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Darwin Ate an Owl
Darwin Ate an Owl

Episode · 2 years ago

Dr Dejan Stojanovic: Protecting Tasmania's caffeinated birds

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

We run through the bush with a passionate conservation biologist, tracking the iconic swift parrot through its quickly disappearing habitat

Welcome to Darwin eight an OWL. Hello, Hi Mark, I like that mission. That's pretty fantastic. Is Cools is interesting. Keeps me out of the gym anyway. It's people hooked. We're going to find it endlessly fascinating. Fascinating Darwin ate an our day. I'm mark Horseman. I woke up this morning to a guy beating his horn outside my door and jumped into his manky science you'd resplendent with dangling feathers and various cables. We drove for an hour or so north of Hobart and ended up here on top of a hill, morning sun slanting through the trees. All very nice. Now this podcast series is about taking a bit of a sticky beak at the inner lives of scientists. So this episode I'm in the Bush with one for a day in his work life, in his natural habitat. But I think we're going to end up hearing more about the inner life of the birds he's obsessed with, because he's easily distracted. Femos a partaking. It's definitely a nest. I wasn't sure about this last week, but he's just called his girlfriend out and as given her a meal and they're both are sitting there now probably wondering what the hell this noise was crashing through the underground. To get the good there's a confirmed nest. When you when you hear that call, it gives you like a maybe a two minute window, and the female makes that call for about a minute. She usually sits there. After he's feder she probably does a Pooh stretched as a wings and then immediately flies back to the nest as shows you where the nest is, and so I few get there when she's still making that call. Then she'll lead you to her nest and that's how...

...you find them. And it's like if you miss that call, it will be three hours before he comes back. So it's just like everything just stops and there's a female be you can call. You've just got to run meat. Dr De Yarns to Youano Bitch, or D for short. He's a conservation biologist who's in love with swift parrots. Right now it's a there's a we're sitting in there in the forest in eastern Tasmania and we're surrounded by by Nice open woodland, but at the moment there's a male's with parrot sitting about thirty meters from us, singing's little head off, and he's found a hole in a tree that he thinks might be a good place for a nest. Now he's just looking for a girlfriend, and so this song is calling out to any ladies that might be in the area, showing to say, come and have a look at this amazing tree hole or but makes someone very happy. Oh God not. Well, they kind of sound like that when they're singing for a girlfriend. It sounds kind of like boovy Bhoop it a something like that. But usually swift parrot sound like they've just had way too much caffeine and it's just kind of this hysterical kind of piping as they dash through the forest at a hundred KS. Now they're funny little birds and he's off again like his birds, and I've kind of manic caffeinated way. I'm trying to keep up while looking down for trip hazards, but somehow do you can run really fast for the Bush with his head back looking at the sky. You know, the normal is like bvvvvvv she. They only ever make it in this single scenario. It's always a female getting fed and it's just like this little hey there's weird, like squeaky Little Bang and call it's like and it's like yeah, just at that scenario and it's like the key kind of indicator there's a nest here. So, I mean because they're so damn hard to find, like if you miss it, that's it. You know, this chance for someone who's never seen one, how do you describe what a swift parrot looks like, how fast it moves? So so swifties are they're like a like a big budgy. They're like they're like a budgee and a...

...half in size, I guess, and they're they're quite beautiful. They're at they're like like really rich Emerald Green on the back and below it's kind of like the color of a Granny Smith Apple and they've got a little red face and a red red under the wings and on their bum I got blue wings. So they're quite spectacular, I mean. And what people like to say that they're the fastest parrot, and I actually have data for that these days, if pop one. Yeah, we we tracked a swift parrot with a little GPS transmitter and a few of the data points showed that they were moving at about eighty eight case an hour. So that bird was well, I'm pretty sure that counts. Is officially the fastest parrot. Swift in math, yes, fast enough. Personality. Well, their whole died is sugar. So they spend all their time, you know, flying around like lunatics in the forest, just kind of chasing one another and squabbling and moving from this flower here to that dead branch there to check for a hollow and then back to the flower to chase off the the other birds that have turned up. They're very busy. They're constantly, constantly singing and chattering and it's quite cute when you see them in a in a group. There's just constant noise. There, their noisy little thing and my grocery to where do they move from there? So swifties are in that regard. There will they're they're pretty pretty special. They're one of only two migratory parrots in the world and both of those species occur in Tasmania, the other being the orange bellied parrot. But swift parrots their unusual week we call them nomadic migrants because that that better describes their behavior. So although they do a north south sea crossing across the baths strait and that's the migratory part. They spend the summer in Tasmania and the winter on the Australian mainland. But once they arrived each of those locations, that's when they basically move to wherever in the landscape the best tree flowering occurs. That's what drives their settlement patterns. So they don't know great to the same place every time. No, never know when they're going to show up...

