National recovery plan for the Golden-shouldered Parrot (Psephotus chrysopterygius) 2003-2007

Recovery Plan
Dr Stephen Garnett and Dr Gabriel Crowley
Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Brisbane

1. General Information

Species

The golden-shouldered parrot Gould 1858 is one of three small granivorous parrots that nest in termite mounds (antbeds). Common name synonyms most frequently used for the species are the golden-winged and ant-bed parrot (Higgins 1999). It is closely related to the extinct paradise parrot P. pulcherrimus (Gould, 1845) of south-east Queensland, and more-distantly to the secure hooded parrot P. dissimilis Collett, 1898 of the Northern Territory (Christidis and Norman 1996). Golden-shouldered parrots are restricted to Cape York Peninsula, far north Queensland. Their distribution once covered most of Cape York Peninsula (McLennan 1923; Thomson 1935; Weaver 1982; Garnett and Crowley 1997, 1999), but is now restricted to two small areas.

The male is turquoise with a black crown, bright yellow on the wing and forehead and with a salmon pink belly. Females and immature birds are mostly green with a turquoise rump. They have considerable iconic value and are often illustrated in publications.

Listed as endangered under Schedule 2 of the Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 1994, and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Assessment of population statistics from 1992 to 1998 indicated that it met the criteria for endangered under IUCN Red List categories (IUCN SSC 2001: Category B1a,b(i)(ii)(iii)(iv) (extent of occurrence 2, occurs at fewer than five locations: continuing projected decline in extent of occurrence, area of occupancy, quality of habitat, number of mature individuals; Garnett and Crowley 2000). The population is probably fewer than 2000 individuals and its range contracted by 2.6% between 1992 and 1998. There has been no measurable contraction in the last three years (Table 1) but short-term stability is not necessarily indicative of long-term trends. Confirmation of these trends, however, within the period of the current recovery plan should enable the species to be reclassified as vulnerable. Even with such recovery, however, the species occupies only a small fraction of its former range.

Table 1. Estimates of population parameters of the golden-shouldered parrot from 1992 to 2002
  1992 - 1998 1999 - 2002
Parameter Estimate Reliability Estimate Reliability
Extent of occurrence 3,000 km2 medium 3,000 km2 medium
trend decreasing high stable medium
Area of occupancy 1,670 km2 medium 1,630 km2 medium
trend decreasing high stable medium
No. of breeding birds 2,370 medium 2,330 medium
trend decreasing high stable medium
No. of sub-populations 2 medium 2 medium
Largest sub-population 1,300 medium 1,300 medium

Biological information

Food

Throughout the dry season, golden-shouldered parrots feed on the fallen seeds of annual grasses, particularly fire grass Schizachyrium spp. The parrots may spend many months feeding in small areas where seeds are abundant, and prefer open habitat created by dry season fires where the seed is most accessible. As the dry season progresses, frequented areas are depleted of seeds (Crowley and Garnett 1999), and the birds become more mobile, searching for areas of higher seed abundance. Abrupt declines in seed availability occur in the early wet season. Even short-lived rain events influence access to food, while repeated or extended rainfall causes changes in the abundance of food. On the morning after the first heavy thunderstorm of the wet season the parrots switch food from fire grass to glimmer grass Planichloa nervilemma, doubling the time required to procure enough food. In subsequent dry periods the parrots gradually return to fire grass. After successive storms, however, with increasingly less fire grass seed available, the parrots shift to the seed of species that require more rain to cause germination - Mnesithea, Ischaemum, Thaumastochloa and Scleria. Eventually this seed also germinates and the parrots switch to taking partially burnt seed, ungerminated seed on rocks and the growth buds and flowers of Melaleuca viridiflora.

