The AM's Principal Research Scientist in Terrestrial Research, Dr Richard Major, has spent decades monitoring both native and introduced birds in human-dominated landscapes.
“In Sydney there would be fewer than 20 White Fronted Chats left. This bird was collected in 1867 from Homebush Bay, I find this quite an emotional little specimen. You think about how long they have been living there, we’ve managed to have them in the museum for 150 years, but now that population will be extinct very shortly, down to one individual.”
One current project is removing the destructive Noisy Miner.
"We are capturing these birds by removing them, and that is an experiment to see how long it takes Noisy Miners to colonise patches you’ve taken them away from. And also how quickly small birds will come back to those patches."
Kim McKay: Hello, welcome to the Australian Museum's podcast AMplify, I'm Kim McKay, the executive director and CEO of the Australian Museum. And today I'm going to take you on another amazing journey with one of the Australian Museum's research scientists, Dr Richard Major. Welcome Richard.
Richard Major: Good morning.
Kim McKay: It's so good to see you because, Richard, you've been at the Australian Museum for, wow, a lifetime. How long?
Richard Major: 26 years now.
Kim McKay: 26 years. And I should say, you're an ecologist and ornithologist, a specialist in birds. So how did that start?
Richard Major: Well, actually I was a fan of Jacques Cousteau movies, and initially I wanted to be a marine biologist, fish was my real passion, and so from the time of primary school I sort of selected my life to become a fish biologist. And it was only when I got to the end of first year at university when I was going on a field trip to Heron Island and thought, well, if I'm going there I'd better get my diving licence. I went to the doctor at that point and he wouldn't give me a medical certificate because of asthma. Normally people in that situation go to a different doctor, but it was actually quite a sad time, a friend of my father's had an asthma attack underwater, and so it seemed like good advice. And so at that point I switched over from fish, and I still had real passion for biology and I went from something under the water to something on land.
Kim McKay: So birds became the thing.
Richard Major: Yes.
Kim McKay: Good on you. Well, it's so interesting, isn't it, when you are at school and you develop a passion for something and you want to pursue it. So you went to which university to do science?
Richard Major: I went to the University of Sydney, and actually I still did my honours in a…I'm an ecologist, I was really interested in ecology and so I did a split project there, partially on fish. I still maintained it but did aquarium fish for my honours at Sydney University and also half a year in plant ecology. That's when I really focused in birds was after my honours, and I went to Monash University and did my PhD on birds down there.
Kim McKay: So what did your PhD specialise in?
Richard Major: Well, my PhD was on the ecology of the white-fronted chat.
Kim McKay: Well, that's so good, I'm so glad you mentioned the white-fronted chat because I have heard you since I've been at the Australian Museum speak passionately about this beautiful little bird that is native to south-eastern Australia and all the way across to South Australia too I think, and it really is special, and you've done a lot of work on its habitat here in urban areas, particularly around Sydney, haven't you.
Richard Major: Yes, I've got a very strong connection with a chap from my PhD, and then it was sort of fortunate when I came to the museum, I had the opportunity to look at the species in Sydney where it used to be quite common in the salt marshes and wetlands. It's a wetland bird. But over time in a place like Sydney, swamps get drained and estuaries is what they depend on and that's where we get…well, people like to live too, so where you get people, you get a lot of habitat destruction. But there's two little populations of chats left in Sydney, and one of those is at Homebush Bay and one is at Botany Bay. So quite close to the centre of Sydney, these two little populations remaining.
Kim McKay: Absolutely. So chats, you've brought one in to show us today, which is a beautiful little animal with black and brown feathers and a full white front, but it's quite a small bird isn't it.
Richard Major: Yes, it weighs 12 grams, so if you think a tub of margarine is 250 grams, you could fit 20 of them in a margarine tub, so they are very small little birds, quite hard to see if you don't know what you're looking for. In fact they fly more like a butterfly, they've got this flitty flight rather than a strong flight.
Kim McKay: Wow. So they tend to dwell under the shrubbery, is that right, like other little birds, or the ground?
Richard Major: Actually they forage on the ground entirely, but they forage in quite open areas, so on the edges of salt flats, and they also like grassland actually, very short cropped grass. So they forage in open spaces, but they…well, they roost in mangroves and saltmarsh. They don't turn up in backyards, they are not an urban…they really don't like people, they're quite wary. If you go near them, they flush from a person at a much greater distance than something like a fairy wren or your typical small urban bird.
