Friday essay: in praise of pardalotes, unique birds living in a damaged country




John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University

I’ve spent more of my life with pardalotes than with most other acquaintances. They are an obscure and odd group of four species of small (thumb-sized) birds. They have little public profile, not helped by the awkward name. But they are quintessentially Australian, occurring nowhere else in the world.

As a boy, I chanced upon a pair of spotted pardalotes absorbed in constructing their nesting burrow, a long tunnel built into sloping earth. Whereas most of the bird’s existence is spent unobtrusively foraging in tree canopies, breeding brings this species to ground, allowing close observation by the quiet but inquisitive.

My interest was piqued by their industry, beauty and strangeness. The intrigue stayed with me. Later, a PhD in zoology gave me the opportunity to study them in detail.

The author as a young man, with a pardalote.
Author provided

Zoology is a charmed science. Done well, it offers the opportunity to escape the conformity, constraints and solipsism of the human perspective; to see and understand the world from the viewpoint of another species, where space and time differ from the conventions we’re used to, where the ordering of the importance of things is upended, where the elements of the natural world come far more sharply into focus and are imbued with different meanings.

Zoology offers shapeshifting, and the insights that brings. It has taken me to many places, and a little into the diverse minds of remarkable species.

Adapted to Australia

So, for three years I counted pardalotes at many sites and over many seasons.
I caught thousands, with wire-mesh traps at the entrances to their nesting burrows or with carefully sited nets. I attached leg bands, so I
knew the identity of individuals. I weighed them, measured them, described the subtle variations in their jewelled plumage.

I watched them for hours every day, recording the plant species in which they foraged, and what they ate. I studied their mating habits, their breeding success, their territoriality and social interactions.

I reassessed my initial conception of them as placid when my experiments with a dummy pardalote and call playback triggered violent responses from territorial males. I examined the factors that threatened and killed them.

I found that they have long adapted to and exemplify an Australian ecology: they fit this country well.

They forage almost entirely in eucalypts, that linchpin and defining feature of many Australian environments. Their diet is unusual, comprising mostly the sweet exudate (manna) that seeps from eucalypt foliage, and “lerp”, the sugary coating of psyllid insects (a specialised group of bugs) that suck the phloem (the “sap” in leaves) from within that foliage.

A spotted pardalote feeding.
shutterstock

This strange resource is itself a consequence of the Australian environment – our soils are typically so poor that trees capturing nutrients must also drink up an excess of carbohydrates that they then need to secrete.

The eucalypt/lerp/pardalote web is an intricate arrangement, played out in kaleidoscopic variation in different regions, with varying eucalypt, psyllid and pardalote species.

Season adds a further dynamic to the landscape, with insect abundance diminishing in cooler areas in winter. So, like many other animal species, the pardalotes must track the ebb and flow of resources across our country, else stay put and starve.

Indeed, episodes of mass mortality of pardalotes have been recorded in some winters. Some populations of these tiny birds cross formidable Bass Strait each year, heading from Tasmanian summers to the mainland for winter. Others disperse in a less orderly manner, nomadically tracking more unpredictable booms and busts of psyllid populations.

Subverted pathways

The forty-spotted pardalote, seen here on a postage stamp, is now endangered.
shutterstock

Such nomadic movement is a distinctive feature of many Australian birds, contrasting markedly with the more rigid migration routes typical of birds on other continents – our seasonal patterning is more subtle and complex. But the ageless dispersal pathways of pardalotes have been subverted.

Clearing has broken the continuity of the forests, rendering dispersal more hazardous. In little more than 200 years, about 40% of their forest home has been destroyed, directly causing a comparable proportional loss in their population size.

Pardalotes have other threats. Around 10% of their habitat was burned in the severe wildfires of 2019–20, with those fires most likely killing the birds directly, and leaving burned habitat unsuitable for their re-establishment for at least several years.




Read more:
A season in hell: bushfires push at least 20 threatened species closer to extinction


In many parts of their range, the manner in which we have degraded and fragmented their forest and woodland habitat has benefitted a small suite of aggressive honeyeaters – the native noisy miner and bell miner – and these miners can kill pardalotes and exclude them from otherwise suitable habitat.

Ecology is a complex network with many interwoven threads, and manipulation of one thread can have many reverberating impacts. We play with those threads at our peril.

From a human perspective, our land is mostly familiar, comforting.

But studying any Australian animal almost always leads to a crystallisation, a deciphering, of the destabilising manner in which we’ve contorted the ecology of this place. Purposefully, incompetently or haphazardly, we have rearranged the ecology of this land to suit our needs, and in doing so have rubbed away much that was integral to the existence of many other species.