...exactly each year it's different. Is What makes them difficult. Yeah, that's one of the things that makes them difficult. So I mean, you know they're quite brightly colored, but they're the size, shape and color of a tree leaf and they live in these tall, wet forest down and taken in Tas where you know they can be eighty meters up in the air and trying to try and to see them is pretty challenging. You hear them much more often than you see them. But what's a day in the life for you in the forest then depends on what time of year it is. Early in the breeding season, my colleagues and I spend quite a lot of time doing how our field surveys to figure out where the birds are. So early in the season we drive around to over fifteen hundred sites across Tas mania with the windows down, our heads out the window listening for the sounds of the parrots. But now bit later in the season, it's kind of late spring now and the parrots have all started settling into to where they're actually get a nest this year. And today, for example, I know that the site that we're in there's birds here. They're actively looking for nest. There's not a lot of tree hollows here, so I'll be putting up some nest boxes in this location and then in a couple of weeks time I'll be back, get out of a car, haller rope so to the nest boxes and just systematically check all the nest boxes and all the hollows to see who's home and if a parrots around and and nesting them. Will Monitor it with cameras and by repeatedly climbing that nest over over the rest of the breeding season to keep track of the kids. As I watched D expertly shoot a line over a branch from a homemade swing shot, hall a rope over and quickly walk straight up a tall tree, I have to admit a bit of all struck admiration for his skills, but something tells me he's not going to admit to being a pretty handy climber. Do you like climbing? I do. It's fun. Have you always like clotting? Yeah, I was it. We always used to climb with my parents had a coast shack and we always used to climb the trees at the coast shack and it just kind of evolved into a job. Now you've become quite expert at it. Oh, there's ways that just...

...aren ordinary trees. I mean the tallest flowering trees on the planet growing testmated. There's there's there's there's a pretty pretty damn big trees we've I guess there's a lot better climbers out there than I am, but I think, I think I can. I can safely claim to climb much more regularly than most climbers. On average. We're climbing, you know, ten to twenty trees a day, six days a week in the field season, so you're pretty buff at the end of the season. It keeps me out of the gym anyway. That is your the forest is your gym. Did you learn, did you have to learn how to climb to do this work. Yeah, yeah, literally, I'm I mean previous, previous to this. I don't you know, just kind of. I done a bit of recreational rock climbing and and as a kid climbing trees, but actually learning how to climb big trees and Tazzi without killing myself was a fairly high priority in terms of training. So how high do you go? All, the tallest nest that I've climbed was about forty eight meters up, so it's a long way. swifty nests can be, you know, way higher than that. It's just carrying two hundred meters of rope to get to a to a really highness. That gets a bit unwieldy and a bit of wind in a tall tree. Yeah, what's a feeler? It's like the like a pendulum, but upside down, if that makes sense. So I've there was the yeah, seasickness in trees is a thing, but this must give you a perspective that few others have. It's pretty amazing. I mean most of the time I'm working and we're just flat chat, so I don't really have much time to notice. But when every cell, often when conditions are pretty nice, or you're in a nice place like on Bruny island and you're surrounded by water and you know, it's pretty amazing. It's also pretty nice because the birds they're not they're not frightened. So when you're in the tree with the parrots, more often than not they're just curious because it's such as I just don't think it registers to them that like what we are and why we're in the tree. So...

