How are Gouldians affected by wildfires?
Although the major declines in Gouldian finch populations were initially blamed on air sac mite and wild trapping of birds for the pet industry, recent research suggests that main factor for why Gouldian finch populations are not recovering is because of large-scale habitat change and inappropriate fire regimes. Fire not only affects the availability and production of Eucalyptus tree cavities (used for nesting – see nest-box project), but also alters seed diversity.
Prior to the introduction of pastoralism in the nineteenth century, the fire regime in Australia’s northern savannas consisted of a patchy mosaic of regular (early dry season), low intensity grass fires. More recently, however, with increased pastoralism and reduced traditional land management, large areas are now susceptible to high intensity and late season fires. Although low intensity fires have a negligible effect on Eucalyptus demographics and grass biodiversity, high intensity fires typically destroy trees and reduce both the availability of productivity of many native grasses.
The problem for the Gouldian finch is that they are specialised granivores (seed-eaters) that feed almost exclusively on fire-sensitive native grasses, and the frequent hot fires that move through their habitat each year are severely reducing the availability and diversity of grass seeds, causing the finches to starve.
Current fire research
We have recently started a cross-disciplinary project that combines a number of research fields (e.g. fire ecology, nutrition, behaviour, GIS mapping, etc.), as well as a number of researchers and conservation agencies, to experimentally determine exactly how fire affects the Gouldian finch. Importantly, this work will help us come up with new conservation plans and initiatives to reduce wildfires and promote seeding grasses to enhance current Gouldian finch populations. We will update this page as we discover new findings… You can also keep up to date with recent findings by following our blog.