Cultivating mistletoe, the colourful parasitic plant better known for kissing under at Christmas, may be key to the survival of Australia's critically endangered regent honeyeater.
The flowering perennial, which typically attaches itself to the upper canopy of larger trees, is a vital food and nesting source for the flagship woodland bird of which there are thought fewer than 400 left in the wild.
However repeated bushfire incursions in the NSW Hunter Valley have severely diminished stands of forest red gum, spotted gum, ironbark and other natives, which host the mistletoe.
To replace the trees themselves would consume time, something the honeyeater has little of.
Instead, local conservationists have struck upon the idea of a mistletoe planting blitz.
The project involves BirdLife Australia partnering with traditional custodians Mindaribba Local Aboriginal Land Council to facilitate a knowledge-sharing workshop with landholders, government staff and volunteers.
The knowledge-mix of Country, ecology, bush regeneration and land management is expected to help source the mistletoe, collect its fruit and store its seeds.
It's hoped the program, which has secured $50,000 funding from Landcare Led Bushfire Recovery Grants, will generate enough stock for arborists to plant into burnt areas.
"Native mistletoe is really abundant but when it fruits, it doesn't have a long shelf life and needs to be planted soon afterwards," said BirdLife Australia project officer Kristy Peters.
"That's why we need to educate landholders and volunteers in mistletoe missions, so they can learn how to carefully pick the fruit, store it overnight in suitable conditions if need be and plant the seeds quickly.
"We want them to learn how to handle the fruit so they can do it themselves, wipe the seeds on the underside of a branch and learn the tricks involved."
The target is to plant at least 1000 long-flowered mistletoe seeds into host trees by the project's completion. In theory, they could function as habitat within three to four years, so the benefit is far sooner than planting trees.
The project site, Tomalpin Woodlands near Kurri Kurri, is one of the most important contemporary honeyeater breeding areas.
Regent honeyeaters have declined from 1500 in 1992 to current estimates of 350 adult birds, largely due to habitat loss and predation.
Since 2008, nearly 300 have been bred in zoos and wildlife parks and released into the wild.
Recent research by Taronga Zoo, UNSW, BirdLife Australia and the Environment Department found playing recordings of the honeyeater's birdsong before releasing them can significantly improve survival rates.
While young male honeyeaters hoping to attract mates would normally learn songs from older males, this is happening less due to population decline.
With far fewer birds around to learn from, the males instead mimic the calls of species like red wattlebirds and noisy friarbirds which female regent honeyeaters don't respond to.