Alwal (Psephotus chrysopterygius)
Australia is famed for its colourful parrots, and the Golden-shouldered Parrot is no exception. The male’s plumage is turquoise and orange, with a black crown and bright yellow shoulder feathers. The females and young are green and turquoise. Golden-shouldered Parrots are about 23cm to 28cm long, with a long, tapered tail.
The Golden-shouldered Parrot is a totem species for the Olkola people of central Cape York Peninsula, with the bird known as ‘Alwal’ in Olkola language. This iconic bird was once seen in large flocks across the Cape, but now there are only around 2,000 individuals left in the wild.1 Olkola take their cultural responsibility to care for and protect Alwal for all posterity very seriously, with Alwal conservation activities identified as a priority in their Healthy Country Plan.
Where do Golden-shouldered Parrots live?
The Golden-shouldered Parrot’s range has contracted dramatically over the last 150 years due to changed land use. Once found over most of Cape York Peninsular, it’s now restricted to a total area of 3,000km2. It's listed as Endangered both nationally and under Queensland’s legislation. Internationally, it's considered Vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Golden-shouldered Parrots inhabit tropical savannah woodlands and open grasslands. They move between different habitats within their range during the wet and dry seasons taking advantage of seasonal food sources. They feed in grasslands, in pairs or in small flocks, and like many birds, they roost in trees. But their nesting site is a little peculiar – they nest in conical termite mounds!
Also known as antbed or anthill parrots, they excavate their nests just after the wet season, when termite mounds are soft. The mounds insulate the chicks on cold nights, but their timing has to be just right – if termites are still active, they can cover over the nest entrances, or kill eggs by cementing them to the bottom of the nest.
Golden-shouldered Parrots are seed-eating specialists (granivores). They peck at fallen seeds on the ground, and use their feet to hold on to grass stems to eat directly from the flowering seed-heads. Their diet influences several facets of their behaviour and ecology.
In far north Queensland the rainy season generally begins to ease around March. The first protein-rich grasses begin to seed, and for the parrots, this is the perfect time to breed. Females lay four to six eggs, most of which hatch in 20 days, and are fully fledged within five weeks.
While Golden-shouldered Parrots are often found in pairs or in small flocks made up of family groups, they have a special relationship with Black-faced Woodswallows (Artamus cinereus). As the parrots are often on the ground feeding they are vulnerable to predators, but the woodswallows’ alarm call lets the parrots know when predators are close by.
The Golden-shouldered Parrot has been described as a fire-dependent species. The plant species they prefer – Cockatoo Grass (Alloteropsis semialata), Fire Grass (Schizachyrium spp.) and Glimmer Grass (Planichloa nervilemma) – are more abundant and seed for longer under the right fire regimes. Their grassy woodland habitat is also maintained by fire, and recently burned sites are safer because predators are easier to see.
Surprisingly, the wet season is a tough time for Alwal. When rain is heavy and continuous, they sit quietly in trees and do not feed. Young immature birds often die of starvation during this time. Birds survive by eating flowers and buds from trees. Amazingly, they sometimes pair toxic foods – like new growth from Cooktown Ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys) – with clay from the termite mounds, helping to counteract the food’s poisonous effect.
Eggs are eaten by reptiles (especially goannas) and fledglings are also eaten by ants and birds. The Pied Butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) is the most significant predator of adults, ambushing the ground-foraging parrot from nearby woody vegetation.
Since European settlement, fire regimes have changed dramatically across northern Australia. With fewer naturally-occurring storm burns, combined with the impacts of grazing, woody species like tea-tree (Melaleuca viridiflora) have invaded grasslands. This means more hiding spots for predatory birds, and less grass seeds for parrots to eat.
Grazing by cattle and feral pigs exacerbates wet season food shortage, increasing the risk of mortality. Alwal require suitably old (30-50 years) termite mounds to nest in. As such, the loss of or damage to these crucial nesting sites can have a major impact on the population.
What's Bush Heritage doing?
Alwal is a key conservation priority for our partner in Cape York, the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation. Bush Heritage is supporting the Olkola Aboriginal Land Managers to undertake counts of active nests, gain information on the size of the current Northern (Moorehead River) population, and set up remote cameras to monitor fledglings and predators.
By restoring traditional fire regimes, Olkola land managers will reduce woody thickening caused by tea-tree invasion and maintain the grassy woodlands that the parrots needs to thrive. Additionally, Olkola have established a long-term monitoring program to measure changes in the health of Alwal habitat with long-term vegetation plots.
We’re working with the Olkola to ensure that generations to come can appreciate the beauty of this unique parrot and the savannah grasslands it depends on.