Excessively heavy falls at the start of the wet season are likely to disadvantage the parrots because most seed will germinate before new seed is available (Crowley and Garnett 1999). At this time the parrots probably rely heavily on flowers and the growth buds of trees. The parrots do not feed in heavy rain but sit quietly in trees. Several days of continuous heavy rain, as is often associated with cyclones, is likely to prevent the birds from meeting their food requirements and thus cause heavy mortality. By the middle of the wet season (January-February), all fallen seed becomes scarce and the parrots eat flowers or new seed of herbs, early-seeding annual grasses and perennial grasses. Judging from the time spent feeding, the flowers do not appear to yield much nutritional value. The herbs and early-seeding annual grasses also produce small seed that is time-consuming for the birds to obtain. The early-flowering perennial grass cockatoo grass Alloteropsis semialata has large seed and it appears the size of its seed crop influences the onset and duration of the subsequent breeding season for the golden-shouldered parrots.

If storms have been patchy in both time and space, as usually happens at the start of the wet season, the availability of remnant seeds overlaps with the production of seed of cockatoo grass and various quick-growing annual grasses and herbs which become available four to six weeks after the first heavy rains. Storm-burning1 extends the time seed is available to the parrots by removing rampantly growing ground layer vegetation, exposing ungerminated seed and killing seed that is just starting to germinate. It also increases density of seeding herbs, increasing feeding efficiency of the parrots, and delays cockatoo grass flowering, increasing the length of time its seed is available (Crowley and Garnett 1999).

Seed production of cockatoo grass appears to be highest in the first wet season after a fire, regardless of season of burn, probably because of greater nutrient availability and reduced demands for nutrients by the larger co-occurring perennial grass, plume sorghum Sorghum plumosum. But patterns of rainfall may also influence seed production, with intermittent, small falls leading to smaller yields than occur after enduring heavy rains.

Because of the lag between germination of fire grass and the production of cockatoo grass seeds, the early wet season has probably always been a period of high mortality for the tropical granivores, particularly of inexperienced immature birds (Garnett and Crowley 1994, 1995b). However, seed production by cockatoo grass has probably been reduced by cattle grazing (Crowley and Garnett 2001), and even more severely by selective rooting up of cockatoo grass plants by pigs. As the wet season progresses, a variety of seeds of ephemeral, annual and perennial plants mature, the availability of which appears to influence breeding success.

Nest sites

Golden-shouldered parrots nest in the terrestrial mounds of grass-feeding termites. In the area around Artemis, most nests are built in the conical mounds of Amitermes scopulus, although the magnetic mounds of A. laurensis, and, occasionally the bulbous mounds of Nasutitermes triodeae are also used. Parrots on Bulimba Station and Staaten River National Park mostly nest in the domed mounds of Amitermes vitiosus. While mounds of a suitable size for nesting are abundant through the parrot's present and former distribution, factors affecting mound suitability are still unclear. Mounds are rarely occupied more than once, possibly because of the persistence of nest parasites, such as lice, or because mounds repaired by termites are difficult to excavate. In some areas, most mounds of a suitable size have already been used. Mounds of A. scopulus and A. laurensis grow remarkably slowly. Mounds are likely to be at least 30 years old when they are first suitable for nesting, and most mounds with nests are at least 50 years old. Factors that affect growth rates, and hence nest site availability, are likely to include length and intensity of the wet season, fire regime, grazing pressure and damage by pigs and cattle. Analysis of these factors is to be undertaken in the current plan.

Breeding

The nest is excavated, largely by the female, in a termite mound between March and June. Initiation of egg-laying appears to be a consequence of nest mound suitability and the availability of green seed. The entrances to chambers excavated too early in the wet season are often covered over by termites. Termites stop building when the rain stops, after which no nest chambers are occluded. Termites also sometimes kill early eggs by cementing them to the floor of the chamber. The increase in sulphur amino-acids associated with newly-formed seed is also postulated to be necessary for egg-formation, as with other grass seed-eating birds. First breeding for the year is sometimes associated with the flush of cockatoo grass seed on storm-burnt areas but these efforts sometimes fail if other seed is not available, particularly the seed of later-seeding plume sorghum. Food during the remainder of the breeding season largely consists of annual grasses (Sorghum angustum, Schizachyrium spp.), supplemented with that of legumes (Desmodium spp., Stylosanthes spp.) and annual herbs (Hyptis suaveolens). Egg-laying ceases when green grass seed is no longer available.