We are corroding our nature and will pass on to our descendants a land that is less healthy, less diverse, less wonderful.

Notwithstanding the less secure life most pardalotes now face, three pardalote species remain reasonably abundant and widespread. However, one species – the forty-spotted pardalote (a charming and apt name) – has been particularly hard-hit by the changes we have wrought to its environment.

A forty-spotted pardalote.
shutterstock

Now recognised as endangered, it has declined extensively and been reduced to a few populations (in beautiful locations) on some islands off Tasmania, with a fragile toehold at several small sites on the Tasmanian mainland. We still have the chance to save it, but that opportunity may soon be lost.

I no longer study pardalotes. But in the soundscape of my days, their intermittent call can still lure me away into lives that are not my own, into different ways of knowing our country and its workings, of the damage we’ve done and the healing we have yet to do.

This is an edited extract from Animals Make Us Human ed. Leah Kaminsky and Meg Keneally (Penguin Life, RRP $29.99), available now.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: a global carbon price could soon be a reality – Australia should prepare



John Nacion/AP

Richard Holden, UNSW

As well as restoring dignity to the Oval Office, another thing that will definitely change under a Biden presidency is US policy on the environment.

Biden’s plan for “a clean energy revolution and environmental justice” includes rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change, investing US$1.7 trillion over the next decade in “green energy” and achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The European Union, Japan and South Korea have already committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. China’s net-zero target is 2060.

With the US joining the fold, the implications for Australia could be huge.

A carbon border tax coming our way

The European Union has already announced it is considering a carbon border tax. This would involve a tariff on imports from nations without a price on carbon similar to the EU. The tax would be proportional to the amount of carbon in the imports, and the relative difference in carbon price between Europe and the exporting country.

This type of “border-adjustment tax” is a smart way to protect domestic industries from being undercut by imports from other countries without a price on carbon.

It would make eminent sense for the US to follow suit.

If so, things get really interesting. It would make it even harder to challenge such taxes as trade restriction before the World Trade Organisation. It would trigger similar moves by other countries serious about tackling climate change.

Joe Biden speaks about climate change and the fires affecting western US states on September 14 2020.
Patrick Semansky/AP

In fact, a border-adjustment tax is part of the US Climate Leadership Council’s proposal for a carbon tax and “carbon dividend” – returning all net proceeds from the tax to the American people on an equal basis.

The carbon dividend idea is supported by 28 Nobel laureate economists, 15 former chairs of the US Council of Economic Advisers and four former chairs of the US Federal Reserve.




Read more:
Carbon pricing works: the largest-ever study puts it beyond doubt


If most of our trading partners have a carbon border tax, then Australia will have a price on carbon – but only for exporters.

This will leave the Australian economy in a bad position.

With no price on carbon internally, no serious commitment to reduce emissions and a vain hope of meeting our Paris Agreement obligations through dodgy accounting tricks and future technological innovation, the rest of the world is unlikely to be sympathetic.

A carbon dividend plan

There is a better way: enact our own carbon dividend plan.

In 2018 law professor Rosalind Dixon and I proposed a plan for Australia similar to the Climate Leadership Council’s.

Cover of A Climate Dividend for Australians, UNSW, 2018.

University of NSW

Our Australian Carbon Dividend Plan involves a price on carbon, with the proceeds being distributed as a dividend, equally, to every voting-age citizen.

It also allows for a border-adjustment rebate so exporters aren’t penalised if exporting to countries without a similar price on carbon.

This would see a significant majority of Australians better off financially, and help protect exporters while we transition to cleaner energy.

It would also give the Australian government’s Technology Investment Roadmap (to accelerate the use of low-emissions technology) a chance of working. It makes no sense to bet on technology without using market price mechanisms to give suppliers and buyers the right incentives to develop and adopt the most effective technologies.




Read more:
Fresh thinking: the carbon tax that would leave households better off


The world is acting

The US just voted out a climate denier and is now going to take serious action on the environment. Europe is already acting. Our major trading partners are committing to net-zero targets.

We’re getting left behind. This ought to provide the impetus to put Australia’s climate wars to rest. Even if our elected politicians don’t want to do something serious about climate change for moral reasons, they now have little choice but to do so for practical reasons.

And that involves a price on carbon. Otherwise our exporters are going to be seriously disadvantaged. Using the proceeds from that price on carbon to pay it back as a dividend to Australians would be the best way forward.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.