The bird fauna of Melbourne: Changes over a century of urban growth and climate change, using a benchmark from Keartland (1900)

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The bird fauna of Melbourne has changed in many ways since the 19th century, and this paper documents some of these changes using Keartland's paper as a benchmark for the 19th century, along with our own experience for recent decades. Woodland birds declined substantially as woodlands were cleared in the 19th century, and several species became locally extinct. Farmland birds prospered and then declined as farmland was converted to housing. Some forest birds colonised gardens and parks as trees and shrubs matured through the 20th century. Planting of native shrubs has benefited some species such as Little Wattlebird, and complex competitive interactions between aggressive honeyeaters and other birds are involved in shaping the bird fauna and the ecosystem. Climate variability has played a role, with droughts encouraging waves of immigration. In recent decades there have been spectacular waves of colonising species from inland Australia (Galah, Sulphurcrested Cockatoo, Little Corella and Crested Pigeon), the eastern seaboard (Rainbow Lorikeet) and the western plains (Long-billed Corella). Introduced European birds declined substantially during the 1997-2010 drought. Conservation of native vegetation has been the main factor contributing to the high diversity still represented in Melbourne's bird fauna.
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210 e Victorian Naturalist
In global terms Melbourne is a new city (rst
settled in 1836 and ocially declared a city in
1847) and it is now a large city, with a popula-
tion of about 4 million people spread over ap-
proximately 880 000 ha of land, of which about
400 000 ha have been urbanised. It occupies
an area of fertile land in the temperate part of
south-eastern Australia (380 45 S, 1450 E), and
spreads from the sheltered coast of Port Phillip
Bay to the nearby forested hills and valleys to
the north and east and the volcanic grassland
plains to the west (Fig. 1). Rainfall varies from
>1200 mm in the Dandenong and Yarra Ranges
to <400 mm in the dry volcanic plains to the
west; hence a great variety of habitats are repre-
sented in the current area of Greater Melbourne.
e Yarra River and several smaller rivers ow
from the hills to the bay, and the Yarra estu-
ary was the initial focus of Eurasian settlement
from 1836. e area was occupied by low den-
sities of Aboriginal people of the Kulin nation
for many centuries. e current area of Greater
Melbourne was estimated to support about
29 000 people in 1851 before the gold rush, and
478 000 in 1901 (McCarty and Schedvin 1978).
Growth continued in the 20th century to ap-
proximately 3 million in 1970 and then to the
present level of a little over 4 million. Substan-
tial changes in native vegetation have accompa-
nied this population growth, with consequent
changes in habitat for ora and fauna. Climate
variations have also contributed to change, with
droughts or dry periods recorded at various
times, most recently from 1997 to 2010.
is paper examines some of the changes in
bird fauna that have accompanied these events.
e primary brief was to use a specic docu-
ment (Keartland 1900) as a benchmark for de-
scribing changes from the late 19th century to
what we now know in the early 21st century.
George Arthur Keartland arrived in Melbourne
as a two-year-old in 1848, and lived there till his
death in 1926 (McEvey 1983). He worked as a
compositor for e Age newspaper, and became
an avid amateur birder and naturalist from the
1880s, working with the Field Naturalists Club
of Victoria and contributing to the formation of
the Australasian Ornithologists Union (forerun-
ner to Birds Australia, soon to be BirdLife Aus-
tralia). He gained a reputation as a taxidermist
and egg-collector, and contributed to two major
inland expeditions. His 1900 paper gave an ex-
cellent description of the birds of the Greater
Melbourne district in the latter half of the 19th
e bird fauna of Melbourne: changes over a century of urban growth
and climate change, using a benchmark from Keartland (1900)
Richard H Loyn and Peter W Menkhorst
Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, PO Box 137 Heidelberg Victoria 3084
e bird fauna of Melbourne has changed in many ways since the 19th century, and this paper documents
some of these changes using Keartland’s paper as a benchmark for the 19th century, along with our own ex-
perience for recent decades. Woodland birds declined substantially as woodlands were cleared in the 19th
century, and several species became locally extinct. Farmland birds prospered and then declined as farmland
was converted to housing. Some forest birds colonised gardens and parks as trees and shrubs matured through
the 20th century. Planting of native shrubs has beneted some species such as Little Wattlebird, and complex
competitive interactions between aggressive honeyeaters and other birds are involved in shaping the bird fauna
and the ecosystem. Climate variability has played a role, with droughts encouraging waves of immigration. In
recent decades there have been spectacular waves of colonising species from inland Australia (Galah, Sulphur-
crested Cockatoo, Little Corella and Crested Pigeon), the eastern seaboard (Rainbow Lorikeet) and the western
plains (Long-billed Corella). Introduced European birds declined substantially during the 1997-2010 drought.
