Few experiences in arid Australia compare to the sight of a wheeling flock of Gouldian finches, their brilliant colours painting rainbows across the sky as they descend to drink at a waterhole.
But finch numbers have declined significantly over the past 100 years, going from hundreds of thousands of birds to a current estimated population of just 2,500. Within strongholds in the Northern Territory and Kimberley, finches are not the common vibrant sight they once were. In the Kimberley, the Gouldian finch’s presence and abundance is linked to sound fire management practices. This is important as it requires a variety of grass species as a seed source throughout the year and breeds in mature woodlands that contain stands of large, hollow-bearing trees. Intense fires at the wrong time of year kill these trees and wipe out grasslands, destroying finch breeding and feeding habitats in one fell swoop. And it's not just the finches that are suffering. Their entire ecosystem is under threat.
What we're doing
WWF-Australia has worked to protect the Gouldian finch in the Kimberley since 2006, initially through the Threatened Species Network. We’re now dedicated to two projects in the central and western Kimberley. The support of Lotterywest is enabling WWF-Australia to work in partnership with nine indigenous organisations to protect Gouldian finch populations.
The Kija 'Fire and Feathers' Project
In the central Kimberley, WWF is collaborating with the Kija Rangers and the Kimberley Land Council to conduct prescribed burning at the beginning of the dry season, to stop the spread of late-season fires. Rangers rely on maps of finch breeding and foraging habitat to guide the burns. In 2015, some 15,200 square kilometres in the central Kimberley was burnt and so six populations of Gouldian finches were protected. As we expand the project to include more remote areas and the Balanggarra Rangers, we’ll use remote sensor cameras to survey for birds and inform future burning practices.
The Dampier Peninsula Gouldian Finch Project
For the past five years WWF has worked with Environs Kimberley, the Bardi Jawi and Nyul Nyul Rangers to survey a little-known population of Gouldian finches on the Dampier Peninsula. We’ve mapped their breeding habitat and we’ll work with researchers to undertake detailed biophysical surveys. Where breeding is evident, we’ll measure the features of those sites (hollow densities, fire history, tree density and size, grass communities and extent, topography, etc.) to allow us to better understand the finch population's habitat requirements and to also possibly identify other breeding sites.
Why it matters
The Gouldian finch is a classic ‘canary in a coal mine’ species. Healthy mature woodlands and grasslands are core habitat for an entire community of animals that are under threat across northern Australia, including goannas, snakes, granivorous birds and mammals. The Gouldian finch's decline means that many other species are also likely to be declining across the Kimberley. If we can work out just how to recover finch populations, then it's possible we can improve conditions for a suite of other threatened species. More astute fire management appears to be the key to the ongoing health of these ecosystems and their residents. By changing when we burn and the intensity of the fires, we think we can safeguard both the finch's food and breeding resources, and that of its neighbours.
Length: 12 to 15 cm and weight: 14 to 15 g.
Listed as Endangered (under EPBC Act 1999) and as Near Threatened (Under IUCN Red List).
The dramatic decline in Gouldian finch numbers is linked to a number of factors. Trapping for the cage bird market had a significant impact, but populations continued to decline long after trapping was banned in the 1980s. A lung parasite was also implicated in bird losses, but recent evidence suggests that this is the consequence of stress associated with other pervasive threats and not the primary cause.
Studies in Wyndham and at Mornington Station have concluded that inappropriate fire regimes, cattle grazing and feral predators (most notably the cat) are the main reasons that Gouldian finches have become endangered. Grazing can deny finches their specialised diet of grass seeds, like those from speargrass and sorghum. Fires that are lit or start midway through the dry season commonly burn intensely over vast areas until the beginning of the wet season, with devastating effects. Experimentation with smaller, prescribed burns at the end of the wet season is proving a safe means of protecting the habitat of Gouldian finches and many other species.
What you can do to help
- Support the Seed Nursery program, which could rehabilitate degraded Gouldian finch habitat.
- Support the ‘Country Needs People’ campaign, because Indigenous Ranger Programs are central to prescribed burning programs in the Kimberley, which are ensuring protection for species like Gouldian finches.