Kelvin Thomson: 2009 State of Australia’s Birds Report

Speech delivered to launch  Birds Australia,
State of Australia’s Birds Report 2009
Saturday 29th May 2010

<<100531 Herald Sun Population Birds article.pdf>>

I was delighted to receive your invitation to launch the 2009 State of
Australia’s Birds Report.  As someone with a long-standing interest in
Australia’s extraordinarily beautiful, diverse and unusual birdlife –
I can remember when you were the Royal Australasian Ornithologists
Union, and remember visiting the little office when you were in Moonee
Ponds – I regard the Annual State of Australia’s Birds Report as one
of the more important Reports delivered for the information of the
Australian people.

I commend Birds Australia on the work it has put into this Report, and
previous reports, since the first Report was initiated in  2003.  I
congratulate the various scientists and researchers who have produced
this year’s Report, and I acknowledge my debt to some of you, such as
David Paton, whose research and findings I have made use of quite
regularly in my endeavours to alert Australians to the threats facing
the Australian environment in general, and our birdlife in particular.
Sadly, these Reports have been chronicling the decline of our once
abundant birdlife from a variety of causes, such as the extraction of
water from our rivers and wetlands, invasive species, and climate

Rapid human population growth, both in Australia and worldwide, has
had a dramatic and adverse impact on Australia’s native bird species.

Let me briefly refer to four examples of this impact – ocean-going
birds, migratory shorebirds, resident water birds, and woodland birds.

First, ocean-going seabirds such as albatrosses have suffered greatly
from the impact of long-line fishing – they get caught on the hooks
and drown – and it would appear, also trawling.  The Humane Society
International has asked Parliament’s Treaties Committee, which I
chair, to examine the impact of trawling on albatrosses and other
seabirds, citing evidence in a study by the Bureau of Rural Sciences
that the rate of albatross by-catch in the Commonwealth Trawl Sector
is alarming.

Of course the increase in long-line fishing and trawling is a
consequence of the world’s growing population.

Second, growing population has led to the reclamation of mud flats in
South Korea and the Yellow Sea.  This has had a huge impact on
populations of migratory shorebirds, which use places like the Yellow
Sea to stop and refuel and recharge the batteries as they wing their
way on their epic journeys between Siberia and Australia.  The loss of
these staging sites is the cause of enormous decreases in the global
population of many species.

Third, in Australia, population growth has driven the over-allocation
of water from the Murray-Darling Basin, which has had very adverse
impacts on wetlands like the Macquarie Marshes and the Coorong, and
therefore on populations of resident water birds.  A large scale
aerial survey study covering a third of the continent by researchers
at the University of New South Wales identified that migratory
shorebirds populations plunged by 73% between 1983 and 2006, while
Australia’s 15 species of resident shorebirds – such as avocets and
stilts – declined by 81%.

And fourth there is the impact of population on woodland birds.  Tree
clearing, loss of habitat, loss of corridors through which to safely
travel, and climate change–driven drought have caused a collapse in
Victoria’s woodland bird numbers.

The Victoria Naturally Alliance produced a fact sheet using research
by Professor Ralph MacNally, Professor Andrew Bennett and Dr Jim
Radford carried out for the past 15 years across northern and central
Victoria.  It shows that about two-thirds of bird species, including
lorikeets, pardalotes, thornbills and honeyeaters, have declined
dramatically, essentially from a shortage of habitat and food.

Given all these impacts it is not that surprising, though quite
distressing, that over 100 species of Australia’s 760 bird species are
listed as threatened with extinction.  Over 100 species.

The theme of your 2009 Report is “Restoring Woodland Habitats for
Birds”.  It includes a report on re-vegetation and birds in New South
Wales which challenges the view that re-vegetation sites are
ecological traps in which birds fail to persist and breed.  In this
Report, the proportion of mist-netted birds recaptured was similar in
both planted and remnant woodland sites.  Shrub-dependent little birds
such as Blue Wrens and Red-browed Finches were actually more likely to
be recaptured in planted sites, suggesting that the increased volume
of low, dense vegetation cover made these sites preferable to remnant
woodland sites.

Re-vegetating sites also improved the health of canopies of paddock
trees occurring within re-vegetated sites.  Birds in replanted sites
are providing ecosystem services.  This report concluded that their
research to date has indicated that replanting areas can make an
important contribution to on-farm bird conservation and some species
clearly benefit from them.  However other birds, including a number of
declining species that are of conservation concern, respond most
strongly to remnant native vegetation rather than re-vegetation.  It
says conservation efforts for these species might be best focused on
farms that already exhibit high levels of native vegetation cover.

