Bob Brown
On the extinction of the swift parrot

This week Prime Minister Anthony Albanese received a recording of a critically endangered swift parrot. On the tape you can hear the staccato call as the parrot flies through a Tasmanian forest. In the background, a chainsaw is screaming. Just 13 seconds in length, it is one of the most poignant recordings in Australian natural history.

Albanese’s choice is between the call of the parrot and the scream of the chainsaw: the rescue of the honey-eating swift parrots from extinction or the ongoing, needless destruction of their forest habitat.

An even sadder sound, recorded in 1987, is that is of the Kaua´i ´ō´ō, a male honeyeater in the Hawaiian rainforest. That bird was the last of its species, calling in vain for a mate. The Kaua´i ´ō´ō is now extinct.

The swift parrot was recorded by environmentalist Charley Gros, high on the forested Kermandie Divide, west of Geeveston and a stone’s throw from the Kermandie Falls in what Forestry Tasmania labels logging coupe KD022C.

This coupe is an area of 20 hectares, part of the Southern Forests that are being sequentially logged for woodchip exports to China and Taiwan. A minor amount of the wood goes to sawmills and most is left as waste on the ground, where it is incinerated in “regeneration burns”, firestorms lit by hand or from helicopters dropping napalm-like incendiaries.

For millennia, thousands of swift parrots (Lathamus discolor) lived safely with humanity in their winter woodland habitat, scattered across south-eastern Australia. The parrots were present from where Brisbane now stands to Adelaide, and in the woods of what is now Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. Each summer they migrated south, en masse, to Tasmania to breed.

“Swifties” have an uncanny ability to predict which of Tasmania’s forests will blossom best each year and they settle there to find nesting sites in eucalypts with hollows. For those hollows to form, the trees are mostly more than 100 years old.

In 1788, First Fleeter George Raper drew a swift parrot, near the Sydney colony. As was the way of bird collectors back then, he probably shot it. In that single shot was the beginning of this fascinating species’ unnatural decline.

With the massive loss of mainland woodlands and Tasmanian, New South Wales and Victorian forests since Raper collected his trophy, the great flocks of swift parrots have been lost to history. By the 1980s only 3500 remained. Now there are perhaps 750. Experts say that by 2030 there will be 70. Then, as with the Kaua´i ´ō´ō, will come extinction if the federal government doesn’t intervene.

The Kaua´i ´ō´ō was beset by European rats, forest destruction and introduced mosquito-borne avian infection. Its extinction followed that of 15 other Hawaiian birds. The swift parrot’s demise will also be multifactorial: besides loss of habitat, they are beset by the introduction to Tasmania of sugar gliders that invade tree hollows and eat both chicks and adult parrots, and of aggressive starlings that oust them from their hollows. They have also suffered from imported avian diseases and increased window strikes as glass-lined houses spread into the bush. Add to that the consequences of global warming, not least bushfires.

Swift parrots are just 23 to 25 centimetres long and yet are the fastest parrots on Earth. They can cross Bass Strait in just five hours. Brilliant green, with splashes of red and a forehead patch of sky blue, they chatter while flying and perching.

After a public uproar, the logging of the native forest on Bruny Island, south of Hobart, was halted in 2015 to protect this favourite destination for swift parrots. If the season is right, the blue gums around the Adventure Bay Community Hall on Bruny are a great place to see the aerial speedsters. They feed on the nectar of bluegum blossoms as well as several other species of eucalypts and have a penchant for native cherries.

Their survival as a species depends on nesting trees, but those are being felled day after day by state-authorised logging, as in coupe KD022C. This parallels the destruction of the habitat of koalas and greater gliders in NSW.

I was recently in the steep and exquisitely beautiful upper Kalang valley near Bellingen in northern NSW, where zigzagging roads are being bulldozed down the slopes to log in the proposed Great Koala National Park. Scratch marks made by climbing koalas are on trees now dead on the ground. Despite its pre-election commitment on the park, the Minns Labor government is allowing logging to proceed while it has a year of “public consultation” about the park. Here again, the Albanese government should intervene and use its federal powers to protect this priceless national heritage. As the distinguished American biologist E. O. Wilson put it, “the endemic plants and animals of each nation should be treated as part of their heritage, as precious as their art and history”.

In November 2022, Karen Weldrick, Kristy Alger and I were arrested for allegedly trespassing in a forest near Snow Hill in north-east Tasmania. I’d watched a flock of a dozen swift parrots in forest adjacent to the logged area, and two had flown overhead. Forestry Tasmania had retained one large old eucalypt with nesting hollows as a habitat tree. Dr Lisa Searle was on a platform in that tree when it was visited by two swift parrots. After she came down from the platform, the tree was cut down. The loggers who committed that spiteful act got off scot-free.

We appeared before a magistrate two weeks ago to hear two days of evidence from the loggers. Our side of the story will be put when the hearing resumes on March 18 in Hobart. If convicted, we face fines or up to 18 months in jail.

Last year it was revealed the Tasmanian government complained of an “imbalance in narrative” of a new federal recovery plan it claimed placed too much weight on the role played by the logging industry. Proposed changes included cutting a reference that said native forest logging and intensive native forest silviculture posed “the greatest threat to survival of the swift parrot population” and removing a sentence that said 23 per cent of nesting habitat was lost between 1997 and 2016.

On Threatened Species Day this year, the 87th anniversary of the death of the last Tasmanian tiger, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek published the recovery plan with no requirement for Forestry Tasmania’s demolition of swift parrot habitat to stop.

Back in coupe KD022C on the Kermandie Divide in September, Charley Gros first recorded swift parrots and notified Forestry Tasmania. Nevertheless a forest practices plan (FPP) was issued the very next day authorising the logging that began early in October. This was despite the plan requiring that “for swift parrot sightings within the FP area, immediately cease felling operations within 50m of the sighting until evidence of a Swift Parrot nesting site and/or Swift Parrots being present (heard or seen) has been assessed”. Our foundation has repeatedly reported swift parrots in the coupe but the logging has not stopped.

The FPP requires that “if encountered, any mature trees showing signs of senescence will be retained if operationally feasible to do so”. That is, habitat trees should be saved. Even so, until we came on the scene, all the trees were being cut down, including a four-metres-diameter giant that was photographed being driven down Hobart’s main street on its way to the Bass Strait ferry and an unknown fate in Victoria. That tree had harboured and fed swift parrots for centuries, but never again.

On Tuesday, our foundation sought an injunction to stop logging and save what is left of the forest and swift parrots in coupe KD022C. The Tasmanian Supreme Court will hear our case this Monday, December 18.

The global extinction crisis demands Australia takes a lead in protecting its habitats. That includes the national government ending native forest logging. Otherwise, even if we succeed in the courts this week in stopping the logging, when the swift parrots fly back to the mainland in autumn their nesting trees will be cut down under Tasmanian law.

Logging native forest is a prime cause of global warming as well as direct extinctions. When Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote their seminal book Extinction in 1982, they pointed out that, with all life on the planet interrelated, what we do to other species we are ultimately doing to ourselves.

Growth economics based on extracting the finite resources of Earth is ineluctably self-destructive, and deliberating extinction demeans our own lives and robs our children of their birthright to experience Earth’s bounty of fascinating creatures.

If the major parties believe the current generation of young Australians is going to go along with the demolition of this cornucopia of wonder, including its swift parrots, they are set for their own political decline and early extinction.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "On the extinction of the swift parrot".

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