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Renewed hope for rare Aussie bird on brink of extinction

Regent honeyeater were so rare their sounds was disappearing from the landscape and juveniles were mimicking other birds.

With less than 300 Regent honeyeaters remaining in the wild, the critically endangered bird has teetered on the brink of extinction. So news that captive-born birds have bred after they were tagged and released has ecologists celebrating.

Australia has the worst mammalian extinction record in the world, and the list of federally listed threatened species and ecological communities now exceeds 2,200. Even once-abundant species like koalas and greater gliders are now on the list.

The Regent honeyeater was in such a dire state that in 2021, the Australian National University warned the species was losing its distinctive song. Because their sound had disappeared from the landscape, some males had been mimicking other birds instead.

Background - a staff member from Taronga Zoo pointing in the air. There is bushland in the background. Inset - a Regent honeyeater in the wild after the bird was released.
Taronga Zoo staff are elated that some Regent honeyeaters have not only survived their release, they've bred with wild birds. Source: Taronga Zoo

How many Regent honeyeaters have bred?

But back to the good news, despite warnings that agricultural land clearing, logging, and NSW's expansion of coal seam gas drilling would wipe out Regent honeyeaters, it has beaten the odds and is still surviving in the wild.

A zoo-bred bird tagged RMPP flew 134 km west from the Lower Hunter Valley to the Capertee National Park. She then bred with a wild male and they successfully raised two chicks last spring.

Prior to this, another bird tagged RMBO was released in 2021 and she became the first captive-born Regent honeyeater to breed in the wild. A third bird named ORKM has also paired with a wild bird.

RMBO (left) hanging down and feeding her chick.  RMPP chicks inside a nest.
RMBO (left) was photographed feeding her chick. The chicks of RMPP were also photographed. Source: Taronga Zoo

The program is a partnership between BirdLife Australia, the NSW government's Saving Our Species program and Taronga Conservation Society Australia. It has resulted in 140 birds being released around NSW.

"With such low numbers of these magnificent birds remaining in the wild, every successful breeding event and each fledgling gives us hope we have taken another step toward saving this critically endangered species," Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and the Environment Trish Doyle said on Friday.

Are the Regent honey eaters now in a good place?

While news of the birds breeding is cause for celebration, the species continues to lose habitat. Saving Our Species principal ecologist Dr Kimberly Maute has warned the Regent honeyeater has few breeding areas left.

"That is why intact forest and grassy woodlands that can support a successful breeding event need to be protected and restored," she said.

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