12:00AM October 28, 2017
Watching a gaggle of excited captive-bred birds take their first tentative steps to freedom, followed by a euphoric maiden flight in open skies, is a rare moment of joy for Shannon Troy.
The Tasmanian wildlife biologist is on the frontline of the increasingly desperate fight to bring Australia’s rarest bird — the orange-bellied parrot — back from the brink of extinction.
The stakes could not be higher for OBPs, as they are affectionately known, and releases such as these produce a tangle of emotions.
None of the seven captive-bred OBPs released this week have previously seen the outside an aviary; much less their windswept ancestral breeding grounds at the release site in Melaleuca, in Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area.
“That’s why I’m grinning like an idiot,” Ms Troy explained. “It’s hopeful and terrifying at the same time. Lots of them do well and breed; some of them you don’t see much of again.”
Annual releases of captive-bred OBPs aim to breed more wild birds to make the species’ annual winter migration from Melaleuca to coastal Victoria and South Australia. This week’s release was the second of three planned this spring — 23 birds in total.
The breeding program, which has cost millions of dollars over the years, has kept the species ticking over, albeit just. But there is a growing realisation it is not enough.
Before the annual migration from Melaleuca last autumn, there were about 35 left in the wild. So far, only 12 have returned from the mainland to breed again at Melaleuca, and most worryingly, only one female.