I've I've it's a regular occurrence to have some with parrots perching on my rope only a few meters above me, just coming to look and see what's happening at the at the at the nest. So it's pretty cool see what I be. I asked you about his climbing and before long it's back to the birds. It's pretty clear that if he's going to talk about himself, it's going to be in the context of his beloved swifties. I've I've very different knowledge of Tasso to most people. So, for example, as ridiculous as this sounds like, I've lived in Tazzi since two thousand and ten, but I've never been to Frasin A, for example, to the Wineglass Bay walk, because at the only time of year that it's nice to go for a walk like that, I'm off in places like Buckland and or at the eastern's tears. Old Note for the whistle. You kind of rolled your eyes when I said Buck there was a those are deffinite winds. So yeah, I like I have a very intimate knowledge of the swift parrot breeding range, like I know individual trees. We our, my colleagues and I. It's quite funny listening to US talk sometimes because we're like, oh, yeah, you know, you know where there's that there's that big obliquall with the hanging branch as you turn the corner just next to the Rock, and it's Oh, yeah, I know that one. Yeah, whereas whereas you know people, normal people like have you been to the Wineglass Bay Walk? And I just have have nothing, nothing to talk about there, because parrots really go there. Yep, this guy really likes parrots. But what gets me is that this is really tough, sometimes unrewarding work in off an atrocious weather, with the risk of being flattened by giant branches falling from Great Heights. So what keeps him and his team coming back for more? Year after year. I think we're all kind of motivated by by just how little we know about this species, but also how rapide we're losing habitat and how, even though we know that we don't know much about it, we're still just trashing habitat holes...

...bowlers across Tasmania. And so what motivates me is to learn as much as we can about the swift parrot as quickly as we can so that we can improve management not just for it but also for forests and forest dependent animals more generally. I mean the thing that makes with parrots so interesting is there a really great model species for for for nomadic species, not just in Australia but globally. I mean swifties are are unusual in that there are nomad but there's a lot of nomadic species out there, but because they're so damn hard to study, we know virtually nothing about them, and so nomads globally are this kind of mystery group, but we know that they're threatened and swift parrots are really emblematic, emblematic of this really mysterious group of animals. So if you can get it right for a difficult bird like the Swifti you've achieved something for nomadic animals the world over. Yeah, exactly, exactly. I think that's the real that's that's the real as difficult to swift parrots are to study, they're also they're also the only example of a nomadic species where, in as convenient as a nomad can be, which is usually not very convenient to study at all, at least with parrots, can find their breeding activities to Tasmania. So it's only an area of about three hundred K's that we need to search. Other nomads, for example in the central deserts of Australia, they are you know, their range is is tens of millions of square kilometers and that that's really difficult because there's so much search area, whereas swift parrots, they're just such a great model because it's all kind of neatly contained in Tasmania. We roughly know where the habitat is, we have an established method to search for them and now we get to drill down into the detail of what this species actually needs and how how they interact with their environment. And I mean, you know, sure it's a it's a forest bird that lives in Tasmania, but the lessons that we can learn from this species are just so easily transferable to other nomads elsewhere, and that's why we were interested in this bird. What are some of those lessons that you've loved so far? So...

I guess. I guess the key thing that swift parrots have taught us is that for nomadic species, habitat is everything. Where the habitat is and when the habitat is available is critical to just their whole life history. So swift he's are they're built to move, and I mean they're called swift parrots because they're so damn fast. I mean that the designed and they've evolved to follow unpredictable pulses of resources across the landscape. And our research is shown that in any year, even though the potential distribution of swift parrots is quite large, from the south to the north of Tasmania, only a fraction of that area is actually ever occupied. And so depending on the vagaries of tree flowering some years, some years it might be a mast year like, for example, this year, there's tree flowering across a very large area of the swift parrot breeding range, but in two thousand and fourteen only about twenty hectares of forest actually flowered in the breeding range. So you can go from this boom to a total bust depending on the particular year, and the pulses of that resource availability just totally dominates the way that swift parrots interact with landscape. So, for example, this year there's a lot of flower around the landscape and swifties spread very thinly across across Tas Mania and that means that there's a lot of food, there's a there's a lot of potential nesting habitat and the swifties will probably be okay, whereas in two thousand and fourteen, when they were nesting, when the only food was in a tiny little patch of a few few tens of hectares, it was just four hundred parrots on one hill and there's only so many tree hollows in the Tasi forest and in that year we suspect that most of the population actually didn't even get the opportunity to breed. So you can have these real, real contrasts from year to year and that's that's what's fascinating about nomads more general, is because they're dealing with these unpredictable resources...

