the wing and outer webs of the long, narrow flight feathers, while the long, pointed tail is green above and black below. The bill is coral-red and the iris yellow-orange.

Lacking all yellow and scarlet facial markings, the adult female barraband parakeet is predominantly a paler green, with some grayish-blue on the forehead, chin and throat, while the thighs are yellow-orange and the lateral tail-feathers are margined on the inner webs with rose-pink. Juveniles resemble the adult female, but have shorter central tail-feathers, and the iris is pale brown.

Natural Environment Of Superb Parrots
Confined to inland south-eastern Australia, from central New South Wales south to northernmost Victoria, the superb parrot (Polytelis swainsonii), or the barrband parakeet, occupies a restricted range, with breeding occurring only in the southern sector below latitude 33 degrees south, where it is concentrated along mid reaches of the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers and their tributaries, and on south-western slopes of the Great Dividing Range. North of latitude 33 degrees south, the presence of the superb parrots, or barrband parakeet, during late summer to early winter is due principally to a post-breeding northward dispersal, with the return south taking place in late winter to early spring.

The range coincides with a region of intense agricultural land use, hence the term “superb country” being used to identify this tract of highly productive farmland. The potential for conflict with agriculture gave rise to concerns about the long-term survival of the parrots. Numbers have fluctuated historically, with land clearance and poisoning campaigns against rabbits being identified as major causes of the parrot’s decline.

In the late 1940s to early 1950s, superb parrots were common, reaching peak numbers in the early 1950s. However, in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, increased and changing land-use practices heightened concerns that they may be threatened because of their restricted range, in which there seemed to be specialized habitat requirements. Commencing in the mid 1980s, with the mapping of nesting sites and estimates of population levels, extensive field studies were undertaken in New South Wales and Victoria by government wildlife authorities.

In much of the breeding range, there is a close association between superb parrots and riverine forests of river red gums, Eucalyptus camaldulensis, with mixed box-eucalyptus woodlands on the adjoining floodplains, and it is this juxtapositioning of nesting and foraging habitats that is particularly important. The parrots rely on large river red gums for nesting but obtain their food in adjoining woodlands, and interference with one or both habitats has been responsible for declines in the populations. Declines have been most dramatic in Victoria, where land clearance and changes in groundcover vegetation brought about by the grazing of stock and introduced rabbits, have resulted in extirpation of the superb parrot from virtually all of its former range. The present barraband parakeet population returning each year to nesting areas in northernmost Victoria is estimated to be as low as 100 breeding pairs.

Fortunately, there has been little change to the historical distribution in New South Wales, though, as already mentioned, numbers have fluctuated. From surveys of principal nesting areas in both states, the total breeding population was estimated to be less than 5,000 breeding pairs, and threats to the essential association between nesting and foraging habitats were identified, thus highlighting the need for management programs based on sound ecological data. Currently, the superb parrot is considered to be vulnerable and is afforded special legislative protection.

Superb Parrots: A Changing Flock
Throughout the year, superb parrots congregate in flocks, with little apparent separation into pairs even during the breeding season, but there is seasonal variation in the composition of these flocks. Outside the breeding season, they contain adults and immature superb parrots of both sexes, and can build up to comprise more than 200 individuals. However, flocks tend to become noticeably smaller in spring, when nesting activities commence. Female superb parrots disappear around September, presumably to go to nest, leaving only males in the flocks. At the conclusion of the breeding season, these flocks of males are replaced by small parties containing two or three pairs of adults and up to eight or 10 juveniles.

These parrots are most active in the morning and toward late afternoon, when generally they are seen on the ground, searching for seeds of grasses or in the treetops feeding on blossoms. They spend the remainder of the day resting quietly amidst the topmost branches of tall eucalyptus. Occasionally, they make sudden darting flights at treetop height along the river for a few hundred meters, alighting in another tree, where they again sit quietly, perhaps for several hours. They drink in the early morning and late afternoon, coming in twos or threes to a favored sandpit jutting out into the water and then immediately fly back to cover. When feeding, they are quite tame and, if disturbed, fly to the nearest tree, returning to the ground as soon as the intruder has moved away.

It is in the air that the graceful appearance of these parrots is most obvious, for the very long, pointed tail and narrow, backward-swept wings produce a characteristically stream-lined flight silhouette. The swift, direct flight seems effortless and, over long distances, the birds fly at a considerable height while regularly emitting their warbling call. Birds flying overhead readily respond to imitations of this call, wheeling about and descending rapidly to alight in the top of a nearby tree.

Management Programs For Superb Parrots
Widespread, unplanned clearing of box-eucalyptus woodlands has been a major threat to the superb parrot, as it destroys the essential association between foraging and nesting habitats. In some districts where suitable breeding habitat in riparian forests of river red gums is available there is little or no box-eucalyptus woodland within 10 kilometers of rivers, so nesting no longer occurs. In much of the breeding range, extensive land clearance has restricted suitable foraging habitat to remnant patches in roadside verges or travelling stock reserves and on freehold farmlands.

The extensive field studies of the superb parrot were supervised and coordinated by a Steering Committee set up by relevant State and Federal Environment Ministers. The committee comprised representatives of government departments or agencies with responsibilities for wildlife conservation and land management. Based on findings from the studies, comprehensive management programs were prepared by the steering committee and, in accordance with recommendations, measures have been implemented to protect box-eucalyptus woodlands on publicly-owned lands. Public awareness campaigns were also,initiated to encourage the preservation of foraging habitats on private lands. The consultant who carried out the original field studies has been engaged each year to assess the effectiveness of these measures and to monitor recruitment levels in known nesting colonies, so we now have more than 20 years of data on nesting populations.

Responses to the public awareness campaigns have been most encouraging, with school children becoming strongly involved in projects sponsored by education authorities. Some town councils have adopted the species as a wildlife emblem, even erecting attractive roadside signs alerting visitors to the presence of these special parrots. All of these measures have been in place for more than 20 years, and now we are seeing the rewards! The superb parrot is recovering well, and recruitment levels are increasing, with the 2005-2006 breeding season being particularly successful. Future survival of this spectacular Polytelis parrot seems assured, and that is a most gratifying outcome.  


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