Mornithologist friend Simon tells me about the parrots he sees on his daily walks around Canberra. It’s a long list, which includes five types of cockatoos. When it comes to the tenth species of parrot – “red rumps. Everyone loves them” – he stops to think. The eleventh is the rainbow lorikeet.
“They are newcomers,” he says. “And they really took off.”
I find it hard to imagine a town without rainbow lorikeets. I am in Far North Queensland and they are everywhere. The trees in the streets are filled with screeching and whistling birds. Herds parade in tight formation. Everything about them is frenetic – from their voracity for nectar to their psychedelic plumage.
According to BirdLife Australia’s annual Australian backyard bird count, the rainbow lorikeet is the most abundant species in the eastern states. Every year since the count began in 2014, the bird has been ranked No. 1 nationally. But in Canberra, the species is a recent arrival. It’s making up for lost time.
Neil Hermes, independent birder and chairman of the Canberra Ornithology Group (Cog), monitors bird populations in the nation’s capital. Long-term data collected by the Cog shows that lorikeet numbers are skyrocketing.
“In the 1980s, there were no rainbow lorikeets in Canberra,” Hermes tells me. “Now they are one of the most common birds.”
So where do they come from?
When a small number of Rainbow Lorikeets first appeared in the city, they were thought to be aviary escapees. Caged birds may have contributed, but according to Hermes it is highly likely that the Canberra population developed from individuals that wandered west of the coast and found the parks and gardens of the city to their liking.
Canberra’s extensive plantations of native trees and shrubs provide plenty of foraging and nesting sites. The Molonglo River, Lakes Burley Griffin and Ginninderra, and the streams, ponds, and wetlands around the town provide a reliable water supply.
“Rainbow Lorikeets adapt well to urban habitat and Canberra has created a great deal of new habitat,” says Hermes.
“It’s a fabulous city for birds. The conditions are perfect for them.
The association of lorikeets with inland towns is vividly evidenced by sighting maps of the Australian Capital Territory and adjacent areas. The highest numbers come from Canberra and neighboring Queanbeyan, followed by Yass and Goulburn, with some records for smaller rural towns like Bungendore. Sightings are almost absent from the surrounding country. Decades of data show that birds prefer to settle in built-up areas.
While other species suffer from the impact of urban encroachment, rainbow lorikeets belong to a small group that thrives around humans. These “urban adaptors” include Australian magpies, magpies, crested pigeons, noisy juveniles and even eastern koels.
Koels are showing up in Canberra in rapidly increasing numbers, paralleling the Lorikeets pattern of none, to some, to many. Coming from New Guinea and Indonesia, these migratory cuckoos arrive in the spring to breed in northern and eastern Australia.
The birds are hard to spot – males are shiny black and females are mosaics of brown and cream – but they are easy to hear. The male is insistent ko-el ko-el ko-el has become part of the city’s nocturnal soundscape. That might be a boon for Canberra birdwatchers, but not for the species in whose nests koels lay their eggs – or for light sleepers.
While some urban adapters are just reclaiming their natural ranges, rainbow lorikeets and eastern koels are expanding theirs into new territory.
Range expansion is not limited to birds. In the 1980s, grey-headed flying foxes began roosting in Melbourne, setting up camp in the city’s Royal Botanic Gardens, about 450km west of their nearest rookery. By 2011, they had established a presence in Adelaide. Like lorikeets, bats benefit from planted trees and the presence of permanent water. They are now a familiar sight in many suburbs.
Individuals may appear, but if the conditions are not met, the species – bird, bat or butterfly – cannot establish itself. The monarch or vagrant butterfly, native to North America and able to fly great distances, traveled to Australia in the late 1800s. But until its food plants, tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) and cotton (the clubtail species), became established as an ornamental garden plant, it could not reproduce successfully.
Another butterfly, the Asian tawny coster, was first reported from Australia in 2012. Since then, it has spread across the tropics and, in the last year or so, into northern Australia. New South Wales. The fawn coster did not have to depend on parks and gardens; its main food plant, the delicate blue spade flower (Pigea enneaspermus), is native to the warmer regions of the country.
In the Australian Botanic Gardens in Canberra is a deep, sheltered ravine filled with lush tree ferns and other rainforest plants. It’s cool and humid, even in the middle of a hot, dry summer when the grass crackles and the trees seem to be dozing in the sun. Visitors to the ravine might be lucky enough to see a bass thrush scratching through the leaf litter. This shy bird prefers dark, dense forests.
“Birds are always looking for new places,” Neil Hermes tells me. “When we create them, they find them.”