The superb lyrebird, famous for its ability to mimic almost any sound, may have plunged from being a common to a threatened species after its three varieties lost between a third and more than half of their known habitat in the bushfire crisis.
A preliminary analysis by Birdlife Australia found that both the central and northern superb lyrebirds, located in NSW and southern Queensland, were likely to have had more than 50% of their habitat affected by fire. The southern superb lyrebird, from Victoria and southern NSW, is estimated to have had 34% of where it lives burned.
Across the country, the group found 19 birds had more than half their habitat seriously affected by fire. Another 58 had lost over a third of the area they live in.
Sean Dooley, Birdlife Australia’s national public affairs manager, said it was shocking to think a resilient and successful wet-forest species such as the lyrebird could have become a threatened species in the space of a few weeks.
“The word unprecedented is being used all the time, but in terms of the scope and breadth of the fires, they have taken out so much habitat that what we’re discovering is our worst nightmare,” he said.
“As a one-off event it’s a disaster, but in a context of what is happening to our birds anyway, with so many under pressure from continuing land-clearing and the drought, it could be a knockout blow to a lot of species that have been suffering. The figures are actually frightening. It’s really shaken our hope that we can protect these species into the future, but we’re not giving up hope. There’s a lot of important things that can be done.”
BirdLife Australia’s head of research, James O’Connor, said the number of nationally threatened birds – 134 last year – might increase by more than 25%. “It’s staggering and tragic,” he said.
O’Connor said no-one expected superb lyrebirds, which live in wet forests, to be so affected but climate change had played a role in drying areas that did not historically burn. “This is a whole new ball game, and we need to change our thinking about the scale of effort required to deal with it.”
The analysis is based on a comparison of the birds’ known habitat with maps of the fires. It uses data up to 7 January. Dooley said the assessment could worsen as fires continue to burn.
Some of the threatened birds worst affected by fire had increased in number in recent years due to efforts by scientists and conservationists. The number of glossy black-cockatoo on Kangaroo Island rose from about 150 in the early 1990s to about 400 last year. Dooley said it lost an estimated 65% of its habitat in the fires and would be a “huge conservation challenge”.
The southern emu wren, a tiny Kangaroo Island bird with a tail-feather bigger than its body, had 83% of its estimated habitat affected. Birdlife believes it may now qualify as critically endangered.
Dooley found a reason for slight optimism in the finding that no bird had lost 100% of its habitat. “There is hope that if we treat these species as they deserve, we can recover most or all of them, but it’s going to take immediate efforts that continue for decades,” he said.
It would require controlling foxes and feral cats – predators that have much greater impact in fire affected areas – and herbivores that quickly eat regrowth, such as deer, horses and goats.
Dooley said logging in the bushfire-affected area, as proposed by forestry groups, could have a devastating impact on bird recovery. “If we let the bush naturally regenerate, then the birds have a chance.”
The 19 birds that have had at least half of their habitat affected by fire are:
Kangaroo Island southern emu-wren
Kangaroo Island crimson rosella
Kangaroo Island little wattlebird
Kangaroo Island white-eared honeyeater
Kangaroo Island western whipbird
Kangaroo Island shy heathwren
Kangaroo Island brown-headed honeyeater
Kangaroo Island striated thornbill
Kangaroo Island glossy black-cockatoo
Southern rufous scrub-bird
Kangaroo Island New Holland honeyeater
Kangaroo Island brown thornbill
Kangaroo Island grey currawong
Kangaroo Island red wattlebird
Central superb lyrebird
Kangaroo Island spotted scrubwren
Kangaroo Island superb fairy-wren
Northern superb lyrebird