Conservation of native vegetation has been the main factor contributing to the high diversity still represented
in Melbourne’s bird fauna. (e Victorian Naturalist 128 (5) 2011, 210–231)
Keywords: urban birds; historical change; declining birds; colonisation; climate change
211Vol 128 (5) 2011
century, including changes that had become evi-
dent to him and others during that period.
Two main sources have been used for mod-
ern information. One is the Atlas of Victorian
Wildlife (soon to be relaunched as the Victo-
rian Biodiversity Atlas). e other is the sum of
personal observations by the authors (resident
in or near Melbourne from 1973 to the present
(RHL) and from 1963 (PWM)) and their col-
leagues, including members of the main bird
organisations (Birds Australia, Bird Observa-
tion & Conservation Australia and the Victo-
rian Ornithological Research Group). Some lit-
erature also was consulted but a comprehensive
literature review was not possible in the time
available. Such a review would undoubtedly
add detail but is not considered likely to alter
the main conclusions from this paper. Some
valuable sources of further data include ac-
counts of birds in suburban gardens (Kloot and
McCulloch 1980), changes over time at specic
locations such as Emerald (Twaits 1982), Box
Hill (Kloot 2000) and Long Forest (Hewish et
al. 2006), distributions and habitats of birds
in Melbourne (Aston and Balmford 1978) or
Victoria (Wheeler 1967; Emison et al. 1987)
and national distributions of birds from Atlas
projects (Blakers et al. 1984; Barrett et al. 2003).
Records from the Victorian Biodiversity At-
las have been used as a secondary source, and
would be worth examining in more detail.
e paper also considers the likely causes
of observed changes. Information on habitat
use by individual species and the timing of
observed changes can be used to distinguish
whether changes are likely to be due to changes
in habitat availability, competition from other
species, or climatic events.
Information for 1850–1900 from Keartland
Keartland provided narrative accounts for 185
bird species for which he had personal experi-
ence in the greater Melbourne area, drawing
also on information from fellow naturalists
from as long ago as the 1850s. ese accounts
were perused (aer translating some archaic
names) to see if the comments could apply in
modern times (suggesting that populations may
Fig. 1. Map showing the Greater Melbourne area (green shading) and the urbanised parts of Greater Mel-
bourne (red shading).
212 e Victorian Naturalist
have been stable, or to have varied in propor-
tion to available habitat). Any deviations were
highlighted and classied into a number of
groups (species that appear to have increased or
decreased markedly since that time). Changes
observed by Keartland and his colleagues in the
latter part of the 19th century were also noted.
For many species, Keartland provided valuable
ecological information, while for a few others
he frustratingly provided just a description of
their appearance or behaviour, limiting useful
comment on any change in status. In a very few
cases, some doubt may remain about whether
the species were correctly identied or actu-
ally recorded in the Melbourne area: attention
is drawn to those few cases. Information from
Keartland (1900) also was compared to the lists
and notes of birds in the Box Hill district from
1895 to 1899 (by Robert Hall, as collated and
summarised by Kloot [2000]). Hall’s observa-
tions lend support to some of the more interest-
ing observations of Keartland.
Recent information 1973–2011
Personal experience was used as the main
source of recent information, based on obser-
vations by the authors and colleagues from the
mid-1960s to 2011. During this time RHL lived
in Parkville (1973-75), Gippsland (1975-77),
Coldstream (1977-79), Emerald (1979-87) and
Viewbank (1987-2011), working out of Hei-
delberg from 1986 and making observations
widely, but especially near his home, close to
the conuence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers.
PWM lived in Mentone from 1963 to 1974, and
then in the Heidelberg area for the rest of the
period apart from two years at Diamond Creek
(1979-1981). A distillation of information from
fellow birders was also used, including reports
in the periodicals of the major bird societies and
our own research compilations (e.g. Menkhorst
1976). Data were examined from the Atlas of
Victorian Wildlife, to give a picture of report-
ing rates for each species over recent years.
