Breed and Release

By Mike Fidler

Many well meaning aviculturists would like to believe that bird keepers could make a positive contribution to conservation by acting as a gene bank which could be tapped into for breed and release programmes. This gene bank would also be an insurance policy which could be used should a species become extinct in the wild. This is highly desirable, but in the ‘cold hard light of dawn’, how realistic is this belief?

Breed and Release programmes were popularised and well publicised during the nineties by Gerald Durrell of Jersey Zoo and Sir Peter Scott with the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust and continues to be promoted by many zoos as it fits their corporate profile of education and conservation.

Despite its high profile with the public, generally speaking, scientists these days are somewhat cautious as it is difficult to implement, is very expensive and has a checkered history of success.

A total of 19,561 vertebrates, invertebrates and plants are on the worlds Red List. Furthermore, the rate of extinction is accelerating with the global phenomenon being labelled by scientists as the world’s sixth mass extinction; one of the previous ones being the extinction of the dinosaurs. Worldwide there are 1253 species of birds considered to be threatened plus another 843 near threatened. This makes a total of 2096 species of bird in need of urgent conservation. The situation of birds in Australia? To quote Birdlife Australia, ‘ 27 species or subspecies are now listed as Extinct, 20 as Critically Endangered, 60 as Endangered, 68 as Vulnerable and 63 as Near Threatened.’ i.e. a total of 211 in need of help.

Of course it would be impossible for aviculture to play a role in keeping and breeding all of the 2096 different species and improbable even here in Australia if we concentrated on our own 211.

Furthermore, saving all these species is going to be impossible with the scarce finance and resources currently being made available. Sadly, it is probably going to be a question of trying to focus effort on those areas and species which are most likely to end in a positive result and on programmes that benefit the largest number of species within a single exercise. In that context, the Gouldian Finch is considered an indicator species for the general health of Australia’s northern savannas. In other words, conservation activities which save the Gouldian Finch are highly likely to save a number of other species living in the same or similar habitat.

Our scientists decided the first phase of any meaningful conservation programme is the scientific research. The experience of others had shown that if you do not first have a thorough understanding of why a species has declined you cannot possibly save it. Logical when you think about it!

As an example, the highest profile USA conservation programme is the California Condor Recovery Program which started in 1987 when all the surviving Condors left in the wild were captured and put into a captive breeding programme. The first birds bred in captivity were released in 1992, but two years later were recaptured and brought back into captivity again because it was realised that not enough research had been done to gain the knowledge of how to sustain them in the wild. Two years later the breed and release programme was continued and a hugely intensive management programme of the wild population implemented, so that by 2007, at a cost in excess of USA$35,000,000, the wild population had been increased to 210, some of which had actually been bred in the wild and the rest of the population being created by progressively releasing captive bred birds.

Despite some apparent success, depressingly, scientists have now concluded that should the ongoing intensive conservation management stop, the current wild Condor population would relatively quickly become extinct again and paradoxically, the more birds that survive in the wild the cost of conserving them will increase pro rata to well over the $2,000,000 or the $10,000 per bird per annum it has been costing. So now of course the programme faces the difficulties of gaining increased ongoing funding or letting the wild population die out. It is possible, that if the authorities concerned had appreciated the difficulties they were going to face and how much it was going to cost, the programme would never have started.

We could quote numerous examples of limited or zero success in implementing breed and release programmes. The high profile and highly expensive attempts to re-introduce tigers, chimpanzee and elephants for example have failed completely. Closer to home, the Rothchild’s (Bali) Mynah is another example of high endeavor and high cost with questionable results. In 1990 there were only 15 Mynahs left in the wild. A breed and release programme was implemented which at its height managed to get the wild population up to a maximum of 50 birds. By 2011 this mainland population was back down to six.

The point we are making is that there is no point in breeding and releasing birds back into a habitat or environment which will not sustain them. It is an expensive waste of time and effort as well as being potentially cruel.

