If you were born and grew up in Australia, you must have seen this living national treasure, either on newspaper or TV. The Helmeted Honeyeater, or Lichenostomus melanops cassidix for the would-be scientists out there, is a critically endangered sub-species of honeyeater, found exclusively in Victoria. There are around 170 species of these cuties recorded in Australia alone, and they have also been Victoria’s bird emblem since 1971. These little yellow birds, as cute as they may seem, are in dire need of our help or they might face the cold grip of extinction.An adult Helmeted Honeyeater is about 20 centimetres long, weighed just about 30 grams. They can be easily identified with the iconic yellow patch of fluffy feather on their heads, hence the name “Helmeted”. This “helmet” is actually our little bird’s protection, as they like to crash head first into battle. Other than that, the body can have different colours, with the upper body being olive grey and the tail algae green. The lower body can be yellow-green with dark streaks. There is virtually no difference between a male and female Honeyeater, only that the male can be slightly bigger.
A Helmeted Honeyeater colony’s ideal living habitat would be dry forests and dense woodlands at low attitudes, along river streams or swamps. Most of this suitable habitat has been destroyed over the years, which contribute greatly to the species’ extinction risk.
Just like humans (well, just like most humans), honeyeaters are monogamous, which means they stay with the same mate for their entire life. On the cup-shaped nests lined with spider webs, they lay only 2 eggs around three times a year. The breeding time is from early August to early February. The females do most of the incubation, which takes about 14 days, but both parents take care of the offspring, with other fellow Honeyeaters as helper. These helpers assist with feeding and even nest cleaning. It is sufficient to say that the Honeyeaters establish an extremely functional society.Which raises the question: Where are they now?
The Helmeted Honeyeater is listed as Endangered under the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. As of March 2018, the Helmeted Honeyeater is officially listed as critically endangered, which means they are to be put under constant observation and taken care of by wildlife preserve organisations.
With the threat of extinction draws near, don’t go to your nearest forest and expect to find these birdies hanging around. Currently there are only three semi-wild populations, small and isolated, kept in Yellingbo Conservation Reserve and Bunyip State Park. The Yellingbo Reserve is currently housing a fragmented colony consisting of 100-150 birds. The Honeyeater mainly feed on flower nectar, as suggested by their name, so supplementary nectar is provided to them at all three sites. Additionally, they also feed on larvae, tree sap and invertebrates.
The Helmeted Honeyeater population declined steadily throughout the 1900s. Since they now have a population of only a few hundred in the wild (which is really small by most standards) and a restricted distribution, even the tiniest change in the environment can mean a detrimental effect. These factors can be natural, such as drought, bush fire, disease, climate change, or manmade, with the rapid expansion of industrialisation.
Global warming in recent years causing swamps to dry out was a big hit to their living habitat. Nest predation from snakes, birds of prey or wild cats can affect productivity. The Honeyeaters also suffer from rigorous competition with their cousins, the Bell Miners, which harass them day and night for their territories and breeding grounds.
What is being done?
Conservation plan of the Helmeted Honeyeater aims to maintain both the honeyeater population and their living habitat. All breeding attempts will be monitored and all nests will be protected in case of predators. At the same time, efforts have been made to re-establish wild populations by releasing captive-bred individuals. Inbreeding depression risk can be avoided by swapping eggs and nestlings between populations.
Scientists are also considering a newly discovered method of interbreeding between the Honeyeater and the sub-species Lichenostomus melanops gippslandicus, or the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, to ensure genetic diversity.
The Honeyeaters are also on Zoos Victoria’s top 20 priority species, and they have made a tremendous effort to preserve the colonies, with their recovery program ever since 1989. With captive breeding programs, they helped raising the public’s awareness through the display of this iconic bird in Melbourne Zoo and Haelesville Sanctuary. Research is also carried out to improve the success of captive breeding and monitor the survival of individuals after being released into the wild.
Since the start of the program, more than 200 captive bred Honeyeater individuals have been released into the wild. In the long run, Zoos Victoria wishes to achieve a stable population of at least 1000 individuals in several colonies, at the same time protect the remaining habitat along forest streams.
Where do you fit in?
If you have been looking for a way, there are some great opportunities out there that can enable you to give our little friends a helping hand. If you haven’t, now would be the best time to start.
There are several volunteer programs that are taking place in Park Victoria’s Yellingbo Conservation Reserve. You can help out with supplementary feeding of birds, propagating habitat, stocking seeds and plants, talking part in public education programs at schools and local communities.
The first national recovery plan was planned by Peter Menkhorst and David Middleton in 1991. The plan has accomplished many major achievements: a detailed mapping and monitoring of population demographics and breeding attempts, developed techniques to control bell miners, minimised risk of disease transfer between captive populations, etc. This paved the way for a second plan by Menkhorst, Smales and Quin in 1999, and a subsequent third plan also by Menkhorst in 2008.
Monash University is currently hosting a Helmeted Honeyeater Program, and anyone can volunteer. The program is very lenient in term of commitment, but your contribution to the cause would be great still. The main focus of the program is to conduct field surveys and help with habitat plant propagation, at the same time take care of the feeding and water stations, all within the Park Victoria’s Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve. If you are keen on applying, there is a link below that will take you to the application form and you can find out if this program is for you.
In overall, there are several objectives that we should aim to achieve in the long run with the recovery programs:
To increase the size and number of wild populations.
To maintain and enhance the Honeyeater habitat in Yellingbo Reserve, Bunyip State Park and the former range.
Improve management of stream flows, water quality and riparian environments.
Manage the captive population of Helmeted Honeyeaters to meet the needs of the recovery program.
Maintain the genetic diversity and evolutionary potential.
Improve public awareness of the Helmeted Honeyeater recovery program and public support.
Effectively administer the recovery effort to ensure all objectives are met.
There is always a chance for you to help our yellow friend avoid the path of extinction.