The Orange-bellied Parrot (OBP;
is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ under the Commonwealth
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
, and is also listed as a threatened species in New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria.
The OBP is one of the most threatened birds in Australia. The wild population, measured at the start of each breeding season, did not exceed 35 birds between 2010 and 2018. According to the criterion of the Recovery Plan, the wild population is neither stable nor increasing. The wild population is not viable without supplementation from captive bird releases to the wild. Recent breeding seasons have provided some hope with 77 birds returning to Melaleuca in 2022, the largest number of returns recorded in over 15 years!.
Orange-bellied Parrot. Photo: NRE Tas
The OBP is one of six species of Neophema or grass parrot. They are approximately 20 cm long and weigh approximately 40 g
– a little larger than a budgerigar.
OBPs are coloured emerald/grassy green on their back, wings and flanks with a bright yellow chest, azure blue markings on their wings and brow, and a vivid orange patch on their belly.
During the summer, the distinguishing features between male and female OBPs are clear. The most obvious difference is in the blue of the frontal band across the forehead. Males have a very bright blue band that is two toned in colour, whilst the females have a duller blue band that is usually only one colour. A quick checklist of the distinguishing features of male and female OBPs is provided below.
- Frontal band two-toned - a pale blue edge around a dark royal blue centre
- Head, neck and upper-body are bright grass green
- Bright yellow under-body with typically bright orange belly patch
- Primary feathers (longest feathers near tail and wing) are a rich dark blue on outer edge
- Upper-tail is a vivid blue-green with bright yellow sides
- Frontal band usually only pale blue
- Upper-body is duller
- Under-body is a duller yellow
- Belly patch is smaller and paler
- Upper-tail is blue tinged with green
Juvenile OBPs (encountered in their breeding range from the end of January) are identified by their overall dull green plumage and bright orange/brown bill (as opposed to the black bill of the adults).
Scope Vision – Juvenile Orange-bellied Parrot on the feed-table at Melaleuca. (Photo: Marianne Gee)
Neophema species is difficult because of their cryptic nature and similar plumage. The closely related Blue-winged Parrot (Neophema chrysostoma) and the OBP are superficially similar (see below). The Blue-winged Parrot can be distinguished from the OBP by having olive green rather than bright grassy green plumage, a yellow patch between the eye and bill, and an all blue shoulder patch.
Blue-winged Parrots have superficially similar plumage to Orange-bellied Parrots. Photo: Marina Campbell
Blue-winged Parrot (top left) shares a feeding table with Orange-bellied Parrots. Photo: Marina Campbell
The ‘alarm’ call is one of the surest methods of OBP identification as the appearance of the plumage often varies according to the light.
When the bird is disturbed or upset the alarm call is a harsh, rapidly repeated "zit-zit-zit", usually used whilst the bird is rising from a perch or the ground. In level flight, a single "tseet" note is given each time it dips.
Have a listen to their vocalisations
Every year OBPs undertake an extraordinary journey, migrating across the Bass Strait twice – in autumn they fly to coastal mainland southeast Australia to over-winter, and in spring they return to Melaleuca to breed over the summer.
By April each year, the OBP population departs the breeding grounds and migrates north along the west coast of Tasmania.
It is most likely that passage from the southwest to Marrawah is tightly confined to the coast (less than 2 km). Sightings of OBPs north of Marrawah show that the species spreads across a broad area from Woolnorth to Stanley, where it feeds on saltmarshes and a range of pasture weeds and crops.
Observations suggest that the passage across Bass Strait is undertaken by island hopping through the western Bass Strait Islands (e.g. Robbins, Perkins, Montague, Hunter and King Islands). Individuals are known to feed for many days or even weeks at some sites. Sea Elephant River (King Island) is a critical habitat for the species with as many as 20 individuals feeding on saltmarsh during March–May.
Orange-bellied Parrots at one of their favourite vantage points at Melaleuca. Photo: Cole Rowe
The southern migration is far more rapid. Observations suggest that the species does not feed during passage, with a transit time from Victoria to Melaleuca of less than 2 days in some cases.
The flight corridor is not known but assumed to be the most direct route (i.e. across King Island direct to the west coast). Typically, older birds are the first to arrive at the breeding grounds in late September or early October, while first year birds return through October to mid-November. Waves of arrivals coincide with north-westerly winds on a 2–5 day pattern, suggesting that the species uses tail winds to assist passage.
Distribution and range
Southwest National Park. Photo NRE Tas
Historically, the breeding range of the OBP within Tasmania extended along the western and southern coast and east toward the Southport region. The current breeding range has contracted to the south-west of Tasmania, with recent breeding records restricted to within 20 km of Melaleuca, Bathurst Harbour.
The entire population moves to coastal habitats on the mainland during the non-breeding period (April–September). Historically, the OBP winter range on the mainland extended from Adelaide, and possibly Yorke Peninsula, south-east through to the Coorong, Robe, Beachport and Port MacDonnell in South Australia and also east through south-western coastal Victoria, Port Phillip Bay to South Gippsland, and north to near Sydney.