Kim McKay: But they are becoming very rare now in Sydney, aren't they.
Richard Major: Yes, so in Sydney there would be fewer than 20 birds left in Sydney.
Kim McKay: Sorry, 20 birds we're talking about?
Richard Major: 20 individuals. This one I've brought in here, this was collected in 1867 from Homebush Bay, so the same population that we now have one in. I mean, I find actually it's quite an emotional little specimen this one. You sort of think about how long they have been living there and then we've managed to have them in a museum for 150 years, but now that population will be extinct very shortly, down to one individual.
Kim McKay: I should say that this little individual bird from the 1800s that rests in the Australian Museum collection, it's got the little handwritten tags on it that illustrate where it was collected and when. So the Australian Museum of course has this extraordinary natural science collection of well over 18 million species in that collection I know, and the bird collection is just remarkable, isn't it, and it's so important because, as you said, this little chat tells us a story from before this urban city and sprawl really grew up around it.
Richard Major: Yes, it's how we know that they were right across Sydney. We've got little specimens here taken across that range, which show that they were in little salt marshes right across the Sydney region, and yet we haven't been able to keep the space for them.
Kim McKay: I know you've been doing some research out at Homebush Bay where this little fellow was found, and you just mentioned 'and there's just one there now'. I think you thought they'd all gone.
Richard Major: Yes, it's a sad thing to do but we started this study because we thought they were…it was a significant location for them and we knew that there were only a couple of locations left in Sydney, but people didn't know how many there were. So our first thing was just to find out how many birds there were. And we thought, well, the best way of doing this is actually a colour band, do a mark recapture where we can tell individuals apart and count them. And people had seen flocks of around 10 birds down there, and the first day we went out we were quite lucky, but we saw a flock of 11 birds are we managed to catch nine of them, but then in our subsequent work we realised there was only one flock, so we had captured nine of the 11 birds. So really when a population gets to that size it's pretty well doomed, and so our project at Homebush Bay then was really looking at what happened to that population.
We saw them get a very low reproductive success, their nests get hammered by a range of animals, feral animals like foxes because they nest close to the ground. But also native birds like ravens that do very well in cities, so we get very high populations of these predators that can spread out into the natural areas and eat the eggs. So we watched the population decline slowly at first and then it dropped. Coincidentally it dropped so that the last four birds were all males. So when it got to that stage we knew it was functionally extinct, and then we saw them drop off down to three males that stayed there for two years. The last year they hadn't turned up on any of our surveys and we thought, well, the last one had gone. And then it popped up again in December. So there's still one there.
Kim McKay: So there's still one there. So no hope of reuniting the poor lonely man with a female?
Richard Major: I guess as an ecologist, it's satisfying almost a need in us for a Disney ending, it's not really the best way of looking after the conservation of species.
Kim McKay: No, it isn't. And so you've also got a flock of these or a few flocks down at Botany Bay as well that you are studying.
Richard Major: Yes, so that project is coming to an end, but we've been able to do…well, the main project that we've been looking at here is how much urban areas fragment populations. So what is causing the decline? We know they've lost their habitat, but really you can have isolated patches of habitat that still maintain animal populations because there are birds that can come and go between patches and build them up. The problem with these little populations in Sydney we've now found is that they are quite isolated. Sydney is such a barrier, that urbanisation, that birds can't fly and rescue them, and we found that out with the genetic projects, so we've taken feather samples from them and looked at the DNA of those and the neighbouring populations, the nearest ones of which are down at Nowra and up at Newcastle. And we've found that they are quite genetically distinct now that they've been isolated and inbred really.
Kim McKay: But of course what you said earlier about the impact of certainly introduced species like foxes but also the ravens, you said about the birds that thrive in urban environments. And of course that leads me to another project that you've been involved in lately, which is this other little creature here that we see commonly in our backyards that are causing a problem, the noisy miner. And of course firstly we get noisy miners and Indian mynas mixed up all the time, don't we.
