Only four birds have been fitted with these trackers to test the system out but if the technology works it will soon be used more widely, says Michael Magrath, a senior research manager with Zoos Victoria, one the organisations working on the parrot breeding program.
“It’s an exciting development, something the team has been hoping to do for years now, and the technology has only now got to the point where they are small enough that we can try,” says Mr Magrath.
“We want to work out what path the birds take to fly north and where they end up on the mainland because this will help us work out the habitat and protect those areas,” he says.
In the past couple of years there has been a significant decrease in the numbers that survive between breeding seasons, with most of the juveniles not returning to breed.
On average, about 56 per cent of young birds survive their first year trip from Tasmania, but in recent years it has been more like 20 per cent.
Earlier this month, a total of 26 birds – including the four wearing the satellite transmitters – were released at The Spit nature reserve, near Werribee’s western treatment plant, between Melbourne and Geelong, and a new site near Moonlit Sanctuary, a wildlife sanctuary on Western Port bay.
Orange-bellied parrots are social birds which once flew north in large flocks with adult birds steering young ones towards good habitat to spend the winter. But their tiny population now means young birds are unlikely to find others when they arrive on the mainland.
“We had the idea we could try and establish flocks [in Victoria] at the time that birds would be arriving from Tasmania,” says Rachel Pritchard from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, who is chair of the national parrot recovery program.
“This week’s exciting news is we have already had two juveniles spotted in Victoria, who have flown over successfully … both in spots where we don’t usually see them.”
Pictures of these two birds were sent in by members of the public but Ms Pritchard cautioned against leaving the house to search for parrots during stage three lockdown. Researchers she said, had been respecting strict social distancing guidelines. Anyone who sees a parrot can report it to Birdlife Australia.
The mainland trial program has received $200,000 in funding from the Victorian government, with Minister for Environment Lily D’Ambrosio saying it had a chance of saving the parrots from extinction.
“Thanks to improved techniques and innovation we’re hopeful this year’s release will be the most successful yet,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.
Miki Perkins is a senior journalist and Environment Reporter at The Age.