...in these very large landscapes and even though they might just need a few hectares some years, being a critically endangered species, you have to protect all their habitat. How does that work in testmated we're not doing a very good job at the moment. I mean the the trouble, the trouble with a nomad, I guess, is that you have to think at a very broad scale. But all of our conservation policy tends to be focused towards protecting species that live in the one place and dine that same place and you can draw a reserve boundary around where it lives and lock it up and and and that's it, job done. It's not like that for the swift parrot. For the swifty you have to think at the scale of its entire breeding range. There's one just flying over now. So yeah, you have to think about it from the entire breeding range perspective. And even though you might protect this patch of habitat this year for the swift parrot because you've discovered that's where they settled, they may not come back for ten years depending on what local tree flowering is like. So really you can't just kind of lock up a little patch and consider the work done. You have to protect as much available habitat as possible because you don't know where it's going to flower next year or the year after that or the year after that. I will does it work when? So, for the state forestry sector wants to use that same forest, that's swifty habitat for log production? Yeah, well, that's that's the that's also what makes swift parrots are really difficult bird is because their entire distribution and tas mania overlaps with production forests and agricultural land. So it's a it's a it's a really wicked problem because, I mean all of these all of these areas have multiple uses, not just for the conservation a swift parrot. But the struggle, I guess, these days is is figuring out how to deal with protecting mature forest had an appropriately large scale that will actually be meaningful for the swift parrot. It's not as if you need to protect every tree and Tas Mania. That's not what the argument is about. It's just about understanding that...

...mature trees, things that have hollows were swift parrots need to breed and food trees. That's what's with parrots need and then needs to be protected across the whole landscape. It's not as if the loss of habitat for the swift parrot is a historical phenomenon. That that and we're now just dealing with a legacy effect of ancient land clearing. This is something that is happening today and in the timescale of this species decline, I mean swifties, could be extinct within a little as sixteen years. WHOA sixteen years? Let's just stop for a bit and consider that statistic. The swift parrot could be extinct in as few as sixteen years if we don't protect their habitat, which happens to be one of the most common trees in Tasmania. That really drive home for me why D so motivated. He's racing against time to learn everything he can about an enigmatic species that's quickly losing its home, that might not be here very long to study, but whose secrets could unlock mysteries of my greatory birds right around the world. So in the timescale of that species decline, we need habitat today so that these birds can use the habitat today. It's no good cutting down habitat today and saying I'll grow back in two hundred years. This species need needs all the habitat I can get now, which brings us, oddly, you may think, but stay with me, which brings us to sugar gliders. Yes, the very name sugar gladder may sound cute and cuddly, but that's the sound of one when it's really pissed off. Sugar gladers a small possumness native to Australia that stretch flaps of skin between their legs to glide from tree to tree. In the US and other countries they're kept as pets, but in Tasmania the sugar gladder has a dark side. Yeah, they are even I think there are pretty amazing animal and then they're awesome. But unfortunately for the swift parrot, they were introduced to Taszi a long time ago as pets, which also I can't possibly relate to. I mean I can...

...imagine a worse pet would be up all night barking and making a messes. Sounds horrible, but they are introduced as pets and they very rapidly have spread through Tasmania and we've found sugar ladders at all of the mainland Tasmanians with parrot breeding locations, so they're super widespread and unfortunately for swift parrots, sugar gliders of the main Predator. Sugar Gliders will kill an eight not just the the adult female parrot but also eggs and nestlings. So we're found, without monitoring over the last few years that on average about half of the female parrots that attempt to nest on the tazzy mainland get eaten by sugar laders. So each year there's a huge loss of mature breeding females from the swift parrot population. Voracious predators. Did anyone think that this cute cuddly thing called a sugar gliders supposed to be eating nectar? Yeah, would be eating birds and eggs. There is it's funny, you know, I mean I think. I think no is the short answer. I mean there were anecdotal reports of sugar gliders eating other animals, but I guess no one had really put two and two together because it was all just kind of little dribs and drabs of anecdotes here and there. But the difference with our study was that we were intensively monitoring swift parrots and and all of a sudden we just started seeing these huge rates of predation and really consistently across different locations from gliders, and so that was the first time it was quantified and now that that information is out there it's really fascinating because all of a sudden new data are coming to light about how sugar gliders behave also on the Australian mainland. So, for instance, the regent honey eater, or another critically endangered bird, has been recorded falling prey to sugar gliders. So it's quite widespread. They're not too although they operate by Stealth at night. So unless you're looking for them, it's you're not going to see it. That's right, and I think the other the other thing that has kind of concealed this behavior from from people in the past is that people that study sugar gliders are often, for example, walking around the...