Another key finding is that the attributes of plantings matter.
Isolated strip plantings support significantly lower bird species
richness than block plantings or intersecting linear plantings.

A report on seed sourcing suggests that composite provenancing – that
is to say the sourcing of seed from multiple locations – is a new and
improved approach to seed sourcing compared to the use of local seed.

Reports about woodlands in the Mount Lofty Ranges region produce a
number of noteworthy conclusions:-

In the Tungkillo area, if re-vegetation programs are going to provide
habitats in which the declining birds can breed, then the patches need
to be substantially larger in area, perhaps of the order of 10-100
hectares or more, and close to other patches of woodland vegetation.

Near Monarto, that substantial re-vegetation led to substantial
positive bird responses, and provided strong evidence that if suitable
additional habitat is re-established and at appropriate scales, then
predicted losses of woodland bird species can be prevented.

That the best available science suggests that we can avoid the loss of
species from a region by increasing the native vegetation cover to
around 30-35%.  For the Mount Lofty Ranges, the Adelaide and Mount
Lofty Ranges Natural Resource Management Plan has a target, ratified
by both state and Federal governments, to reinstate native vegetation
to 30% cover across the region to prevent further species loss.  To
meet the target in a timely way, there’s a need for training, but we
shouldn’t delay, because learning by doing is the best way to develop
this knowledge.

Plantings for carbon offsets should be multi-purpose and take into
account biodiversity outcomes rather than just carbon sequestration.

David Paton expresses a concern that the carbon market might encourage
only basic plantings that fail to address the needs of critical fauna.
I share his concern – this has been an issue of hot dispute at
international climate change negotiations.

A very interesting study of re-growth vegetation in Queensland’s
brigalow region finds that re-vegetation provides valuable habitat for
wildlife, including threatened species.  It finds that over time the
habitat value of re-growth for birds converges with that of remnant
vegetation – the species richness of woodland birds in re-growth
reached that of remnant habitat within 30-50 years.  It also found
that passive restoration through the retention of re-growth provides a
significant opportunity to achieve significant gains at the landscape
level.  This year the Queensland Government has announced a moratorium
on the clearing of re-growth of endangered vegetation types while a
comprehensive policy on re-growth management is developed.  An
important observation in this report from my point of view was that
some birds that are declining in southern woodlands – such as the
Grey-Crowned Babbler – are still common in southern Queensland,
highlighting the opportunity for pre-emptive conservation efforts
targeting these species in Queensland.

 This is important from my point of view because I think that in
galvanizing public opinion about bird conservation we need to talk
about what is happening to Australia’s iconic species – Emus,
Kookaburras, Lyrebirds – because people know and love these species,
and will be concerned about the dramatic decline in their numbers.
Recently there was a TV report about the re-introduction of a couple
of dozen Regent Honeyeaters and I applaud it, but you know the
Honeyeaters were all being fitted with radio transmitters.  The same
thing happens with other species like Orange-bellied Parrots, and it
is now being said that it’s too late to save the Orange-bellied Parrot
in the wild.  It seems to me that once we reach the point where
individual birds are being fitted with radio transmitters, then their
existence is not very meaningful to most Australians, who will
probably never see one in the wild, and for whom saving them feels
like hard work.  Of course for a species such as the Orange-bellied
Parrot to become extinct would be a disgrace, and we should fight
that.  But I think we will have more success if we sound the alarm
well before individual species get down to their last two or three
hundred, and do it about our iconic wildlife – koalas and platypus and
lyrebirds and emus and kookaburras.

We’ve seen absolutely tragic outcomes for iconic wildlife overseas,
where now we read of wildlife charities using guns and military
vehicles to protect elephants, rhinos and tigers from poachers, who in
turn are armed with automatic weapons, GPS satellites, night-vision
kit and heat-seeking telescopes.  When you arrive at a situation where
people are prepared to die to kill an animal, and other people are
prepared to kill them to save the animal, it sounds as if the life of
the elephant or the rhino or the tiger has become more valuable than
the life of the person, does it not?

