Iconic Victorian Bird Finds New Forest Home

06 August 2021

With a tiny flutter of wings, the first of 32 Helmeted Honeyeaters have this week become the founders of a new population of the critically endangered Victorian bird.

The release to a new location in Yarra Ranges National Park, which includes both captive-bred birds from Healesville Sanctuary and wild birds from Yellingbo, marks a major milestone for the Helmeted Honeyeater Recovery Program.

Since 1989, the combined efforts of the Victorian State Government and a host of conservation partners has prevented the extinction of this charismatic bird, and seen the last remaining wild population at Yellingbo grow from just 50 birds to 250 individuals.

Over a fortnight, selected birds were trapped at Yellingbo and transported to the new site 30km away near the confluence of the Yarra and O’Shannassy rivers, where they joined 14 birds that had been bred at Healesville Sanctuary.

The Victorian State Government has contributed $60,000 through the Faunal Emblems Program to support this translocation and the Australian Government has provided $125,000 to Zoos Victoria to lead the establishment of the new Helmeted Honeyeater population.

Photo Credit: NICK BRADSWORTH
Photo Credit: NICK BRADSWORTH

Along with the Leadbeater’s Possum, the Helmeted Honeyeater is one of Victoria’s Faunal Emblems. The Victorian Government has invested almost $4million in the Faunal Emblems Program since 2018. Also, a package of initiatives was recently announced in the Victorian Budget 2021/22, which include investment to take action to reduce the risk of extinction for Victoria’s iconic endangered faunal emblem species.

Zoos Victoria Threatened Species Biologist Dan Harley credited this year’s release to a multi-disciplinary program to recover the species.

“The success of the Helmeted Honeyeater program reflects good science and strategy, combined with partnerships and persistence,” Dr Harley said. “Several strong years of breeding success at Healesville Sanctuary, combined with the highest number of birds ever recorded at Yellingbo, has meant we could establish this new population at O’Shannassy. It greatly strengthens the long-term survival prospects for this species.”

Dr Harley said a key vulnerability for the Helmeted Honeyeater is the confinement of the wild population to a single location at Yellingbo. The establishment of new Helmeted Honeyeater populations beyond Yellingbo is an urgent recovery priority to provide risk-spreading against bushfire.

“All of the birds that are translocated to the new O’Shannassy site have been fitted with tiny radio transmitters so we can monitor their movements following release. Supplementary food will also be provided at the new location to assist the transition of honeyeaters into this new environment. If successful, it is anticipated that additional captive-bred birds will be released to O’Shannassy in Autumn 2022 to build up the population numbers further.”

The Helmeted Honeyeater Recovery team is a voluntary collaboration of conservation organisations. The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Parks Victoria, The Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater, Port Phillip and Westernport CMA, Melbourne Water, Trust for Nature, Birdlife Australia, Greening Australia, local councils and universities, and Zoos Victoria are working together to save this iconic bird from extinction.

Zoos Victoria is grateful to The Merrin Foundation, The Myer Foundation and Margaret S. Ross AM for their financial support towards the Helmeted Honeyeater conservation breeding program and facilities at Healesville Sanctuary.