...forest at night watching a sugar glider with the spotlight and if the sugar glider goes into a tree hollow, unless you actually know that tree hollow is a bird nest, it could just be a potential sugar glider den. So it might. I think that it's quite likely that in the past we've underestimated the impact of sugar gliders as a Predator, because it just people's just woarn in that head space of even being aware that it was a possibility. So, you know, going into a tree hollow, Oh that must be a den, as opposed to, Oh, it's a predation event and the glider is just eaten a bird. So it's just a different way of looking at the forest and I think that's how we found it, because we were looking at the birds, not the gliders. That was your discovery. Yeah, it was a good one, good one, but bad news. Yeah. Well, it was the basis of my PhD. I mean it was a it was a strange turn of events because in the course of about two weeks, all of the parrots that I'd been monitoring we're dead and I just was horrified because I thought I'd fail my PhD because my study species was all dead. But by by a turn of good fate, I managed to get my hand on some camera traps and and we managed actually identify what was eating the swifties and that's that was that was the the big discovery of my PhD. There's a fascinating tension there between making a great discovery that advances your scientific career, but which comes with the lot of your study animals. And the thing is that hasn't stopped for D ad His team. They build nest boxes to protect swifties and their families from a routing sugar gliders, but when they return to their forest study sites they find them clear felt as a scientist, you feel pressure to just stone your box, your science box, get the data and not stray into these vexed worlds of policy making and politics. Yeah, well, there's definitely a lot of pressure and I mean I've received a lot of personal pressure about about the fact that I'm pretty outspoken about it, but preciative...

...shut up pressure. Yeah, I mean there's a there's a there's almost an expectation that's that scientists should should just collect the data published in the scientific literature and then just publish another paper and the scientific literature and just just let let the information speak for itself. But I guess in the case of my own research, I've just I've just because we're on the ground and we can see the active loss of habitat across the range of this critically endangered bird. I mean, you know, putting out a scientific paper into and talking to my colleagues in academia. I mean they already know. They know that we need to protect habitat. They're not the people that we need to speak to. It's people, it's people that have never heard of the swift parrot. And I feel like, even though, even though it's kind of a bit of a strange space for a conservation scientist to constantly be, you know, talking about things that need to be changed in how we manage this speciies and and and calling out stuff that needs to be called out for species protection, even though that's that's a kind of strange space in terms of advocacy versus academia. I mean, we're speaking to our science and that's the key thing. Like we're just discussing scientific data in a public forum. That's not the same as that's not the same as having feelings. That's that's reporting data, and that's why, I guess I've always felt that it's actually my obligation to make sure that those data are transmitted to as large a possible audience, because they speak to they speak for themselves. They just need someone to put it out there. What's the key message of your data? The key message is that this species is in a really steep decline and if we don't take protection of their habitat and prevention of their threats seriously, we will lose this bird to extinction. But we're not. We're not so close to extinction that we can't act.

That's the key. They're in trouble, but we just need to stop actively engaging in processes that decrease their ability to live. When you know where to draw the one though, science can be inherently conservative. You don't want to call it too early, but you also want to make sure that you've let people out at the right time. When when you build a cat and as a as a research group, we tackle this problem daily. This is literally our bread and butter kind of issue. I mean our our it's not a swift parrots that we work on. We work on a range of impossibly difficult species in Australia, everything from the region how heated to the forty spotted partload of rag, of birds with a range of problems, each of them, each of them with its own set of unique problems, but also overlapping issues, and in all of these cases we collect information that that that is deeply troubling to us. Like we wear on the coal face, literally holding the dead bird in our hand. And so, you know, it's a fine line, I guess, between between being alarmist but also just being real about how things actually are on the ground. And I guess, I guess that's that's why we've always felt obliged to just report things as they happen. They own's a bit of a media dream, articulate, active, passionate, you know, good talent. More often than not when I call him he's high on a tree up to his elbow in a tree hollow. If I needed pictures, he'd get them. The first video of hatchlings in a nest box, shots of fledgelings taking their first flight. As a science journal I made a couple of TV stories with him about swift parrots. In fact, one of them is still the most viewed on catalyst YouTube channel, nearly a million times now. When we when we've chatted previously, you've often mentioned your mum. Did she take a special interest in you work? What does she think of what you do? She had adviser? Poor mom, she's she...