That is the sad, pretty much inevitable consequence of the cheapening
of human life which accompanies runaway population growth in countries
in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and the increasing value of
individual tigers or rhinos when their numbers collapse into the

I mentioned earlier the Victoria Naturally Alliance fact sheet
documenting declines of up to 60% in various woodland bird species in
northern and central Victoria.  The Alliance said that National Parks
are just not enough.  Now when I was young and first getting
interested and involved in environmental causes, National Parks were
the holy grail of the conservation movement.  But the woodlands survey
shows bird species declining within National Parks as well.  National
Parks are being hit hard by drought and climate change.  So we need
action to restore habitat in more fertile areas, and adjacent to
existing remnant vegetation.  Large-scale restoration of habitat is
required to reconnect isolated bushland remnants.

Protecting and restoring habitat for wildlife on private land needs to
be a policy priority for both State and Federal Government.

The State of Australia’s Birds Report 2009 closes with an outline of
the Birds Australia campaign “Reconnect the Bush”.  And that outline
says “the single most important action is to avoid further losses of
habitat, not just from large scale clearing and degradation – which
continues in some parts of Australia – but from the incremental losses
of small remnants, wetlands and natural habitat components that add up
to a significant impact on our birds.

I think that’s absolutely right.  In Australia many things are
threatening our birds, but none more so than the loss of habitat, the
loss of vegetation cover.  If we’re to save our birds, we have to put
an end to habitat loss.  What is the driver of habitat loss?  Well
that would be us.  Population growth is the key driver of habitat
destruction.  Now the truth is that environment groups have been very
reluctant over the years to raise the issue of population.  There is
no doubt that the issue of population is fraught with religious and
racial overtones.  It takes courage to confront it, and I understand
why people are reluctant.  But I’ve said to other environment groups,
and I say to you, that if environment groups are not prepared to
tackle the root cause – population growth – you will be condemned to
forever be fighting local battles to save remnant habitat – time
consuming, energy-sapping battles which you often lose or are forced
to make inadequate compromises.  And even the things we think are
saved and protected forever may not be.

One Sydney property developer has suggested that Sydney’s magnificent
ring of National Parks may be a luxury we can no longer afford.  Never
mind the obvious response that if we can no longer afford something,
it sounds like we are getting poorer rather than richer as a
consequence of population growth. The fact that such statements can be
made shows that the only way we can guarantee that the beautiful bird,
animal and plant life we are blessed with in Australia will live on,
for the enjoyment and enlightenment of our children and their
children, is to move to stabilize our population.

I have produced a 14 Point Plan for Population Reform which proposes
that we stabilize our population at 26 million by 2050, rather than
the 36 million we are presently tracking for, by cutting our net
overseas migration to 70,000 per annum.  This is not anti migration,
it’s not no migration, or no net migration.  It’s a return to the kind
of migration number we had in numerous years in the 1970s, 80s and
even 1990s.  I encourage you to look at the Plan, which is on my
website, and contact my office if you want to be on my population
supporters database, which I have built up and which is campaigning
for population reform.

The other thing I encourage you to do – and I think people in this
room have the kind of scientific expertise which makes you ideally
placed to do this – is to support the nomination of ‘human population
growth in Australia’ as a key threatening process under the
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, by the
Australian Conservation Foundation.  I suggested before that
environmental groups had been wimping out on the question of
population growth, but this initiative by the ACF is bold and deserves
our support.  I wrote to Environment Minister Peter Garrett in support
of it and have just received his reply.  In it he states that the
nomination will be considered by the Threatened Species Scientific
Committee, along with other nominations received for the 2010-11
assessment period, in June.  The Committee will then provide Minister
Garrett with its Proposed Priority Assessment List.  The
prioritization process is based on which nominations, if successful,
are expected to produce the best conservation outcomes.  The Committee
will look at things like the scope and focus of the nomination and the
extent to which the process relates to existing EPBC Act-listed

The Minister will then consider the Proposed List, before developing
the Finalised Priority Assessment List and publishing it on the
Departmental website.  Then nominations are assessed in greater detail
by the Committee, which provides a recommendation to the Minister, who
makes the final decision.  If a nomination is not placed on the List
this year, it will be considered a second time next year.

Can I urge you to contact either the Threatened Species Scientific
Committee, or the Minister, or both, in support of the Australian
Conservation Foundation nomination?

In doing so you will be acting to arrest the relentless decline of
Australia’s remarkable birdlife, which so many of you have borne
witness to for far too long.  The battle to stop Australia’s runaway
population growth is a battle we can, and need to, win.


Federal Member for Wills