Star finches. Photo: Mick Todd
From Tropical Topics newsletter, No. 73 May
2002, produced by Stella Martin at the Queensland Environmental
Protection Agency. Download the PDF to read the whole issue.
Sub-species of star finches and crimson finches which were once
widespread in Cape York Peninsula are now confined to two small
populations on the east and west coasts of the peninsula. Studies
have shown that changes in vegetation on Cape York may be the
cause. Both birds depend on very dense grass. Star finches nest in
it and crimson finches rely on it for shelter from predators while
feeding. Trampling by cattle, and fires, however, have reduced the
availability of this type of vegetation in drier areas. In places
other than Cape York, where the finches still thrive, they seem to
have benefited from agriculture, particularly sugar cane, which
provides a similarly sheltered habitat.
More profound changes in the vegetation, brought about by cattle
grazing and altered fire regimes are also affecting the birds.
Coastal grasslands in Cape York are being steadily taken over by
woodland, dominated by melaleucas and eucalypts. In addition, the
types of grasses are also changing, with species favoured by the
finches being replaced by those which are more resilient to grazing
but which do not provide the finches with food. On the other hand,
introduced grasses in agricultural areas, where the finches are not
in trouble, may help to feed them.
Until recently, mystery surrounded the whereabouts of star
finches in the wet season, after they disappeared from dry season
feeding grounds around Princess Charlotte Bay. Then, in late 1999,
flocks were discovered feeding in unburnt grasslands on saltpans
near the sea. Star finches on the western side of Cape York,
however, have a different strategy. They move into casuarina
woodlands where they sit up on the branches picking seeds from the
cones. To see a list of research findings on star finches click here .
The crimson finch subspecies ( Neochmia phaeton
evangelinae ) found in Cape York and New Guinea has a white
belly(above right) instead of the black belly seen on crimson
finches elsewhere in Australia. Differences in the subspecies of
star finch ( N. ruficauda clarescens ) are more subtle.
Curiously the bills of both these endangered subspecies are smaller
than those of their cousins* elsewhere. This means they cannot
handle larger seeds efficiently (husking them is too time
consuming) so the range of food available to them is more limited.
To see a list of research findings on crimson finches click here .
*Sub-species elsewhere in Australia ( N. phaeton phaeton
and N.ruficauda subclarescens ) although also declining in
numbers, are thriving in some parts of the Northern Territory and
The bright colours of Gouldian finches have led to extensive
trapping of these lovely birds for the caged-bird industry. These
finches were once widespread in woodlands across northern
Australia, flocks of thousands providing a spectacular sight as
recently as 50 years ago. They have now disappeared from nearly
half their previous range and numbers are continuing to decline.
Populations in Queensland have been particularly badly
Grazing and changes in fire regimes seem to be affecting seed
availability. In the dry season, the finches are able to find seeds
on the ground in recently burned areas and in the wet season they
like to feed in areas which were burned in the previous dry season,
targeting perennial grasses. However, if the areas burnt are too
large, they have problems finding food. Gouldian finches seem to be
persisting best in rocky areas, such as the Kimberley, where
pockets of grassland remain ungrazed. Diseases have also been
implicated but are not considered a major cause of declines.
Twenty Gouldian finches were recently released into the wild at
the Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve in north
Queensland. They are part of an experimental breed-and-release
program which aims to re-establish populations in an area where
they have been absent for 25 years. The birds quickly paired up and
have been nesting. To see a list of research findings on gouldian
finches click here .