The range and abundance of the OBP has declined steadily since the 1920s and is now rarely recorded from west of the Murray River in South Australia or east of Port Phillp Bay in Victoria.
Melaleuca Inlet - Mt Rugby. Photo: NRE Tas
Melaleuca is located within the Southwest National Park in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA). The region is serviced by an airstrip which brings thousands of day-tripper tourists and bushwalkers undertaking the South Coast Track during the summer months. From late September to April, the buttongrass and sedgeland plains of Melaleuca provide feeding habitat for the OBP and the tall wet eucalypt forests (dominated by Eucalyptus nitida) provide critical OBP nesting habitat (Holdsworth 2006). Detailed descriptions of the vegetation communities of the region are described in Brown et al. 1993; Taylor et al. 1993; Parks and Wildlife Service 1999; Reid et al. 1999.
Melaleuca has a history of alluvial tin mining since 1940 (Mattingley 2001). In 2007, the mining ceased.
The area also has a long history (Aboriginal and European) of fire use to alter/manage habitats, to provide food, ease movement through the landscape, reduce vegetation cover to aid mining, reduce the risk of bushfires and protect built assets. Fire management activities are conducted by the Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania (PWS) including ecological burns to promote suitable foraging areas for the OBP.
Orange-bellied Parrot feeding. Photo: Col Rowe
The OBP forages on a diversity of coastal or near coastal vegetation throughout its range. In Tasmania, the species utilises buttongrass plains and sedgelands, feeding on the mature flowers, fruits and seeds of a range of grasses, chenopods, sedges and herbs. Vegetation structure, plant species diversity and seeding response to fire influences the distribution and abundance of food species, and availability of food within these habitats.
At Melaleuca, OBPs are also provided with supplementary bird seed at feed tables to enhance body condition and assist population monitoring throughout the breeding season. During the non-breeding period, OBPs are reliant on the seeds of a range of saltmarsh plants but also forage on other native and exotic plants adjacent to saltmarshes. Throughout its range, the OBP roosts within a range of dense coastal vegetation but particularly
Melaleuca spp. and
Artificial nest boxes are provided for Orange-bellied Parrots at Melaleuca to assist with monitoring and to provide additional nest opportunities. Photo: NRE Tas
The OBP breeds only within Southwest Tasmania, with the known breeding population concentrated in the Melaleuca region. Birds typically begin to arrive at Melaleuca in late September. Nests are occupied from mid-November and nesting occurs in artificial nest boxes, or where available, hollows of eucalypt trees (typically
Pairs do not mate for life. The female stays in the nest for several days before the first egg is laid and clutches average 4.6 eggs (range 1–6). Only the female incubates the eggs during the 21-day incubation period. After hatching, the female remains on the nest for 10 days, being fed by the male.
After the 10 day brood period, the chicks are fed by both parents before fledging at four to five weeks of age. Fledglings are fed by both parents until the adults depart on the northern migration in February–March. The fledglings typically depart between March and April. Juveniles are also individually colour banded (using leg bands) from nest boxes each year which forms the basis of population studies.
Orange-bellied Parrots mating at their last known breeding ground at Melaleuca. Photo: Col Rowe
Orange-bellied Parrot courting pair at Melaleuca. Photo: Col Rowe
Life history and demography
The OBP is an obligate migratory species. The entire population breeds only within Southwest Tasmania (October–March) and migrates to the mainland to spend the winter (April–September) in coastal areas of South Australia, Victoria and occasionally New South Wales.
Both sexes breed in their first year and can have a reproductive lifespan up to 10 years. However, the post-fledging, mean lifespan is only 2.2 years. The oldest birds that have been recorded in the wild are 11.7 years (male) and 10.4 years (female; Holdsworth 2006).
Brown, M.J., Brown, P.B., Bryant S.L., Horwitz, P., McQuillan, P.B., Nielson, E., Rounsevell, D.E., Smith, S.J. and Richardson, A.M.M. 1993. Buttongrass moorland ecosystems. Pp. 101–108 in Tasmanian Wilderness – World Heritage Values, eds. S.J. Smith and M.R. Banks. Royal Society of Tasmania, Hobart.
Holdsworth, M.C. 2006. Reproductive success and demography of the orange-bellied parrot Neophema chrysogaster. MSc thesis, University of Tasmania, Hobart.
.Mattingley, C. 2001. King of the wilderness: the life of Deny King. The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne.
Parks and Wildlife Service, 1999. Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Management Plan. Parks and Wildlife Service, Hobart.
Parks and Wildlife Service, 2002. Melaleuca–Port Davey Area Plan. Parks and Wildlife Service, Hobart.
Reid, J.B., Hill, R.S., Brown, M.J. and Hovenden, M.J. (eds.) 1999. Vegetation of Tasmania. Pp. in Flora of Australian Supplement Series 8, Australian Biological Resources Study. Environment Australia, Canberra.
Taylor, R.J., Balmer, J., Coy, R., Potts, B.M. and Wall, L.E. 1993. Flora and fauna of the sclerophyll ecosystems. Pp. 91–100 in
Tasmanian Wilderness – World Heritage Values, eds. S.J. Smith and M.R. Banks. Royal Society of Tasmania, Hobart.