An average of 5 to 6 eggs is laid at two day intervals. Of these 74% hatch after about 3 weeks. The female broods the young for less than a week after hatching, and then only returns to feed them. Of the birds that hatch, 65% fledge about five weeks after hatching. The principal reason for nest failure is predation, particularly in late April and early May. The principal predator of eggs and young in the nest is thought to be reptiles, particularly small goannas Varanus spp. Predation of nestlings and newly-fledged young by pied butcherbirds Cracticus nigrogularis is also thought to be high. Re-nesting has only been observed after the failure or desertion of nests early in the breeding season, with two out of three known cases being by birds that had nested in storm-burnt areas.

Dispersal

By the mid dry season (July-August) most nestlings have fledged. Young birds stay with their parents within about 2 km of the nest for the first six weeks after fledging, often in a flock with other birds. Some chicks then disperse, young males generally moving further from the nest than young females. Young birds then join flocks at a number of traditional locations. These flocks contain subadult males from the breeding season and some adult pairs. Other adult pairs apparently remain independent of the flock. By July most of these flocks feed on areas that have been burnt early in the dry season. Flocks with a choice of burnt and non-burnt areas have chosen the burnt areas where the seed is easy to find and where it is easy to see predators. Pairing appears to occur in these flocks.

Many of the traditional sites where flocks gather through the dry season are areas occupied by black-faced woodswallows Artamus cinereus. Through the late dry season (September-October) remaining flocks move to woodswallow sites. Again some adults are in these flocks, particularly during the early wet season, but others remain independent. The flocks remain with the woodswallows until well after the wet season has begun. Parrots leave woodswallow flocks and disperse as the early wet season proceeds. Increased access to food means that they stay longer in areas that have been storm-burnt, provided those areas had not been burnt the previous year. In addition, some birds move from unburnt areas to storm-burnt areas. The accessibility of seed in storm-burnt areas and on gravel slopes during the early wet season appears to enhance rates of survival, particularly among young, inexperienced birds, suggesting that food supply and/or accessibility is inadequate to support the parrots in the remainder of the landscape. Parrots radiate out from these wet season feeding areas to re-occupy nest sites. Contraction of parrots from the east of the Great Dividing Range suggests that sites closest to the hills are occupied first.

International obligations

The golden-shouldered parrot is listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This recovery plan is consistent with CITES and with Australia's other obligations under international agreements.

Affected Interests

Golden-shouldered parrots occur on lands of two tenures: land managed by Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (Staaten River National Park) and pastoral leases (Artemis, Bulimba, Dixie, Imooya, Kalinga, Killarney and Mary Valley). The parrot's distribution covers lands of traditional owners represented by the Kuku Thaypan, Ukele and Uwoykand. Recovery actions are ongoing on Artemis, Kalinga, Mary Valley, Killarney and Bulimba Stations and on Staaten River National Park. Planned recovery actions include the reintroduction of golden-shouldered parrots to traditional land of Kandju people on Mungkan Kandju National Park.

This recovery plan recognises the multiple uses and values associated with lands within the distribution of golden-shouldered parrots, and wherever possible management actions are designed to advance the aspirations of all interested parties. The golden-shouldered parrot recovery team includes leaseholders of all currently affected properties, or their representatives, and representatives of Aboriginal traditional owner groups and non-government conservation organizations.

All actions are undertaken in collaboration with leaseholders on any lands directly affected by those actions and traditional owners are also consulted wherever appropriate. The valuable involvement of leaseholders and traditional owners has been acknowledged in several publications arising from earlier recovery plans (Garnett and Crowley 1997; Crowley and Garnett 2000). The interest of traditional owners and other indigenous interests, are represented directly or through Balkanu. This co-operative approach will continue as a feature of the current plan.

