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Training Helmeted Honeyeaters
Research Project: Pre-release predator awareness training of Helmeted Honeyeaters
The Helmeted Honeyeater (Lichenostomus melanops cassidix) has been bred in captivity at Healesville Sanctuary for over twenty years with 220 birds produced for re-introduction. In common with many captive-release programs, the survival of released birds has been low compared to wild birds.
Radio-tracking suggests that predation by sparrowhawks and goshawks is the major cause of death. Wild Helmeted Honeyeaters respond to the alarm calls of other honeyeaters by either alarm calling or quickly taking cover in dense foliage.
To increase the survival of re-introduced birds, we will experimentally test a training program to enhance their predator avoidance behaviour. This is a method that has been used for other species including Prairie Dogs, Numbats and Squirrel Monkeys.
To train captive Helmeted Honeyeaters to respond appropriately to the sight of key predators as well as to the alarm call of wild honeyeaters.
- Juvenile honeyeaters produced in captivity will be divided into two groups – one that will be trained to avoid predators and the other (a control group) that will not. Two birds of wild origin will be added to the ‘trained’ group to act as ‘mentors’ during the trials (a method known as social learning)
- Training will include playing a honeyeater alarm call and/or presenting a model goshawk at the same time as giving the birds a fright
- The behaviour of the juvenile honeyeaters during and after training will be recorded (e.g. vigilance, flee to cover, freeze, alarm call) and birds will be monitored after release to determine if trained birds have better survival than untrained birds
If the training is effective, it will significantly improve the survival of juvenile Helmeted Honeyeaters when they are re-introduced to the wild. This would enhance the value of the captive breeding program and hence improve the chances of recovery of this critically endangered species in the wild.
Primary researcher: Bronwyn McCulloch (Healesville Sanctuary)
Participating organisations: Zoos Victoria; Helmeted Honeyeater Recovery Team