...always she's always a little frightened whenever she whenever she knows I'm out climbing, it says, the poor bugger. It's her birth day today actually, but they mom. Yeah, she she always gets a bit nervous when I mean the you know, the southern forests or something, and there's no no reception and giant trees. So yeah, she likes to check in occasionally to make sure I'm not dead under a tree somewhere, bless us. But she likes what to do in the media. She likes you being outspoken. She worries, I guess. I don't know. I think it's I think she comes from. Well, my family's, you know, Eastern European. It's kind of good to not make a fuss, I guess. In our family your heads down, pip, your heads down kind yeah, but you're challenging that mold. Yeah, I think she likes it in a yeah, I thought that. I think they're proud in their own well, I don't think they quite more. Certainly my grandparents don't quite quite fully understand my job, but you know, they like seeing me on TV and they you know, it's fun for them. I think when I first met to I was really impressed by his ability to drum up support for his petty shoes. He had this crowdfunding campaign to build nest boxes that swift parrots could use. Now that's not the kind of thing you'd expect would take the Internet by storms, not like a d printing pin or soap made from Bacon, but it worked. Still. He's modest about team swift parrot success, always crediting his beloved birds. Now study species a pretty spectacular animals. So, to be fair, half our work is already done for us by the fact that they're amazing creatures. I think, I think, I think that that that most to people, at some fundamental level give a damn about the environment and most people also feel, I think, quite helpless and and I guess that's that's what we've been able to tap into. Is because everyone, everyone likes a pretty parrot,...

...but no one knows how to help. And so, I guess because our group focuses so much on kind of really tangible, long ground, practical outcomes, something like crowdfunding for a nest box. You know, that's something my grandmother can understand. I'll give you forty bucks, you'll build an s box and put it up in the parrot or nested in that, and that that kind of that kind of community interest that we that we unleash with those crowdfunding events and also with our social media presence. I mean people, people want to hear about this stuff. You know, we've had, I think, I think three crowdfunding attempts so far. Each time it's been about five thousand to fifteen hundred people have contributed. So thousands of people and they've raised tens of thousands of dollars and mobilized a keen army of supporters. Every time they launch a crowdfunding they blow out their first target in twenty four hours and double it in the next few days or so. It's pretty great. It's great. It's a it's a it's a model that kind of keeps surprising us to, I mean, people come to have contacted us to, you know, for us to ask for crowdfunding advice. But, to be honest, we just making it up as we go along. I think the key the key thing, though, is that we don't want to sell false hope. So I guess from my perspective it's our from our whole groups perspective, I mean nest boxes. That's great, and that's like as a research tool. My God, it's so much easier to check an s box and it is to check a tree hollow. So thanks to thanks to that kind of deployment of boxes, we've been able to collect heap more data than we would have otherwise. But that is not the answer to protecting us with parrots, for parts, will not be saved by nest boxes. With parts won't even be saved by possum keeper outers. So with parrots will be saved by wholesale protection of their critical habitats across Tas Mania. That's what's going to do it. These these smaller scale actions will will help contribute. But at the end of the day, if we put up nest boxes here but cut down that patch over there, that that is like clearly not going to make a difference or it's...

...not going to help the swift parrots survive extinction. We need to we need to protect their habitat. That's the key. Thanks for listening to Darwin. Eight an hour a production of spectral media, bigger story and crowsness media with postmark workman. Research and writing by me, Margot Adler and Mark Worthman, recording and editing by Fraser Johnston and Andrew Tarrel, sound design and music by Nick Sullivan. You can get new episodes automatically and for free by subscribing wherever you get your podcast. You can get in touch with us on facebook.

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