A spectacular variety of bird life was spotted in parks and gardens across Ferntree Gully last month as part of BirdLife Australia’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Open to all Australians, the Backyard Bird Count captures a snapshot of backyard bird life each year and shows the changes in population of different species. People took part in record numbers this year, submitting sightings of nearly five million birds between 18 and 24 October.
Almost 100 different bird species were recorded by participants of the count in the 3156 postcode. Some of the most commonly seen birds around Ferntree Gully in the count this year were magpies, rainbow lorikeets, crimson rosellas, sulphur crested cockatoos, noisy miners, red wattlebirds and common myna birds. We also spotted ravens, kookaburras, king parrots, crested pigeons, spotted doves and the tawny frogmouth.
There were even some sightings of Australia’s bird of the year, the superb fairy-wren.
Results from past Aussie Backyard Bird Counts show a significant drop off in sightings of small garden birds like the fairy-wren and willie wagtail, raising concerns that they are finding it difficult to carve out a safe space in our urban areas. Sean Dooley, BirdLife Australia’s National Public Affairs Manager, said reporting rates of superb fairy-wrens in Melbourne had almost halved over the past seven years. ‘These much-loved birds are usually found in suburbs that have corridors of native bushland close by, so their rapid disappearance, along with a number of other small bush birds, is cause for grave concern,’ he said.
Mr Dooley suggested that smaller birds are most likely losing out in urban areas due to a loss of richness and diversity of habitat. ‘With fewer bushy gardens for these small birds to retreat to, we are losing them entirely from our cities,’ he said. ‘The downward trend may also be exacerbated by the rise of larger and more aggressive birds, in particular the noisy miner which can drive away smaller birds.’
Fostering superb fairy-wrens
As part of the Aussie Backyard Bird Count, Knox City Council hosted an evening information session with a superb fairy-wren expert. Dr Andrew Katsis, behavioural ecologist from Flinders University, spoke to more than 60 local bird lovers about the private lives of superb fairy-wrens and the conditions they need to thrive.
He said superb fairy-wrens were breeding at this time of year, with males changing colours to have more of the bright blue plumage on their bodies and using special songs to attract a mate. They are even known to collect a yellow petal and present it very delicately to a female in their beak. After February, males change to a duller plumage, but keep the blue on their tails.
Fairy-wrens live in co-operative family groups, with young males known to stay with the family for a few years to help feed the baby chicks.
However, Dr Katsis said superb fairy-wrens were one of the most adulterous birds in the world, with up to three quarters of the offspring unrelated to the male who raises them.
He said most female fairy-wrens would only travel a few hundred metres to a couple of kilometres away from where they were born to set up a new territory. He said female fairy-wrens build their dome-shaped nests in thick shrubs, reeds or grasses between ground level and two metres high. They commonly have three eggs, hatching after 14 days. Although they emerge at about the size of a thumbnail, the baby birds are tiny eating machines and look virtually the same as adults after just a month.
‘But it’s a hard world for tiny birds, and they have many predators, including other birds such as currawongs, magpies, butcherbirds, ravens and kookaburras, as well as rodents and snakes,’ he said.
He encouraged locals looking to encourage superb fairy-wrens in their gardens to create a thick understory of native shrubs, stretching all the way to the ground. ‘A few prickly branches wouldn’t go amiss,’ he said. ‘You can also leave out a shallow bowl of water in a shady place and the more insects you have in your yard, the happier they will be. ‘Fairy wrens spend a lot of time foraging for insects on the ground, which makes them especially vulnerable to predators, so keep your cat indoors or contained.’