Leader: Dr Stephen Garnett, Queensland Environmental Protection
Project 2.2.3 (Completed)
Summary | Results | Land-management planning | Recovery planning | Research methods and
progress | Publications | Project team |
Star finches: this species is now confined to
two small populations on the east and west coasts of Cape York
Photo: Michael Todd
The crimson and star finches are both vulnerable species. The
white-bellied crimson finch, which also occurs in New Guinea, was
found at Iron Range and Aurukun early in the 20th century. By the
end of the century, it appeared to be confined to two small
populations on the east and west coasts of the Cape York
The star finch was once also widespread. Until recently a common
species round the Gulf of Carpentaria, it is now confined to the
same two areas as the crimson finch.
However, the same species in the Northern Territory and Western
Australia are thriving.
This study set out to find out why there were such differences
between the regions, and to develop management plans that would
help the survival of the finches in Queensland.
To do this, the study examined the feeding ecology and breeding
biology of both species in areas where they were scarce and where
they were abundant. The objective was to develop management
recommendations based on a detailed understanding of the natural
history of the two species. Both taxa are vulnerable to grazing but
appear to thrive where there is agriculture.
Both species rely on rank grasses for nesting and shelter - and
grazing can remove this vegetation, while agriculture promotes it.
However, the star finch has also disappeared from areas where
rainfall is unreliable because rank grasses are not protected by
regular wet season rains. The crimson finch appears to have
disappeared where heavy grazing has removed rank grasses from
riparian areas or where these grasses have been lost to large-scale
dry-season fires, leaving no areas from which this short-winged
finch can re-colonise during the wet season.
The threatening factors appeared to be a combination of heavy
grazing and changed fire regimes.
The principal contribution of the research was into
land-management planning. However it is also helping provide a
practical application of joint management within protected areas,
drawing on the skills of traditional owners and combining them with
conventional scientific knowledge. Areas of high importance to
these species are likely to be a focus for management during
development of management plans for protected areas on Cape York
Peninsula. The species have also been taken into account in the
development of Property Management Plans for the Peninsula.
Threatened species management in Australia has been built around
the concept of Recovery Planning, a process that has been
increasingly formalised through legislation.
Enough information is now available on the two taxa to allow a
recovery plan to be prepared for both species. When this is
endorsed by the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment, it will
ensure that the requirements of the two species are considered in
any major developments within their home ranges.
- Observations of natural history of the two species, with
special emphasis on habitat associations and their seasonal
variation, and foraging behaviour, in sites of three types:
- Sites that currently support healthy populations of star finch
or crimson finch;
- Sites that retain the species but where populations have
declined in the recent past;
- Sites that previously reported the species but do so no
- Detailed floristic and environmental descriptions of habitats
at all sites, giving special emphasis to attributes that appear
especially important to the ecology of each species.
- Restoration of habitat attributes in damaged environments, and
subsequent long-term observations of:
- population trends;
- evidence of recolonisation;
- or fate of reintroductions in restored and un-restored control
Field work for the project was completed in October 2000. The
work included two dry seasons and one wet season on Cape York
Peninsula with studies being undertaken on populations at both
Pormpuraaw on the west coast and Lakefield National Park on the
A wet season and part of a dry season were also spent at
Kununurra in Western Australia where both species were present
At each site observations were made of habitat, breeding ecology
and behaviour. In addition, large samples were netted at both sites
and comparative measurements taken of morphometrics and crop
samples taken to determine diet.
The results suggested that both species have a broad diet,
though there may be less variation, particularly between sexes,
among the rarer subspecies. The information is now on a
Comparative data was also collected on a number of other finch
taxa. This was analysed.
The project also contributed to work on riparian habitats on the
Ord in Western Australia because these birds inhabit wetter parts
of the landscape, especially vegetation fringing waterways. It
extended work concentrated in the Northern Territory to Queensland
and engaged the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency in core
Outputs also fed into the Information Clearinghouse, the
Graduate Diploma and Master of Tropical Environmental Management
and modules of the extension project.
Todd, M.K. in prep., Measurements of the
Neochmia grassfinches from northern Australia with comparisons
between sub-species. Todd, M.K. in prep., 'Bill Morphology and Diet
of the Star Finch Neochmia ruficauda and the Crimson Finch Neochmia
phaeton and Comparisons with other Australian Estrildine
Todd, M.K. in prep., 'Nesting Biology of the
Star Finch Neochmia ruficauda subclarescens and the
Chestnut-breasted Mannikin Lonchura castaneothorax, in the East
Todd, M.K. in prep., 'Nest-Site Preferences
and Breeding Season of the Crimson Finch Neochmia phaeton in
Todd, M.K., Felton, A. and Garnett, S.T. in
prep., 'Distribution, Habitat and Reasons for Decline in the Star
Finch Neochmia ruficauda'.
Todd, M.K. in prep., 'Distribution, Habitat,
Evolution and Reasons for Decline in the Crimson Finch Neochmia
Todd, M.K. in prep., Demographics, Movements
and Moult in the Star Finch Neochmia ruficauda and the Crimson
Finch Neochmia phaeton'.
Garnett, S.T., Clarkson, J.C, Harrinton, G.
and Freeman, A.N.D. in prep., 'The Ecology of the Star Finch at
Princess Charlotte Bay, Cape York Peninsula in the early wet
Mr Michael Todd, Qld Parks &
Dr Stephen Garnett, Qld Parks & Wildlife Service
Paddy Bassani, Qld Parks & Wildlife Service
Lindsay Bassani, Qld Parks & Wildlife Service
Amanda Freeman, Qld Parks & Wildlife Service
Dr Peter Whitehead, NTU
Dr John Woinarski, Parks & Wildlife Commission of the NT
Rank grass and sugarcane provide succour to north's endangered finches
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