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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Rosellas; a flash mob

In south-eastern Australia, from Brisbane to Adelaide - ie where the majority of the human population lives - one of the commonest and most familiar birds is also surely one of the most colourfully dramatic in the continent. 
Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans, Canberra.
(The Coastal Banksia B. integrifolia, is not native to Canberra.)
Flocks of these beauties fly through suburbia, feeding on flowering or fruiting plants and partaking of back yard seed trays. People tend to get to the 'just a rosella' stage, but I reckon that if these birds only lived in a remote part of the country they'd be a tourist magnet. The generally restrained English ornithologist John Gould, who made such an impression on our zoological landscape in the mid 19th century but was not over-given to hyperbole, wrote of Crimson Rosellas in his 1848 seven-volume opus The Birds of Australia: "I could never fail to pause and admire the splendour of their appearance, of which no description could give an adequate idea."  

It seems that others felt the same, as nearly all the rosella species names are more hagiographic than helpful. The genus name Platycercus means 'broad-tailed', as applied by the Irish taxonomist Nicholas Vigors; for reasons not so clear today he felt that this distinguished rosellas from all other parrots. The species name elegans is self-evident, if not very useful - but as we shall see the German zoologist Johann Friedrich Gmelin who named it was not alone in becoming somewhat tongue-tied when faced with allocating names to rosellas. 

Unlike other rosella species, Crimsons often confuse mere humans by having youngsters which are quite different in colour. In Canberra in autumn, flocks of newly-independent youngsters, down from their breeding grounds in the mountain forests, carouse through the suburbs and aren't always recognised.
Immature Crimson Rosella, Canberra.
As the year goes on, red feathers appear through the green until by completion of first moult they are all red.

There is ongoing debate over the status of two other rosellas, which are currently (but not universally) regarded as sub-species of Crimsons. Yellow Rosellas P. e. flaveolus live along the riverbanks, in the River Red Gum forests of the Murray-Darling system. 
Yellow Rosella, Berri, South Australia.
The blue cheek patch indicates its relatedness to Crimson Rosellas;
just how close is the question and the answer is ultimately subjective. I personally think that the separate habitats and
fairly limited overlap and interbreeding suggest full species status, but of course I claim no expertise.
Like other rosellas, Yellows can be pretty squabbly!
In South Australia is an orange version, the Adelaide Rosella P. e. adalaidea. And given that I lived in Adelaide for 30 years I can't believe I don't have a single photo of one!

Crimsons are largely birds of the mountain and coastal forests; to the west they are replaced by the equally familiar Eastern Rosella P. eximius. Their species name means 'excellent'! Canberra is unusual in that we commonly see Easterns and Crimsons feeding side by side; Easterns are essentially woodland birds, and here we are at the interface of the hinterland montane forests and the great inland grassy woodlands. 
Eastern Rosella, near Canberra.
The striking white - not blue - cheek patch is one obvious distinction from the Crimson.

They also lived in the woodlands west of the new colony of Sydney, in an area known as Rose Hill (now called, more euphoniously, Parramatta). Unlikely as the story sounds, we can trace the development of its name from 'Rose Hill Parrot' to 'Rose Hillers' and finally eliding, as the origin was forgotten, to Roselle and Rosella! Oddly the name didn't become applied to other rosellas until the situation was formally tidied up in 1926 - until then they had to manage as just 'parrots'.

The juxtaposition of Crimson and Eastern Rosellas in Canberra gives rise occasionally to another interesting observation too. Their ancestors separated - perhaps by climate-induced habitat changes - for long enough for their progeny to become reproductively isolated (ie separate species) but only just. Hybrids appear here from time to time, though they appear to be infertile, as we'd expect. 

Crimson - Eastern Rosella hybrids, Canberra.
(Both shots were taken long ago in a previous yard of mine in fact.)
Below the hybrid appears with its Crimson parent.
 


Continuing north into Queensland both species are replaced by the widespread Pale-headed Rosella P. adscitus, a softly-coloured rosella, widespread in the drier woodlands well up into the tropics, especially near waterways. Adscitus means 'approved'! The eminent John Latham saw no reason to explain this, but I guess the bird was supposed to be grateful.
Pale-headed Rosella, Roma, Queensland.
Continuing into the tropics and across to the north coast, the comparatively sooty Northern Rosella P. venustus is found across tropical woodlands of the Northern Territory's Top End to the Kimberleys. (This one means lovely, or charming...)
Northern Rosella, above and below, Darwin.
Gould reported that by the 1840s residents of Port Essington (the predecessor to Darwin)
were calling this really very demure bird the Smutty Parrot!
For its colour I hasten to add, rather than a taste in dinner stories.
Finally, in the south-west corner, is the lovely little Western Rosella P. icterotus - and finally too, a sensible name; 'yellow-eared'! More of a yellow cheek actually, but at least they tried!
Western Rosella males - only in this species are the sexes different.
Above Albany, below Stirling Ranges NP.

This one was once known as the Earl of Derby's Parakeet, a nod to the zoologist, zoo owner and president of both the London Zoological and Linnean Societies - in fact it was once derbyi, but that name was applied too late. Gould tried to keep it alive with the cumbersome common name, but for once was unsuccessful - fortunately perhaps, on this occasion. 

The final rosella species was not represented in my image library when I wrote this post, but immediately afterwards we holidayed in Tasmania, so I can now rectify that omission.
Green Rosella Platycercus caledonicus, Bruny Island, Tasmania.
This is a Tasmanian endemic. The confusing species name was based on the type specimen
being erroneously labelled as deriving from New Caledonia.

BACK ON WEDNESDAY 26 FEBRUARY

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