Significantly, most programmes were implemented around the same period before the world had learnt that breed and release was no panacea. To be fair,when you were surrounded by feral birds which got established either by deliberate or accidental release, it all looked simple,so was an easy trap to fall into. In fact I was a whisker from being caught up in a programme myself. My long time friend Professor Stewart Evans had done a census of the Royal Parrot Finch in Vanuatu and discovered that it now only existed on 4 of the total of 84 islands that make up the archipelago. This was down from its previous distribution of 14 islands. We went a long way toward getting permission to trap some of the precious wild stock for a breed and release programme and only dropped the idea when it all got embroiled in politics. We were totally naive; despite a number of attempts over the years, no one had even managed to establish a captive bred stock of Royals, never mind trying to reintroduce them back into the wild and we had no idea why they were declining!!

It maybe help the reader towards a better understanding of Breed and Release if we provide a synopsis of our work, together with some of our logic and conclusions and the background against which we are working. With all this background knowledge gained from the heart breaking work of others, we decided to first put in the hard yards and implement a thorough research programme to properly understand why the Gouldian Finch was declining, before wasting scarce money trying to implement any remedial conservation work.

Unlike some of the programmes quoted, the Save The Gouldian Fund does not have access to tax payer’s money and our private donors would likely abandon us if they thought we were not putting their money to good use.

The first part of the research concentrated on the basic ecology, the basic life cycle of the Gouldian Finch.

Studying wild birds is hard; they keep flying away; and making it even harder is the remoteness and ruggedness of the Gouldian’s home terrain. Outside of the breeding season the Gouldian also prove to be highly nomadic and as the nature of the terrain meant they could only be followed around on foot, this was arduous to the point of being impossible.

Studying the whole life cycle of the Gouldian Finch meant that our scientists were out in the field for long periods at a time in all weathers and despite their dedication, living in tents became increasingly difficult. Getting back to a boiling hot tent after a day’s working in temperatures up to 40℃ is not fun.

We therefore decided to commit some of our scarce financial resource to creating a permanent Field Research Centre by converting a building the Wyndham Shire Council had kindly leased to us on a peppercorn 21 year lease.

At the same time, it was decided to create a Captive Bird Research Centre to house some 2,500 Gouldians. This now meant we could keep scientists out in the field for longer spells and in all weathers and the Captive Research Centre meant they could prove, in a proper scientific manner, whether what they had observed in the wild was significant or not.

It also meant the scientists were able to conduct experiments that would have been impossible to achieve in the wild.

One of the first conclusions drawn from this original research was that a Breed and Release programme was highly unlikely to help in the recovery of the Gouldian  for the following key reasons:

1: Domestic Gouldians would not recognise and be able to evade the myriad of predators which include 6 species of snake, at least 4 species of lizard, 8 bird species [as well as few more opportunistic species like kites who would enjoy an easy target morsel! ] and at least 4 mammals.

2: Water is seasonal and ephemeral. We do not understand yet how on earth the wild birds are able find it, but they do and we would be surprised if domesticated Gouldians have the skill.

3: Seed is the same also, particularly at the start of the wet when all the seed which had fallen on the ground gets covered in water and mud and quickly sprouts into inedible plants.

The start of the wet is patchy with localised showers occurring over a wide geographic area. This means that the first shower produces  seed which is available as another area becomes inundated. The wild Gouldians are able to source this disparate food source. Although this is not proven yet, the hypothesis is that near ripe and ripe seed have a high ultra violet emission value which roving Gouldians can identify from the air.

4: Last but not least. If the wild population was dying out, one had to assume that there was something or somethings that were causing that. Until whatever it was was corrected, how cruel would it be to release some domestic Gouldians into a lingering death?

The long term commitment to the programme, the Captive Bird Research facility and the quality of our scientists has produced ground breaking results with over 30 published papers which have been recognised with a number of scientific awards. However, without the avicultural know how of how to keep and breed Gouldians, this programme could not have been successful ……. and this is how I believe aviculture can best contribute to conservation. By providing scientists with captive bird research facilities, hand in hand with the avicultural knowledge, a number of other species may be saved from extinction.

