Discovery of a Lifetime Blue-fronted Fig-parrot

February 12th, 2007

08/11/06 – Discovery of a Lifetime

Last night at O’Reilly’s Guesthouse in front of a small group of privileged birders and special guests, John Young revealed his most exciting discovery to date. The discovery and the amazing images of the yet to be described “Blue-fronted” Fig-parrot were the result of over 10 years of hard searching in the sub-tropical rainforests of Queensland and New South Wales. The “Blue-fronted” Fig-parrot is now the subject of a scientific paper being written by John Young and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Senior Conservation Officer, Dr. Ian Gynther. The paper will examine the relationship between the “Blue-fronted” Fig-parrot and the 3 existing Australian Fig-parrot species.

A Background on Fig-Parrots in Australia

Prior to this exciting discovery by John Young, Australia was thought to have a single species of fig-parrot comprising three geographically separate subspecies.

The species as a whole is known as the Double-eyed Fig-Parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma. Its different Australian representatives are:
· Coxen’s Fig-Parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma coxeni, the first to be described by John Gould in 1867, from south-east Queensland and north-east NSW,
· Red-browed Fig-Parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma macleayana, described in 1874, from Cooktown to Paluma in north Queensland, and
· Marshall’s Fig-Parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma marshalli, our smallest parrot that was only described in 1946, from eastern Cape York Peninsula.

A further five subspecies of Double-eyed Fig-Parrot are known from New Guinea and the West Papuan Islands.

These fig-parrots are small, predominantly green birds with distinctive, colourful facial patterns. They have a characteristic appearance due to their short tails and dumpy, top-heavy build. Their plumage and behaviour can make them difficult to spot when perched amid foliage. Fig-parrots feed primarily on the seeds of figs, from which they get their common name, but they will also eat other fruits and utilise blossom.

Based on available evidence, the new find by John Young is a distinctly different fig-parrot representing, at the very least, a separate subspecies. This “Blue-fronted Fig-Parrot” may be a species in its own right. Of particular interest is that its distribution, from the Queensland border area south into New South Wales, overlaps with that of Coxen’s Fig-Parrot.

Ultimately, confirmation of the discovery and resolution of the taxonomic status of this bird will require a comparison of genetic material with other Australian fig-parrots. This work is underway.

Coxen’s Fig-Parrot is listed as endangered under Queensland’s Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 1994, the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 of New South Wales and the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It is currently one of the most threatened and poorly known birds in Australia.

Confirmed or credible sighting reports of Coxen’s Fig-Parrot continue to be made in the two range states, but photographs, sound recordings or recent specimens are still lacking. It appears its favoured habitat was lowland subtropical rainforest, an ecosystem type that has suffered badly since European settlement. Accurate predictions about population size are currently not possible.

Key threatening processes impacting on Coxen’s Fig-Parrot are the loss, fragmentation and degradation of the bird’s habitats, causing a reduction in the extent and quality of food resources. A national recovery plan was put in place in 2001 and actions to ameliorate the various threats have been implemented during the intervening period.

The recovery plan can be viewed at:
http://www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/recovery/fig-parrot/index.html

The plight of Coxen’s Fig-Parrot highlights the importance of conserving and restoring areas of undisturbed habitat that are large enough to provide it refuge from threatening processes, and that provide connectivity between occupied areas.

These same requirements are expected to be important for the newly discovered fig-parrot. Our knowledge of this bird is extremely poor but existing records are from montane forests, where it is also apparently in low numbers and likely to be subject to threatening processes.

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