Richard Major: Yes, so there's two miners, they are spelt differently, they are quite unrelated. The noisy miner is a native Australian honeyeater, whereas the common myna or Indian myna is mostly known as a close relative of the starling, so it's a different bird family altogether. But they are both small fist-sized birds, they've both got yellow beaks and yellow eyes.
Kim McKay: So come on, what noise do they make, what does the noisy miner sound like?
Richard Major: It's just noisy, but it's quite complicated, it's got many different calls, it's got particular alarm calls, a whistley call it uses for aerial predators. That really noisy one is one that it uses for ground predators. So you can tell what's around by the noise they're making. And then there's a lot of just 'cheep cheep' calls which you'll hear when you walk across Hyde Park. There's miners just communicating with each other.
Kim McKay: Okay, so it has a yellow beak and it has some yellow around the eyes as well and a grey body, very common, you see it everywhere, but it is a native species in Australia but it's thriving, isn't it.
Richard Major: Yes, it's very interesting because of the native species that has now been listed as a key threatening process because it itself is leading to the decline and, well, it's causing species to become threatened, which means they are heading towards extinction. Small native birds, birds like thornbills and robins and fantails, little birds that…
Kim McKay: Or little birds we loved in our backyards growing up in Sydney.
Richard Major: Yes, and it's because these birds, they're so pugnacious, they're so aggressive, and they've got a very complex population structure. I mentioned that they have very interesting vocal calls, they're communicating all the time, and they cooperate, so they form these little…well, they live in colonies and they form what we call coteries, which are little groups together, and then within these they have alliances that beat up on any predators that come into the place. But they also defend their territories from anything smaller than them. They've just thrived with the sort of landscapes that humans like and that tends to be places that have lots of trees and lots of lawn and not so much shrubbery. So there are big issues in urban areas but probably more of a concern in rural areas where we've got…the bushland that's left is very fragmented, and there's a lot of grassland around the edge, and they love those edge habitats.
Kim McKay: So in fact you've just been out to western New South Wales, haven't you, looking at some of those areas where there has been significant land clearing and trying to identify the shrubbery and see how these birds thrive there. You've been capturing these birds as part of the process.
Richard Major: Yes, we're looking at it in two different bioregions of Australia, so we are looking in the northern tablelands and we are also looking in central western New South Wales, so out near Condobolin, and we are working in travelling stock routes which is where a lot of the remnant vegetation now resides. And when you say capture, yes, we are capturing but this is my first project at the museum where I've actually been involved in killing birds, though we are capturing these birds by removing them and it's an experiment to see how long it takes noisy miners to colonise patches you've taken them away from, and also how quickly small birds will come back to those patches.
Kim McKay: So this is one of those very special cases where the culling of the birds is informing the science research for us to try and be able to understand how they are colonising areas. It's not that you are doing it for fun, it's actually leading to a body of work to help us understand why these birds are infiltrating urban areas and driving out the other, smaller native birds.
Richard Major: Exactly. Our other work, for instance, which was genetic work, we'd capture birds in mist nets, which take feather samples from them and from that we could look at their DNA. In this case we are actually…we need to do this big implementation to…it's the only way you can study their effect in this case is to have removal sites and then control sites where there is no removal and compare what happens in the two.
Kim McKay: Certainly. So this information that you're gathering here at the Australian Museum is going to help inform local councils around Australia, it's going to help inform departments of environment around Australia and other universities, so it's very vital work to help us understand how to balance the ecology of our urban environment, isn't it.
Richard Major: Yes, and we've got some very good help from…as you say, local land services, the people who look after the travelling stock routes are very supportive, the projects funded by the environmental trusts, so from the New South Wales state government, because it is recognised as such a key issue for bird diversity in Australia.
Kim McKay: Well, Richard Major, it's been fantastic speaking to you today. I know you have a lot more to tell us about birds and the urban environment because I know you've also been doing the cockatoo wing-tag study, which is a wonderful citizen science project, so we will get you back to chat about that in the future and give us an update on both of these projects you've talked about today. Thanks so much, birds add so much to our life here in Australia and we are very fortunate to live in a country where there is such diversity, we want to try and protect that long term, and the work you're doing here at the Australian Museum does that. So thank you so much.
Richard Major: A pleasure, thank you.
Kim McKay: So join us next time on AMplifyat the Australian Museum.