The beautiful birds of Norfolk Island
Norfolk Island is home to many beautiful birds – however, Norfolk Island also has an unenviable extinction rate when it comes to its bird fauna. To understand more, our scientists studied the endemic and exotic birdlife of Norfolk Island during the recent Australian Museum-led expedition.
From iconic Green Parrots to soaring seabirds, many birds call Norfolk Island home. However, several of its surviving endemic species are threatened and scientific questions remain regarding the status and origins of the island’s birds. For example, how did Norfolk's endemic species arrive and evolve? How has human settlement impacted these species? Should conservation management policies for Norfolk's birds change, and if so, how? In order to answer these questions, we need to collect rigorous biological data – which is where museums can help.
In October 2022, Australian Museum scientists Emily Cave and Dr Richard Major participated in the AM-led expedition to Norfolk Island to study a variety of bird species. During the expedition, Richard and Emily collected data from both native and introduced species, including collecting genetic samples from native birds.
The first question you may ask is: how do scientists safely collect this data? Early each morning (up before dawn), Richard and Emily would visit different sites around Norfolk Island and set up nets, called mist-nets, for safely catching birds. These nets are nearly invisible to the naked eye – and in the early morning light, sometimes invisible to Norfolk Island’s birds. Designed to catch birds without harming them, various bird species were captured in these nets, enabling our scientists to take their measurements, sample their feathers and blood and take photographs. The base of one tail feather of each bird was marked with non-toxic paint, so that the same bird wouldn’t be sampled twice. As might be expected, some birds became quite grumpy when the cold ruler was pressed against their bums! But it wasn’t long before the bird would be released, without harm, back into the wild.
The week started off slowly – on the first morning Emily and Richard only netted a single native species (a Slender-Billed White-Eye). But every other morning was much more successful, capturing a variety of birds. A call playback app certainly proved useful – this handy mobile app plays the recordings of bird calls, and helped our scientists draw in many Robins! The highlights from the week were the island's endemics, including the Slender-Billed White-Eye, Norfolk Island Robin, Norfolk Island Golden Whistler, and Norfolk Island Gerygone.
Another highlight of the week for Emily and Richard was interacting with the local community. They talked to locals at the many community AM engagement events throughout the week and Richard rekindled a few old friendships from his previous visit as a university student, notably with Margaret Christian who leads the Flora and Fauna Society. As a result, locals were able to help them identify where the best potential sites could be, based on recent sightings, and where introduced species may reside. Locals were also able to voice their concerns and priorities regarding the birdlife of Norfolk – particularly regarding the famous Green Parrot. During the community day held in Rawson Hall at the conclusion of fieldwork, Richard and Emily were able to share with locals their methods and what they had recorded, showing them the mist-nets they used, feather samples they collected, and which species they had found.
All specimens and samples taken will provide researchers with material for ongoing studies of taxonomy, phylogeography (genetic relationships across geography) and the evolution of island faunas. The AM holds bird specimens collected on Norfolk Island from the 1880s to the 1990s, but the most recent period of sustained research activity was in the late 1960s and 1970s. Historically, most specimens in the AM collection from Norfolk Island were of eggs; with only one tissue sample and one skeleton specimen represented. Therefore, all specimens acquired during the expedition are highly significant – the collection now has contemporary specimens of various forms and increased representation of the island's bird fauna. All of these specimens can be used for future research and be made available to the community, so we can help study and conserve the beautiful birds of Norfolk.
- 32 individuals of 8 native species were sampled from mist-nets including the Warbler, Robin, Golden Whistler, Grey Fantail, Long-Billed White-Eye, Green Parrot, the Australian Silvereye and the Pacific Emerald Dove.
- Samples of the Australasian Swamphen, Welcome Swallow, Sacred Kingfisher, Masked Woodswallow, Nankeen Kestrel, White-faced Heron and the Pacific Golden Plover were received as donations.
- 11 species of introduced bird were sampled including the Feral Chicken, Mallard Hybrid, California Quail, European Blackbird, Song Thrush, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, House Sparrow, Rock Dove, Crimson Rosella and the European Starling.
- The AM has historic bird specimens from Norfolk Island from the 1880s (mostly eggs of seabirds) and prior to this expedition, most AM specimens were collected prior to the 1970s.
Emily Cave, Technical Officer Audit & Digitising, Ornithology, Australian Museum.
Meagan Warwick, AMRI Project and Communications Officer, Australian Museum.
The Australian Museum would like to thank donors and the Australian Museum Foundation for their support of this three-phase expedition. The first phase was made possible by the generosity of the Vonwiller Foundation and Vanessa Tay.