It would be very satisfying if aviculture was viewed as a net contributor to conservation. Perhaps this could be achieved if every avicultural society in the world approached their local university with a view to assisting and providing facilities for research programmes. Your approach might be met with a degree of scepticism initially, and in that context, you are welcome to use the STGF as a reference point if you wish. We are happy to provide any practical support we can. I have got to warn you though that an endangered species is probably going to be hard to breed in captivity. Almost for sure it is endangered because it has speciality requirements and cannot or will not adapt to changed circumstances in its natural habitat.

So I would recommend you do your homework first!

This breeding facility would in effect be the same the zoos provide, but there are not enough zoos with enough space to accommodate all the species requiring help. Furthermore, the zoos are better equipped and more likely to concentrate on the larger species which also provide a better public display, whereas private aviculturists largely tend to specialise in the smaller bird species.

The research on the Gouldian Finch’s basic lifestyle is ongoing.  We particularly need to know why so many juveniles are lost during the wet season and what the dynamics of the dry season nomadic phase are. By reading Dr Sarah Pryke’s papers, you will realise that the Gouldian has problems at each stage of its life cycle, all of which no doubt have compounded to exert downward pressure on numbers. However, the most significant problem has been man’s interference with habitat.

Gouldian Finch habitat is under threat from significant change created by cattle and land clearance for agriculture and mining, however the biggest threat of all are the annual wild fires which sweep through the landscape year after year. This is a relatively new phenomenon which has only occurred since European settlement and is dramatically changing the vegetative structure of the landscape.

In any change of habitat there are winners and losers. The vegetation which benefits from annual hot wild fires is proliferating whilst the plants which cannot stand this regime are declining. This in turn has an effect on the insects and animals which rely on the plants for sustenance and of course therefore the knock on effect right up the food chain.

In the case of the Gouldian this change to the habitat, together with the effects of preferential grazing by the cattle, is possibly creating a shortage of the grasses which seed during the wet and perhaps therefore, is the factor having a downside effect on juvenile survival rates.

However, the biggest known impact the fires are having is to dramatically reduce the number of natural hollows available for nesting. The scientists have discovered that it takes up to nine years for new saplings to become immune to the hot fires and, at the other end of the scale, the older trees which have suitable nesting hollows become more vulnerable to fire. So the old hollow trees are being burnt out whilst no new saplings are surviving to replace them.

This shortage of suitable nesting hollows is having a serious effect on Gouldian population numbers due to the compounding effects of potential increased nest predation and increased nest parasitism, together with competition for nesting sites from the Long-tailed Finch.

The big problem here is that even if one was able to control the widespread arson, it takes between 70 to a 100 years for a tree to create suitable nesting hollows, which means that unless alternative nesting sites can be made available the decline of the Gouldian Finch would continue for decades to come.

A small scale experiment was conducted to see if Gouldians would accept an artificial nest box. After a number of prototypes and a lot of trial and error, we devised a nest box which, to our delight, the Gouldians accepted. It is even fair to say they are preferred to the natural alternative! Furthermore, breeding results from our artificial nesting boxes are better than in the natural sites as we position them to minimise predation and there is no build up of nest parasites.

Over 3000 nest boxes have now been installed in a number of adjacent suitable experimental sites. This has virtually eliminated competition from the Long-tailed Finch and has led to around 400% increase in the local study population. These experiments mean that we now have one of the legs for staging a recovery programme. As an ecological rule of thumb, where 90% of habitat is cleared, 50% of its species will become extinct.

This means that as the pace of land clearance for agriculture, mines, housing, etc, increases we are losing more and more Gouldian habitat.

Trying to stand in the way of economic progress is pointless, but why can’t we have economic development working in harmony with nature instead of against it?

To this effect our scientists are working on projects with a number of mines and a major new irrigation development on the Ord River. First of all they are ecologically mapping the sites before development takes place and then advising on how best to develop the land whilst accommodating the displaced wildlife.

