Tabitha Carvan is Senior Staff Writer in the sciences for the Australian National University, and a freelance writer on the side. 

A tale of two cuties

A tale of two cuties

This research profile appeared in print publications of the Australian National University.

This is the story of a little green parrot and a fluffy sugar glider with beautiful big brown eyes.

Or, as researchers from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society tell it, this is the story of forests scattered with dead parrots and the “deceptively cute” sugar gliders eating them into extinction.

With a plot like that, it’s no wonder this gruesome tale has attracted a huge amount of public attention.

But first, back to the beginning, when Dr Dejan Stojanovic was in Tasmania studying the breeding biology of the endangered swift parrot for his PhD.

“Swift parrot nesting habitat has been deforested for agriculture, urban development and logging,” Dr Stojanovic says. “Birds looking for a place to nest are squeezed into remaining habitat where they are vulnerable to other threats.”

One of these threats is the sugar glider, or, as Dr Stojanovic calls them, “sweet possums with a savoury tooth”.

“I discovered that gliders are the cause of breeding failure for the swift parrot.

Gliders kill and eat the female parrot while she incubates her eggs, or return over several nights to feast on helpless nestlings. In some small patches of nesting habitat, gliders can eat up to 100 percent of swift parrot nests.

“These parrots could be all but gone within 16 years, largely through being eaten by sugar gliders.”

In response, Dr Stojanovic and his colleagues from the Fenner School launched a crowdfunding campaign to develop nesting boxes that will help to keep swift parrots, as well as orangebellied parrots and forty-spotted pardalotes, off the sugar glider’s menu.

After only three days, the campaign reached its fundraising goal of $40,000. By the end of the campaign, Dr Stojanovic had raised almost twice that to build and install 1,000 gliderproof boxes.

“The speed and scale of the public response has been incredible,” Dr Stojanovic says. “It can be pretty bleak walking around in the forest for days at a time looking at dead parrots, so the support has been heartening.”

Dr Stojanovic’s team are now scaling trees to install the boxes. For the swift parrot, it might just be a happy ending.

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