‘I’m absolutely stunned by this’: Bird experts worried by new phenomenon

In what has been described by an animal behaviour expert as a worrying phenomenon, some bird species are breeding well ahead of schedule.

The Spring breeding purple-crowned lorikeet has already given birth to chicks in the Bega Valley. Picture: Chris Tzaros

The Spring breeding purple-crowned lorikeet has already given birth to chicks in the Bega Valley. Picture: Chris Tzaros

University of New England Emeritus Professor in Animal Behaviour, Gisela Kaplan, says she has not witnessed such early breeding in her 20 years studying the animals with the university.

“Breeding too early is a new phenomenon, and a very worrying one,” the American Ornithology Union fellow said.

“They may have just been fooled, but there’s many unanswered questions.”

Professor Kaplan said this year’s warm weather and late rainfall may be to blame for the May nesting.

“It may be a one-off event, or due to climate change, and the birds will be as baffled as we are,” she said.

“Most of the birds breeding will have done it before, so they know what they are doing.

“You do get false indicators, but the problem is if we get a proper winter after the breeding the chicks will die.

“The other problem with nesting too early is the food also may not be available, and their offspring need a diet high in sugar, protein and fat, so they may be in trouble.

“I’m absolutely stunned by this.”

University of New England Emeritus Professor Gisela Kaplan is stunned by the phenomenon. Picture: University of New England

University of New England Emeritus Professor Gisela Kaplan is stunned by the phenomenon. Picture: University of New England

Professor Kaplan has authored over 250 research articles and 21 books, and has conducted ground-breaking research into vocal learning, communication and cognition of birds and other vertebrates.

She said she has noticed early breeding this year in species such as the Australasian figbird and masked lapwings.

“If we continue to get warmer winters the ones who breed later will survive,” she said.

“The wildlife are used to weather cycles, but this is unusual.”

The phenomenon is also occurring in the Bega Valley, with ecologist and aviary owner Steve Sass also noticing Summer and Spring breeding birds already feeding offspring.

The purple-crowned lorikeet usually breeds in Spring, yet the aviary’s population is already feeding newborn chicks.

“If a species is already endangered in the wild, it can push that species to the limit,” he said.

His feeling is the animals may be predicting a future drought.

Ecologist Steve Sass says the Spring breeding purple-crowned lorikeet at his Kalaru aviary is already feeding offspring. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

Ecologist Steve Sass says the Spring breeding purple-crowned lorikeet at his Kalaru aviary is already feeding offspring. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

“Whether we are going into a drought I don’t know, I’m not a weather predictor,’ he said.

“This is what birds do, but I’m not saying they’re right either.

“if we do go into a drought, breeding will certainly reduce.

“Take the hooded plover for example, if you only have 60 in the wild they can get too old to reproduce and we end up with a dwindling population.”

Professor Kaplan said she wouldn’t have expected the early breeding to occur as far south as the Bega Valley, and said the birds may need help as their usual diet of seeds, insects, and berries are in scarce supply.

“Be mindful the adults may not get enough food, because it is so soon, so they may need help,” she said.

“There’s nothing the parents can do, but try to protect them.

“I have seen droughts where a peregrine falcon has fallen straight from the sky.

“There were no lizards or mice around so they were literally starving to death, their kidneys and livers had shriveled.

“They were so dehydrated.”