So the concept is, where a waterhole is removed, then a replacement waterhole is created off site. Where nesting holes are destroyed then replace them with artificial ones in a local suitable site. Where land is cleared for agriculture, ensure a wide margin of untouched habitat is left around the new paddocks and ensure there is a wide corridor left for movement between the cleared site and pristine untouched land, etc, etc.

We have only been doing this for 2 years and have now employed an extra scientist to control and implement this facet of our work. The results of these experiments will be monitored and the process refined on an ongoing basis. Over a period of time we will know exactly what effect habitat change has on the Gouldian Finch and to what extent the current remedial activities work.

So what else for the future?

I hope we have sufficiently demonstrated that breeding and releasing Gouldian Finches into a habitat which will not support them will not work. And that is without considering the problems associated with trying to teach them how to find water in the dry season or recognize predators, etc, etc.

The conservation programmes that have worked well are where wild caught species are translocated into a suitable habitat. These are often islands or fenced off pieces of land where feral predators are removed and the habitat allowed to recover. So for example, the Rothchild’s Mynah programme failed to work on mainland Bali, however a small number were trans-located to a suitable, predator free offshore island where the population has now increased to 130 birds.

The STGF does not have anywhere near enough funds to attempt anything like this, however, with our current knowledge, it would seem that possibly the biggest thing holding back the recovery of the Gouldian Finch is the lack of nesting sites. Certainly we have demonstrated that where artificial nest sites are introduced we create a local population explosion. So for the time being, the first leg of our recovery programme will be extending the range of our current known populations by installing nest boxes in new, but adjacent suitable locations.

We have known pockets of Gouldians spread across the northern savannas, so if we can extend these isolated populations out toward each other, eventually we could potentially  join them up.

So this is another way you can help. We can put up new nest boxes as fast as we can finance them, Mmmmm, $$$$$$$$ please! And also we need lots of volunteers to come and help us with the annual census of our populations around Wyndham. We do this in the first full week of September every year. Contact David Myers to book your spot. Not only will you help a worthy cause but you will also have plenty of fun, visit one of the most spectacular true wildernesses left in the world and see loads of birds including 6 species of finch.

We are of course trying our best to work on the fire problem.

Getting all the various land owners, stake holders and organisations, who each have their own agenda, to work together is an enormous and difficult task which in all honesty will probably not be achieved without Federal Government involvement. However, we are plugging away and in some small way are making a little progress by working with the local authorities and land owners. We have a joint research programme into the effects of fire with the local Department of Ecology and Conservation scientist which will produce vital information as it matures. We also publicise the problem and are trying to get the Federal Government interested. It has been estimated that 8% of Australia’s carbon output is created by wild fires!!!! ….. You would think they should be very interested! And, for our overseas followers, imagine an area the size of half of Europe or the whole Eastern states of USA going up in flames every year. The problem is that Australia is so big and Gouldian Finch country so wild that nobody notices.

What I have not covered so far is whether aviculture could act as a potential gene bank and perhaps a current working example of this is the Spix’s Macaw which is now extinct in the wild. It would be nice to think that this could be a role for aviculture, but to achieve it would take a concerted effort by a large number of people and bird societies. One of the biggest problems we face is a lack of genetical heterogeneity, ie rare birds kept in captivity tend to become too inbred. Some species can stand heavy inbreeding, but most lose fertility and fecundity and just slowly die out. Australian aviculture has lost over 20 different species in the last 20 years or so for this reason. To create a successful and useful gene bank the chosen bird or birds would have to become a popular cage bird kept by many people. They would have to be cheap enough for the average person to afford and be able to be kept and managed in a reasonably standard set up. Relatively few people can afford speciality set ups and have the time to provide speciality food and management.

It would probably be better to concentrate on birds which are now THREATENED in the wild, rather than ones which are already endangered and therefore already have a diminished gene pool.

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Finally, we would like to give a heartfelt thanks to our sponsors, donors and volunteers whose effort and money has made this programme possible. And to those of you thinking of donating … please do, we spend it very carefully, so that each dollar counts. All the money we receive is spent on the birds, none of the people working on our administration receive a salary or indeed claim any expenses.

We have surely redefined the meaning of ‘living on a shoe string’ !