For literally millions of years, the glorious songs of lyrebirds have rung out across the valleys of south-eastern Australia. Lyrebirds have an extraordinary vocal range and are famously accomplished mimics with their own lush, ringing calls mingled with impersonations on their avian neighbours.
However, research from BirdLife Australia examining the impacts of the recent bushfires is showing that an unprecedented number of those valleys are cloaked in silence today. No lyrebirds are likely to be calling. No whipbirds. Or kookaburras, cockatoos, currawongs. Or any of any of the birds that compose the rich soundtrack familiar to those of us who love visiting these areas.
Looking at the known distribution of more than 100 birds occurring in the fire zone, based on tens of thousands of observations made by BirdLife Australia staff and thousands of volunteers over decades, the research has revealed that at least 19 birds have had more than 50% of their habitat affected, with 58 species having more than 30% affected. This is only for areas burnt to 7 January. With fires still going, further analysis may see even more birds added to the list.
Until now, all the major populations of lyrebirds have been doing fairly well. The most widely distributed is the familiar superb lyrebird (the one on the 20c coin). It has three subspecies – genetically distinct populations – imaginatively but accurately called the southern, central and northern superb lyrebirds and found along the Great Dividing Range from central Victoria, just into the southern Queensland. Albert’s lyrebird is restricted to the subtropical rainforests and tall, wet forests of the Border Ranges along the Queensland-NSW border and has been one of the rare conservation success stories in Australia, with almost all of its remaining range now protected in conservation reserves.
However, more than half of the known habitat supporting the northern and central superb lyrebirds has been affected by the fires and Albert’s and southern superbs have seen over a third of their habitat scorched.
Lyrebirds, despite appearances, are real survivors. Fossil records indicate that lyrebirds have been with us for more than 15 million years. Stories are emerging of lyrebirds surviving these raging bushfires by sheltering in wombat burrows and sitting in creeks as the flames roar overhead. And there are reports of lyrebirds being the only animal of any sort seen in charred remnants of once mighty forests, scratching among the still smoking ground in search of food. Long-time Mallacoota bird lover Bob Semmens has reported to BirdLife Australia that there are lyrebirds currently foraging in the few unburnt gardens around the town.
BirdLife’s researchers won’t know for sure how likely it will be before the song of the lyrebird will return to much of their habitat until they can get people on the ground to gauge how severe the effects of the fires have been but the preliminary analysis is the stuff of nightmares. We could potentially see the list of our nationally threatened birds swell by over 25%, because not many birds are as adept as escaping infernos as the lyrebird.
What is already clear is that of the 16 birds endemic to Kangaroo Island, 15 of them are in the 20 birds most impacted by the fires. Topping this tragic list is the tiny Kangaroo Island southern emu-wren, which weighs around seven grams and is a very poor flyer. More than 82% of the habitat in which it is known to occur has burnt. The heathland it lives in may soon recover but if the flames have been too fierce, there will no emu-wrens to repopulate it, a fate that befell its close relative, the Mallee emu-wren, which recently went extinct in South Australia due to a series of out-of-control fires that wiped out its last refuges.
A coordinated and sustained conservation effort will be required to see the emu-wren and other birds hit by the fires to escape the same fate. The awful irony is that some of these affected birds only exist thanks to decades of concerted work by local communities, government agencies, conservation researchers and organisations. The Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo is a shining example, with numbers of this endearing bird rising from 150 to over 400 in the past two decades thanks to brilliant conservation work. This dreadful fire has knocked out around 65% of its habitat and we don’t yet know what proportion of the population.
In the short-term, this bird has desperate emergency needs, such as the conundrum of how to feed it. The glossy black is one of the parrot world’s fussiest eaters, feeding only on the seed cones of drooping sheoak – a tree that’s killed by fire. But for all birds affected, recovery after fires of such unparalleled enormity is going to take decades and enormous resources, a job that will be made all the more Herculean if we don’t act to address the underlying threats such as further clearing of remaining habitat, feral predators and competitors, and the continued drying out of our landscape due to a hotter climate.
From the enormous groundswell of support BirdLife Australia has been receiving, both from people wanting to donate to and support recovery efforts for birds, we know that the Australian community is up for the challenge. The question is, how committed are our leaders to ensuring that the song of the lyrebird and hundreds of other birds will continue to ring out?
Sean Dooley is national public affairs manager of BirdLife Australia