Finding Alwal’s sweet spot
A new research project on Olkola country funded by the Paul Hackett Memorial Scholarship will shed light on the nesting habits of the Golden-shouldered Parrot.Read More
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 and known as ‘Alwal’.
This iconic bird was once seen in large flocks across the Cape, but it’s now estimated there are only between 780 and 1,100 individuals left in the wild. Olkola people 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.
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 Peninsula, it’s now restricted to a total area of 3,000km2.
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’re 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.
Alwal is a key conservation priority for our partner in Cape York, the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation. Olkola elder Mike Ross is chairing the national threatened species recovery team, for Alwal – the first Aboriginal-led recovery team in Australia.
We’ve supported 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 need 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. More is being learnt about nest predation, tackling feral cats and how the Dingo fits into the picture.
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.
Donate today to help us continue this and other vital conservation work.
Olkola and Bush Heritage may have a new tool in our battle to protect the endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot (Alwal) from feral cats.Read More
Mick and Kerry Moylan are long-time volunteers with Bush Heritage and their contribution can't be overstated! Here they share their experience of volunteering in Cape York for the recent Alwal Recovery Team meeting with our Olkola Aboriginal partners.Read More
I was fortunate to spend time last week up on beautiful Olkola Country in Cape York to be part of a very exciting national recovery team meeting for Alwal, the Golden-shouldered Parrot.Read More
Last week was the last trip for 2017 by Olkola Land Managers and Bush Heritage for the 'Bringing Alwal Home' project, and we gave the Golden Shouldered Parrots (Alwal) their Christmas dinners! The early wet season is a critical time for the survival of juvenile Alwal. Seeds are in short supply as early rains have germinated much of the seed and it's too soon for the young grasses to produce more. We provide supplementary food.Read More
Olkola, Bush Heritage, Artemis Station, Black-faced Woodswallows and friends all working together to support young Golden-shouldered Parrots make it through their first wet season.Read More
Hey! Where's the road gone?! The metre high grasses have covered it up again! I've never driven 7 hours just to put in a photo point before (that's 7 hours there and 7 hours back, by the way) but for the Olkola land managers this is just a regular day.Read More