Organisations that directly represent resident or traditional owner interests on Cape York Peninsula and whose interests could be affected by land use changes recommended as part of golden-shouldered parrot recovery include Peninsula Cattlemen's Association, Coen Land and Sea Management Centre, Balkanu, Cape York Land Council and Cook Shire Council. Other community organisations with a special interest in conservation of golden-shouldered parrots or conservation on Cape York Peninsula include Birds Australia and Cairns and Far North Environment Council (CAFNEC).

Planned recovery actions include employment of affected leaseholders in survey work and ecological studies undertaken on their lands. Arrangements have been made through the Coen Land and Sea Management Centre to employ traditional owners of Mungkan Kandju National Park in habitat restoration on their traditional lands. Traditional owners have also been invited through Balkanu to be employed in parrot surveying and vegetation monitoring on their affected lands as part of property planning.

National Parks staff members responsible for Staaten River National Park are members of the recovery team, and make land management decisions for the park based on the ecological needs of golden-shouldered parrots. They are directly involved in maintaining appropriate fire regimes and undertaking five-yearly nest surveys. On-ground staff members have been consulted regarding extending recovery actions over Mungkan Kandju National Park. Staff members over-seeing NRM on National Parks have been consulted regarding the incorporation of appropriate fire management and it's monitoring into NRM plans for each park.

Consultation with indigenous people

Implementation of recovery actions under this plan includes consideration of the role and interests of indigenous communities in the region. The recovery team includes representatives of traditional owners (Balkanu and Coen Land and Sea Management Centre), with the expressed purposes of involving traditional owners and other indigenous people in planned actions and to allow indigenous concerns to be taken into account in the formulation of actions. In addition to these representatives attending recovery team meetings, they are consulted directly by officers of the recovery team during the recovery process. They have the role of identifying individuals and groups affected by the recovery plan, and where appropriate arranging for these stakeholders to attend recovery meetings, or be otherwise consulted.

Officers involved in the recovery process have also directly consulted with individual traditional owners at different stages and their input into the recovery process has been appropriately acknowledged (Garnett and Crowley 1997; Crowley and Garnett 2000). This co-operative approach will continue as a feature of the current plan.

Benefits to other species or communities

Golden-shouldered parrots are indicative of processes affecting granivorous birds and associated species in the tropical savannas, particularly on Cape York Peninsula (Franklin, 1999). Successful management of the parrot on private land could lead to modification of management of pastoral lands on many parts of the peninsula, with benefits for regional biodiversity.

Work arising from earlier golden-shouldered parrot recovery plans (Garnett and Crowley 1995a, 1999) helped to identify the decline of grasslands on Cape York Peninsula, as well as the threatening processes of altered fire regimes in the presence of cattle grazing (Crowley and Garnett 1998, 1999), with the result that the regional ecosystem perennial sorghum/kangaroo grass grasslands (RE 3.3.59) is now classified as of concern (Neldner 1999). Management actions involving storm-burning in association with spell-grazing were developed and trialed during the second phase of the recovery plan, and shown to be successful at halting and at least partially reversing the invasion of broad-leaved ti-tree (Garnett and Crowley 1999) and have been an important component of conservation planning for properties in the region (QPWS 1999a,b). Planned actions during the current recovery plan include more widespread adoption of the management regime to ensure the recovery of both Sorghum plumosum ± Themeda arguens grasslands and Melaleuca stenostachya ± Melaleuca viridiflora low open-woodland, which is also classified as of concern (regional ecosystem 3.5.17; Table 2). The actions undertaken, particularly the adoption of appropriate fire management, should also benefit grassland-dependent fauna, notably the endangered star finch Neochmia ruficauda clarescens (Hartert, 1899) and buff-breasted button-quail Turnix olivii Robinson, 1900 and the near threatened black-faced woodswallow Artamus cinereus normani Mathews, 1923.

