Photo: Swift parrot, Bruny Island, Tasmania - JJ Harrison

This article featured in Wildlife Lands Issue 18

Australia is home to the largest number of plant species pollinated by birds and mammals in the world, and the swift parrot is one of these non-insect pollinators essential to the ongoing viability of Australian ecosystems. Flowering eucalypts generally produce large amounts of nectar to attract foraging birds, with seeds and pollen that stick to feathers during feeding ready for dispersal when they fly to other locations. Swift parrots are major pollinators of Tasmanian blue (Eucalyptus globulus) and black (E. aggregata) gum trees, however both the parrot and the habitats it relies upon continue to experience severe declines.

Swift parrots are listed as Critically Endangered under national environmental law and are also protected as threatened species at the state and territory level throughout their considerable range. Many Wildlife Land Trust member sanctuaries are in their range, however spotting a swift parrot is easier said than done - in 2016 researchers logged a swift parrot travelling at a whopping 88 kilometres per hour! The parrots are colourful and aerodynamic in appearance, and typically have bright green, slender bodies. Their faces and throats are crimson with yellow outlines, and many birds have dark blue marks on their crowns and under their wings. Swift parrots generally grow up to 25cm in length with an approximate wingspan of 33cm and weight of 65g.

Endemic to south eastern Australia, swift parrots breed in Tasmania from September through March in accordance with the flowering of Tasmanian blue gums. In colder months they roam nomadically across southern and eastern parts of the mainland in search of food sources. However habitat loss is having a major effect on the species, with estimates that 83% and 70% of box-ironbark woodlands, the main winter habitat of the species, have been cleared in Victoria and NSW respectively. White Box-Yellow Box-Blakely's Red Gum Grassy Woodland, another key habitat for swift parrots, now covers less than 4% of its pre-European extent in NSW. Of perhaps the greatest concern are 2001 figures that show around 70% of grassy Tasmanian blue gum forest, essential for successful breeding seasons, has been cleared, with further loss undoubtedly having occurred since.

Breeding swift parrots are heavily reliant upon tree hollows, mainly located in old growth forests adjacent to food sources. Last year, ANU researchers used more than ten years of data to predict where in Tasmania blue gums would bloom with the most intensity. Results from the data were considered alongside the threat of predation by sugar gliders (Petaurus breviceps) which target eggs, young and nesting mothers. Sugar gliders are an introduced species in Tasmania but aren't present on Bruny Island, providing researchers with a safe location to install three hundred nesting boxes and carve fifty new hollows near an abundance of blooming blue gums. Recent hatchlings boosted by the project are renewing hopes of recovery for the species.