Movie: Dr Richard Major

Dr Richard Major, Australian Museum Ecologist, talks about how his work and how it relates to Biodiversity.

© Australian Museum
David Rawlinson
Dr Richard Major
David Rawlinson


My name’s Richard Major. I’m a research scientist at the Australian Museum where I work on the ecology of birds.

One of my favourite birds, and actually my favourite animal, is the white-fronted chat. Now, this species is particularly dear to me because I spent five years of my life studying it for my PhD.

In the time I did that project, people said to me, “Well, why are you studying this particular bird?” It’s quite common around Melbourne, where I was doing my work. And I guess I just had this sort of passion for wildlife generally, and I really wanted to find out everything there was to know about some species that nobody had really studied before.

What’s quite ironic is that now that I’m at the museum in Sydney, I find that this little bird – the white-fronted chat – which is also common around in Sydney, has gone through a tremendous decline and, in fact, it’s now been nominated as a vulnerable species in NSW. Now, worse than that, it’s been nominated as a threatened population in Sydney.

So, this little species of bird – small black-and-white bird – was common across Sydney, in wetlands and marshes. We can find 54 sites across Sydney that we have records in the museum or in people’s notebooks for. Well, today, it’s only known in two locations, and both of those are nature reserves where we think that animals are secure.

One of these is in the middle of Botany Bay, and one of these is out at Sydney Olympic Park.

Now, I’ve had the opportunity to start up a study of these again, 20 years after my PhD. And the first thing we tried to do is work out how many
of these birds there were at Sydney Olympic Park.

And although there’d been flocks of 20 to 25 birds seen 10 years ago, I thought, “Well, we should really try and work out exactly how many.”

So, we actually set out to catch them. We caught, actually, all the birds there and there turned out to be only nine, two years ago.

Since that time, we’ve been following those birds and, fairly shortly, it dropped down to eight, then six, and in our last surveys this month, we’re down to three. So, here’s a species which was found in 54 locations, now found in two, and I think, by the end of the year, there will just be one location left across the Sydney region. Now, personally, I find this a great shame.

Biodiversity really enriches our life and, for me, it would be a great catastrophe if we lost the white-fronted chat from Sydney.

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