Table 2. Regional ecosystems of conservation concern (Neldner 1999) that will be managed as part of the golden-shouldered parrot recovery process
Regional Ecosystem Description Status Beneficial actions
3.3.59 Sorghum plumosum ± Themeda arguens grasslands Of concern A.1.1.1
A.1.2.1
A.1.3.1
A.1.4.1
A.6.2.1
A.6.2.2
A.7.1.1
3.5.17 Melaleuca stenostachya ± Melaleuca viridiflora low open-woodland Of concern A.1.1.1
A.1.2.1
A.1.3.1
A.1.4.1
A.6.2.1
A.6.2.2

Habitat restoration recommended for golden-shouldered parrot recovery entails the reversal of invasion by broad-leaved ti-tree Melaleuca viridiflora of grasslands on drainage depressions. Communities dominated by broad-leaved ti-tree cover 14.2% of Cape York Peninsula, whereas the threatened grassland communities occupy less than 0.2% (Neldner and Clarkson 1999; Crowley and Garnett 1998). Recovery of this habitat will therefore not impact adversely on broad-leaved ti-tree, habitats dominated by broad-leaved ti-tree, or dependent fauna.

Research findings arising from earlier golden-shouldered parrot recovery plans (Garnett and Crowley 1995a, 1999), particularly the role of, and threats to, cockatoo grass, have contributed to the understanding of processes affecting the endangered gouldian finch Erythrura gouldiae (Gould, 1844) and the endangered northern bettong Bettongia tropica Wakefield, 1967 (Table 3). Planned actions during the current recovery plan include further assessing threats to cockatoo grass, notably grazing by pigs and cattle. These actions will be undertaken in cooperation with the recovery plan for the northern bettong, and information gained will contribute to the recovery of all three species.

Golden-shouldered parrot nests are the only known habitat of the antbed parrot moth Trisyntopa scatophaga (Table 3). The decline of the parrot thus implies that the antbed parrot moth is also endangered, although no direct assessment of the species status has been made. Plans to re-introduce golden-shouldered parrots to Mungkan Kandju National Park will also involve re-introduction of this species.

Table 3. Other rare and threatened species that will benefit from recovery actions. Action plans: Birds: Garnett and Crowley 2000, Mammals: Maxwell et al. 1996; EPBC: Environment Projection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999; E: endangered; V: vulnerable.
Common Name Scientific Name Status Notes Beneficial actions
Action plans EPBC
Birds
buff-breasted button-quail Turnix olivii V E grassland specialist, distribution overlaps with golden-shouldered parrot A.1.1.1
A.1.2.1
A.1.3.1
A.1.4.1
black-faced woodswallow (Cape York Peninsula) Artamus cinereus normani NT   open woodland species, important for wet season survival of golden-shouldered parrot A.1.1.1
A.1.2.1
A.1.3.1
A.1.4.1
A.5.1.1
star finch (Cape York Peninsula) Neochmia ruficauda clarescens E   grassland specialist, distribution overlaps with golden-shouldered parrot A.1.1.1
A.1.2.1
A.1.3.1
A.1.4.1
A.6.2.1
crimson finch (white-bellied) Neochmia phaeton evangelinae E V grassland specialist, distribution overlaps with golden-shouldered parrot A.1.1.1
A.1.2.1
A.1.3.1
A.1.4.1
A.6.2.1
gouldian finch Erythrura gouldiae E E feeds on cockatoo grass A.6.2.1
Mammals
northern bettong Bettongia tropica - E feeds on cockatoo grass A.6.2.1
Insects
antbed parrot moth Trisyntopa scatophaga - not listed known only from the nests of golden-shouldered parrots A.1.1.1
A.1.2.1
A.1.3.1
A.1.4.1
A.6.2.1
A.7.1.1
A.7.4.1
A.7.5.1

1Burning within 5 days of the first heavy rains (≥ 50 mm over 72 hours) of the wet season.