Changes and trends
ree primary periods of change could be iden-
tied from this process: 1850–1900 (as report-
ed by Keartland 1900 and Hall Kloot 2000);
1900–1970s (comparing their observations
with those at the start of the modern period)
and 1970s to 2011 (from recent observations).
Keartland’s list of species is quite similar to the
list that would be made in modern times, by an
observer focusing on bush-birds and not visit-
ing special habitats for shorebirds or seabirds.
But clearly there have been some major changes
in abundance, and some species are now absent
or extremely rare (notably Australian Bus-
tard Ardeotis australis, Superb Parrot Polytelis
swainsonii, Masked Owl Tyto novaehollandiae,
Eastern Grass Owl Tyto longimembris, Brown
Treecreeper Climacteris picumnus, Crested
Bellbird Oreoica gutturalis, Grey-crowned Bab-
bler Pomatostomus temporalis, White-browed
Babbler Pomatostomus superciliosus, Regent
Honeyeater Anthochaera phrygia and Fuscous
Honeyeater Lichenostomus fuscus). ere also
have been gains, but some of them may be due
to increased observer activity and expertise (and
focus on shorebirds and seabirds) rather than
real changes. Keartland did not deal explicitly
with introduced birds, but he mentioned the
introduction of sparrows and it seems that his
choice not to discuss them further could have
been due to a philosophical position or edito-
rial policy. e main changes in abundance are
considered below by period of change.
Possible errors or records that need to be
Just a few of Keartland’s records seem discord-
ant with what is currently known of the species,
and further investigation is needed to establish
their accuracy. is implies no disrespect to
Keartland and his colleagues, who were work-
ing without eld guides and other modern
tools such as sophisticated optics, but did make
frequent use of a shotgun. In this paper, the fol-
lowing four cases will be disregarded:
Keartland mentions two species of small •
penguin (as Little Penguin Eudyptula minor
and Fairy Penguin Eudyptula undina), which
are no longer dierentiated.
Spotted Nightjars • Eurostopodus argus inhabit
the arid north-western parts of Victoria,
and nightjars in Melbourne are much more
likely to have been White-throated Nightjars
Eurostopodus mystacalis.
Orange-bellied Parrots • Neophema chrysogaster
are extremely rare, and found mainly in coastal
habitats and not in the breeding season (as
they breed in Tasmania). Keartland recorded
213Vol 128 (5) 2011
them (as ‘Blue-banded Grass Parrot Euphema
chrysogaster’) in large ocks near Melton in
spring and as scattered pairs throughout the
year all round Melbourne. ese are more
likely to have been Blue-winged Parrots
Neophema chrysostoma (not mentioned by
Marsh Sandpipers • Tringa stagnatilis are
regular visitors to saline wetlands near the
coast of Port Phillip Bay, where they occur
with a range of other migratory shorebirds.
Keartland records ‘solitary birds of this species
on the margins of the lagoons at Heidelberg’,
and mentions no other migratory shorebirds
except for Latham’s Snipe Gallinago hardwickii.
His Marsh Sandpipers are more likely to have
been Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia,
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola or Common
Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos that are much
more likely to be seen ‘as solitary birds’ than
are Marsh Sandpipers. A number of common
migratory shorebirds that sometimes visit
freshwater wetlands are also candidates
such as the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris
acuminata but these species are almost
invariably in ocks.
e following records deserve further scrutiny
but are accepted provisionally in this paper:
Records of Masked Owl and Eastern Grass •
Owl may well be correct, and both species
have been seen near Melbourne in recent
years; however, both can be confused with
Eastern Barn Owl Tyto javanica and it would
be reassuring to have more information about
the records, especially the reference to ‘large
numbers’ of Eastern Grass Owl. We note that
Hall also listed both these species in the Box
Hill area (Kloot 2000), and Wheeler (1967)
mentioned a minor invasion of Eastern Grass
Owl in winter 1905.
Keartland’s records of Superb Parrot (as •
‘Barraband’s Parrakeet Polytelis barrabandi’)
and White-browed Babbler are both
surprising as these species are now conned
to dry forests north of the Great Dividing
Range. However, they are quite distinctive
birds and unlikely to be mistaken: they appear
to have suered genuine range contractions.
