Articles

Fabulous Finch

Fighting to save pretty finches

Today, there are fewer than 2,000 (down from 2,500 two years ago) Gouldian Finches in the wild. But luckily for this gorgeous little bird one care group, the Mareeba Wetland Foundation is working tirelessly to preserve the remaining numbers.

And one of its members, Gwyneth Nevard, became interested in birds and their plight more than 30 years ago when she was first introduced to them by her uncle in Scotland

 "Since I was taken bird watching in Scotland by my uncle as a teenager, over 30 years ago, I fell in love with birds," Mrs Nevard said.

 "We walked for miles and miles to see a tiny bird called a "snow bunting" which visits the far north of Scotland in the summer. Then I went to Africa, on my honeymoon, and that was just amazing - I challenge anyone to go to East Africa and not fall in love with birds!"

The major groups trying to save the Gouldian Finch are The National Gouldian Finch Recovery Group which includes representatives from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Charles Darwin University, the Australian Wildlife Conservation, Western Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management, Birds Australia, and the Mareeba Wetland Foundation.

The Mareeba Wetland Foundation is the only body with a re-introduction project for this particular bird.

For more that 20 years now (since meeting her husband Tim) Mrs Nevard has been passionately involved with wild birds and more than 10 years "hands-on" experience with caring for Gouldian Finches.

The numbers of Gouldian Finches now in the wild were given a boost recently when 100 banded birds were released into the wild (July 20). These birds were made available through the Mareeba Wetland Foundation's special captive breeding colony of "wild-type" birds which included genes from the last known wild population of Gouldian Finches in Queensland.

According to Mrs Nevard the numbers of these birds 10 years ago was "about 10,000, but 50 years ago perhaps it was two million" with their habitat being right across Australia's tropical savanna woodlands from Mareeba to Broome

But today, Gouldian Finches, which are endemic to Australia, can now only be found in Queensland (extinct other than in Mareeba), the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

To stop this bird from becoming extinct the average person need not feel powerless because they can become "pro-active" in helping these birds to survive.

And one of the best ways to do this is that when people see these birds in the wild they should not feed them or put feed out for them for risk of contaminating them either through human contact (via the food) or contaminated seed.

In the wild, these birds should be left alone and if people are so lucky as to see them the best thing is not to interfere, Mrs Nevard said.

Asked why she was so passionate about saving this particular bird she said:

"Because it is probably the most beautiful, and certainly the most colourful, of all Australia's birds and because its decline has become a metaphor for the decline in biodiversity of Australia's savannas. Locals in this area used to call Gouldian Finches 'jewel finches', so we call them the Jewels of the Savannas - and the jewels need to be put back as the crowning glory."

And along with returning the birds to the wild, goes a whole suite of management practices to ensure the availability of native grasses to provide food at the right time of year, reduce predators, disease and so on.

"We have worked hard in our Reserve in Mareeba to re-establish appropriate burning regimes and grazing controls to promote native grass species and seed availability at the right time of year," she said.

But she said still more needs to be done with only two or three chicks surviving in the wild and reaching maturity from each adult pair compared to the four to five chicks per clutch bred in captivity.

The natural predators of these birds include Brown Goshawks, Collared Sparrowhawks, Pied Butcher Birds, Brown Tree Snakes, Carpet Pythons and Tropical Quolls.

These birds have been on the endangered species list since the 1980s and still remain that way today. They are close to extinction in the wild and unfortunately most Gouldian Finches in captivity have been bred to be different from wild birds, making it impossible to use the vast majority of captive-bred birds in any re-introduction project.

All current funding is raised from visitors to the Reserve, and through donations. Volunteers also play a big part in allowing the Reserve to undertake their important conservation work.

And the Mareeba Wetland Foundation currently has a post doctoral researcher from Ireland spending three months working on the finches on a voluntary basis, and he is currently monitoring the birds that were released on July 20.

Just some of the simple things that you can do is support projects such as the Mareeba Gouldian Finch Project (info@mareebawetlands.com) and sponsors of the project such as TRILL™, GOLDEN COB™ and HARMONY™.

And children, with their natural affinity, can be easily encouraged to learn about endangered species and what can be done to prevent them becoming extinct. Promoting public awareness of the plight of the bird also needs to be high on the agenda among bird groups and State government conservation departments.

If you're ever in Cairns, drop into the Mareeba Wetlands because all the money you spend goes into conservation projects, and buying Gouldian Finch products such as a range of cards sees the proceeds go directly into the Gouldian Finch reintroduction programme. And you can also buy a finch sticker from all Australian Geographic stores.

Photos by Craig Mills - Courtesy of the Mareeba Wetland Foundation.