Charles Sturt University
Charles Sturt University

Morning Song

Morning Song – Declining Woodland Birds

By Gary Luck

What is the first thing you hear when you wake up in the morning? Is it the hum of traffic on a nearby road? The sound of your family making breakfast? Dogs barking? If you have a garden with trees or shrubs, or live near a park, one of the first things you probably hear is the morning song of the resident birds. One of the greatest pleasures of camping outdoors is to awake to the dawn chorus of birds. Each choir member has a different song, but all fit together to form a melodious symphony that celebrates the sunrise. Have you ever wondered what it would be like without these songs?

In the agricultural region of southwestern Australia, the songs of numerous birds that were once common are heard no longer. The islands of remnant native vegetation that dots the wheatbelt of Western Australia are not sufficient to support all bird species. Many islands have lost the most harmonious part of their treasure. Birds that have declined in abundance include the Western Yellow Robin (Photo 1), Crested Shrike-tit (Photo 2) and Rufous Treecreeper. These particular species commonly use open woodland habitat. This habitat was cleared for farming because it was associated with the most fertile soils. Only a small percentage of woodland remains and woodland bird species have few places in the wheatbelt to call home.

Woodland patches provide birds with food, shelter and nesting sites. Food is obtained from the branches and leaves of trees, flowers and from the ground. It includes nectar, seeds and insects. Shelter is provided by shrubs, the canopy of trees, or hollows in branches and tree trunks. Many birds also build their nests inside hollows because this provides protection from predators, rain and wind. Clearing woodland means less food, less shelter and fewer nest sites for birds. Some birds are able to cope with living in small or degraded patches of woodland, but most can not. These are the species whose morning song has not been heard for many years.

It is not all bad news. Many of the birds that have been lost from the agricultural region of southwestern Australia still occur in National Parks and nature reserves. However, these areas are not large enough to ensure that all species will continue to survive into the future. If we can improve the woodland habitat in agricultural districts so that it is again suitable for most birds, we may see the return of many species to these landscapes. Once again, these birds would join the morning chorus to herald the dawn.

Key references
  • Barrett, G. W., Ford, H. A. & Recher, H. F. 1994. Conservation of woodland birds in a fragmented rural landscape. Pacific Conservation Biology 1: 245–256.
  • Ford, H. A., Barrett, G. W., Saunders, D. A. & Recher, H. F. 2001. Why have birds in the woodlands of southern Australia declined? Biological Conservation 97: 71–88.
  • Recher, H. F. 1999. The state of Australia's avifauna: a personal opinion and prediction for the new millennium. Australian Zoologist 31: 11–27.
  • Saunders, D.A. & Ingram, J. A. 1995. Birds of Southwestern Australia. An Atlas of Changes in Distribution and Abundance of the Wheatbelt Fauna. Surrey Beatty and Sons, Chipping Norton.
Key web sites