Native Trees Harming Endangered Australian Parrot? What’s Going On? 

Native Trees Harming Endangered Australian Parrot? What’s Going On? 

Australia is a continent that is rich of unique animals and vegetation which has received constant threats from invasive species such as cats, foxes, non-native herbivores, and invasive plants.  

This one’s different: one of Australia’s most endangered bird species, the golden-shouldered parrot, is threatened by native trees and shrubs. 

How could this happen? Well, first, these birds have their nests in termite mounds, which were once surrounded by savannah grasslands. This allowed long sightlines for male parrots to see dangers or predators approaching. 

Unfortunately, native trees and shrubs, primarily the broad-leaved tea tree (Melaleuca viridiflora) have filledthe savannah. The trees have thrived because of decades of harmful fires and grazing practices. Since the trees block the view, the male sentries can no longer see predators until it’s too late.  

The thing is, the numbers of these parrots have been low, and it’s been declining at a fast rate. According to a study in 2020, found that as few as 700, and no more than 1100, golden-shouldered parrots survive in the wild. 

For a century, since around 1913, the population has been collapsing. Now, there are only two populations remain: one centered on the 483-square-mile Artemis in the north, the other at remote Staaten River National Park around a hundred miles to the southwest. 

“There were around 300 birds on Artemis back in the 1990s. There are now around 50,” said Steve Murphy, an ecologist and leading authority on the species. And to make it worse, current estimates suggest that no more than 500 birds make up the Staaten River population. 

When the growth of native vegetation becomes a problem 

Fire and cattle grazing are two contributors to the thickening of native vegetation. Traditionally, Indigenous communities practiced controlled burning at the start of the rainy season to make sure that moisture stayed in the soil.  

This was done so that fires couldn’t burn out of control and wipe out entire ecosystems. In areas that were burned, grass responded right away; when cattles don’t graze, it allows grass to grow vigorously and shade out young trees. 

As we know, cattle ranching has expanded fast, driving Indigenous communities from their traditional lands. Without their intervention and other land management practices, fires have become more frequent.  


Termite Mounds usually made as golden-shouldered parrot nests. Photo by Jim Bendon from Karratha, Australia Wikimedia Commons


And when cattle grazed on the burnt grasslands immediately after the fire, it created the perfect conditions for the trees to grow and take over from grass. Without moisture in the soil grass can’t recover as quickly. 

When there are more trees than grass, the parrots are vulnerable when building a nest and are at increased risk when they feed.  

“The parrots used to find where black-faced woodswallows were feeding to go and feed themselves. They’ve got their heads down in the grass looking for grass seeds, and they’ve got their ears wide open listening for that first squeak of alarm from the woodswallows. This allowed the parrots to get a head start,” Murphy said. 

Unfortunately, the transition from savannah to woodland ecosystems drove the woodswallows away, while drawing in black-backed butcherbirds and other ambush predators that hunt effectively in denser vegetation. 

“We’ve got more predators, they’re hunting more successfully, and they’re doing so in the absence of sentries. It’s amazing there are any parrots left at all,” Murphy added. 

Different probable solutions 

It gets a little frustrating when it comes to helping the parrots, partly because it’s complicated: stakeholders and different approaches must be considered. 

Back in 2016, the traditional Indigenous custodians of the region, the Olkola People began a project to restore the birds and the surrounding environment. Indigenous rangers and other members of community have monitored parrot populations and have removed cattle from Killarney, an Indigenous-run property near Artemis. 

While Murphy supports cattle removal, there’s a disagreement about the role of dingo in this conservation efforts. This wild dog species, according to the Olkola, has been able to keep the predators away. Murphy and other conservationists argue that dingoes are just another predator and potential threat. 

According to a government-funded Draft Recovery Plan for the parrot, the return to Indigenous fire practices and other traditional land management is important to save the species.  

This strategy has been successful in other applications in some parts of Australia, and it might be a part of the solution in the future. But Murphy opined that there’s been too much damage on Artemis for these practices to work on their own. 

“It’s a lovely idea but the landscape has moved on. No amount of Indigenous fire management is going to restore these systems to their open state. We need to reset the system,” Murphy said. 

What about clearing native vegetation? 

Additionally, conservationists argue that traditional land management could be successful when radical steps are undertaken first, such as land-clearing. However, clearing the native vegetation can be both difficult and potentially illegal. 

To give you a picture, to clear native vegetation and restore the grasslands on Artemis, Murphy and Sue and Tom Shephard, whose family has owned Artemis since 1911, needed permission from the local Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. 

Despite the institution’s support of the efforts, officials didn’t want to set a precedent that would allow farmers and cattle grazers to clear native vegetation elsewhere. Two years after the initial application, the department approved the land-clearing request. 


female and male golden-shouldered parrots. Photo by JJ Harrison Wikimedia Commons


The Shephards support conservation attempts to save the parrot. This family, who runs 3,500 to 4,000 head of cattle on the ranch, acknowledges that ranching has contributed to the problems the parrots face.  

Due to fences around Artemis, the family has kept cattle under control. However, fenced areas have also become a place where the animals graze constantly. Their consumption led to the disappearance of native grasses and led trees to emerge in their place. That’s why the family has tried to help the best they can with the land clearing. 

Then, another obstacle is how robust the native trees are. Conservationists say that they’re not easy to bring down. The team had to use chainsaws and clearing saws to remove roots and branches, then sprayed the entire site with an herbicide called Graslan. 

Not to worry, the herbicide killed everything but the native grass which the parrots need. Although it’s too early to know whether the strategy has worked Murphy doesn’t want to be pessimistic about the return of the grass. 

Not losing hope 

The Shephards believe that helping these endangered parrots could benefit their cattle operation. This belief is backed by Murphy and other conservationists.  

Livestock and the golden-shouldered parrots depend on the restored grasslands: parrots can take cover while feeding, and the cattles can get their food. With proper management, via controlled burning and strategies such as rotational grazing, the two can live together. 

Conservationists and the Artemis landowners realize that the battle to save the parrots has now reached a critical stage.  

Worst case scenario, these efforts are too late and should have been done years ago. “We know what we need to do to save these parrots. If we can’t get this right and turn these parrots around here, then holy hell,” Murphy said. 

But, Murphy doesn’t want to give up. If the efforts are done right, such as partnership between Indigenous communities, cattle ranchers and conservationists, they could have lasting effects.  

“If we look after it for our future generations, in 50, 100 years to come that little bird will still be there,” said Mike Ross, an Olkola elder and knowledge holder. 




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