It is unfortunate that no details were provided
about the status of White-browed Babblers,
although earlier papers give specic records
for Long Forest and Toolern Vale (Hewish
et al. 2006). Keartland’s records of Superb
Parrots were based on hearsay rather than
personal observation, but they are quite
specic, stating that the species was ‘at one
time very common in the vicinity of Keilor
and Heidelberg’, but had ‘quite disappeared
of late years, the only specimens shot being
escaped cage pets’.
Increases or uctuations 1850–1900
Keartland considered that Australian Magpies
had ‘become very numerous since they enjoyed
the protection of the Game Act’. He also said
that a number of Fuscous Honeyeaters had
‘lately arrived’ in the Melton forests and in the
past two years (1898–1900) Purple-crowned
Lorikeets Glossopsitta porphyrocephala had ap-
peared ‘in considerable numbers in our parks
and gardens’. More surprisingly, he reported
that Cicadabirds Coracina tenuirostris (‘Jar-
dine’s Campephaga Campephaga jardinii’) had
appeared near Melbourne ‘within the last few
years’. e last three observations may be exam-
ples of erratic irruptions rather than trends.
Keartland identied no other species that
increased over this period, though intro-
duced species would clearly be in that cat-
egory. He commented on the erratic spring
arrival of White-browed Woodswallows Arta-
mus superciliosus and Masked Woodswallows
A.personatus, considered harbingers of hot
summers: similar comments could be made in
modern times. More surprisingly, he reported
a temporary inux of ‘a great many’ Eastern
Grass Owls in about 1890, during a mouse
Decreases 1850–1900
In his introduction, Keartland lamented the
denudation of native vegetation within 30 km
of Melbourne, and highlighted ve bird spe-
cies that had declined markedly since 1850.
ese were ‘Bronzewing Pigeons’ following the
destruction of the tea-tree (presumably Brush
Bronzewing Phaps elegans); Little Lorikeet
Glossopsitta pusilla and Regent Honeyeater as
Red Gum and Box forests were used for re-
wood; Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus haema-
todus (from forests generally) and Australasian
Bittern Botaurus poiciloptilus (whose booming
notes were ‘listened for in vain’, presumably at
wetlands where they had been heard calling
214 e Victorian Naturalist
Keartland also mentioned recent decreases
for many other species, and considered that the
following 19 species had declined:
Common Bronzewing • Phaps chalcoptera
(becoming rare as much hunted; disappeared
from immediate vicinity of city but a few still
seen at Melton and Beveridge);
Brush Bronzewing (becoming rare with loss •
of tea-tree habitat, but ‘occasionally odd birds
are shot at Mordialloc and Cheltenham’);
Australasian Bittern (odd birds occasionally •
shot near lagoons in vicinity of Heidelberg);
Black Kite • Milvus migrans (previously
common at slaughter yards);
Brolga • Grus rubicunda (rare near Bulla,
previously shot in 1860s at Faireld Park);
Australian Bustard (‘frequently seen during •
the spring and summer months on the open
plains of Keilor and Werribee’);
Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo • Calyptorhynchus
funereus (common along the Yarra in the
1850s, e.g. at Heidelberg, but subsequently
conned to the Dandenong Ranges);
Gang-gang Cockatoo • Callocephalon mbriatum
(becoming scarce as much sought [presumably
as specimens or pets], easily shot but
occasionally seen ‘as near as Oakleigh’);
Rainbow Lorikeet (at one time very •
numerous near Melbourne, e.g. in Blue Gums
of Parliament House, but now very scarce;
not common since March 1874 when they
destroyed nearly all the ripe pears in gardens
at Dandenong);
Little Lorikeet (very numerous a few years •
ago near Oakleigh, but now scarce);
Superb Parrot (said to be at one time very •
common near Keilor and Heidelberg, but then
disappeared except for escaped cage-birds);
Swi Parrot • Lathamus discolor (‘at one time
very common; these birds are now seldom
seen; a few years ago specimens were secured
near Brighton’);
Azure Kingsher • Ceyx azureus (previously
conspicuous along the Yarra and Plenty
Rivers, but ‘has become very rare’);
Satin Bowerbird • Ptilonorhynchus violaceus
(‘still found in the Morang district although
immense numbers of them have fallen victim
to rabbit poison’);
Yellow-rumped ornbill • Acanthiza chrysorrhoa
(numerous in garden plots until sparrows
were introduced);
Regent Honeyeater (‘at one time very •
numerous near Melbourne but now extremely
Noisy Friarbird • Philemon corniculatus (‘now
rare near Melbourne, but a few pairs still
construct their stringybark nests and rear
their broods at Whittlesea’);
Grey Currawong • Strepera versicolor (‘now
somewhat rare’);
Tree Martin • Petrochelidon nigricans (‘at one
time very numerous in what is now known as
Clion Hill; …still numerous at Heidelberg
and the Plenty River’).
Some of these changes (increases and decreas-
es) may have involved cyclical changes in abun-
dance or erratic irruptions rather than long-
term trends, especially with respect to species
that are known to be nomadic (e.g. lorikeets
and some honeyeaters).
Increases 1900–1970s
A few species seem to have increased between
1900 and the 1970s:
Kelp Gulls • Larus dominicanus were rst
seen in Victoria in 1954, in Port Phillip Bay
(Wheeler 1967). By the 1970s low numbers
had become regular near Port Phillip Heads
(and a few pairs bred annually on Seal Rocks
in Western Port). However, the species
remains extremely rare in the metropolitan
Fan-tailed Cuckoos • Cacomantis abelliformis
were described by Keartland as less common
than Pallid Cuckoos, and generally conned
to hilly country. By the 1970s the species had
become common in a range of forest habitats,
including in the lowlands along the Yarra
Bell Miners • Manorina melanophrys were
described by Keartland as mainly inhabiting
Gippsland, but they were ‘occasionally met
with at Ringwood and Bayswater’. Colonies
had become established in many parts of
eastern Melbourne and the nearby ranges and
river valleys by the 1970s (McCulloch and
Noelker 1974).
Little Wattlebirds • Anthochaera chrysoptera
were described by Keartland as very numerous
in coastal tea-tree from Brighton to Schnapper
Point, but seldom seen far inland. In the
1970s the species was still mainly coastal (e.g.
at Mentone always in the tea-tree and banksia
belt), but had begun to expand into various
suburban habitats away from the coast, where
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    • Richard H. Loyn
      Richard H. Loyn
    The abundance of an aggressive Australian honeyeater, the Noisy Miner Manorina melanocephala, was reduced at four small (<8 ha) Grey Box Eucalyptus microcarpa woodland remnants by experimental removal. The diversity and abundance of small insectivorous and nectarivorous birds increased at three of the four sites (relative to matching control sites) over the twelve months following the removal of the Noisy Miners. The one exception occurred at a pair of sites where eucalypts began flowering at one site and finished at the other durng the Noisy Miner removal period. These results, taken together with those from three earlier experiments where the abundance of Noisy Miners was reduced in Mugga Ironbark E. sideroxylon woodland remnants, demonstrate that Noisy Miners affect avian diversity and abundance by aggressive exclusion of other species. In five out of seven experiments, Noisy Miners did not reinvade the small woodland remnants during the ensuing twelve months. When Noisy Miner abundance was reduced, increased populations of small insectivorous and nectarivorous birds used small degraded woodland remnants. Colonizing populations of small birds have the potential to reduce insect infestations and may assist in the recovery of dieback-affected woodland remnants. Research is continuing to test this hypothesis. Reducing the abundance of Noisy Miners in remnant eucalypt woodlands may also be a useful, short-term measure, which could assist in the recovery of threatened or endangered bird species.
  • Book
    • Geoff Barrett
      Geoff Barrett
    • A. F. Silcocks
    • Simon Barry
      Simon Barry
    • R Poulter
  • Article
    • D J Lee
    Little is known about ravens in the Greater Melbourne region, Victoria, including official comment on the unusual heights at which they tend to nest. The adaptation of Little Ravens Corvus mellori to the city is relatively recent and there have been sightings of (apparently still wild) Australian Ravens C. coronoides in certain areas. This paper reviews the literature concerning ravens in Melbourne, and examines the small sample (n = 21) of Little Raven data available for most of this area from the Nest Record Scheme administered by Birds Australia, for insights into the Little Ravens history. Data show an apparent shift in population concentration accompanied by an increase in height of nesting above the ground. These changes coincide with the recognition of Little Ravens as town-adapted in the mid 1980s, thus suggesting that these aspects are features of town-adaptation.