Wildlife in the land Down Under
Australia has the highest animal species extinction rate in the world.
Cats and red foxes are a big reason. They are a part of Australia’s present — but not its past.
Red foxes and cats are taking a terrible toll on Australia’s wildlife, said Union wildlife biologist Pat Kennedy during a presentation at a meeting of the Grande Ronde Bird Club Monday at EOU.Kennedy understands Australia’s plight. She and her husband, Len Paur, visited there last fall.
An Oregon State University wildlife biology professor based at the Union Experiment Station, Kennedy did work in Australia as part of her sabbatical.
Kennedy saw firsthand in Australia how something that happened more than 150 years ago is taking a toll on its mammals and birds today. Cats and red foxes were introduced to Australia in the mid-1800s. Many escaped or were let go into the wild, where they have thrived and multiplied exponentially.
The wilds of Australia are now filled with feral cats and red foxes, ones that are ravaging the small mammal population. Because they never developed a defense mechanism through evolution for dealing with such predators, birds and mammals like wallabies are vulnerable to feral cats and red foxes.
The primary predator many mammals faced earlier were eagles and other raptors. The mammals learned to defend themselves by remaining motionless when raptors were overhead.
Some mammals use this same defense mechanism today against cats and red foxes — and it fails miserably, Kennedy said.
Because they run slowly, some of Australia’s small mammals are often caught by cats and red foxes. This is understandable from an evolutionary point of view since for thousands of years the mammals never had to run to escape predators in Australia.
Feral cats are a bigger problem in Australia than in North America primarily because there are no coyotes in the Land Down Under, Kennedy said. Coyotes do a good job of containing feral cat populations in rural portions of North America.
Feral cats in Australia do not tug the hearts of animal lovers.
“They are big and nasty. They look like wild animals,’’ Kennedy said.
The OSU professor spent most of her time in Western Australia. She was based in Perth at Murdoch University, which hosted her. Kangaroos and parrots are everywhere on the Murdoch campus. Kennedy often found them a distraction, particularly at first.
“I didn’t get much work done the first few weeks I was there. I would stare out my office window looking at kangaroos and parrots.’’
Kangaroos are to Australia what mule deer are to Northeast Oregon, Kennedy said. They are “urban wildlife,’’ comfortable coming into communities but rarely showing an interest in people.
Kangaroos, like mule deer here, are also a traffic hazard, especially early in the morning and at dusk when they are most active.
Parrots are more interested in people or at least in what they can provide. Parrots are so drawn to feeders that many people do not provide food to birds. Someone who starts feeding birds will soon have 20 to 50 parrots regularly coming to their yard. The birds consume large quantities of seed. They consume so much that many people do not have bird feeders because it costs so much to keep them stocked, Kennedy said.
Some Australians may tire of feeding parrots, but dolphins are another story. One of Western Australia’s most popular tourism sites is Monkey Mia park at Shark Bay, where many bottlenosed dolphins are fed fish.
“They are delightful and curious,’’ Kennedy said.
Australian officials are trying to phase out the feeding site, about 700 miles north of Perth, because it is not good to have wildlife dependent on humans for food. Some studies indicate that the dolphins at Monkey Mia could be hurt by the feeding because they are not eating as wide a variety of fish as they otherwise would at sea.
A second concern is that young dolphins are not learning how to get their own food at sea because they are used to be being fed by people.
The dolphin feeding will likely not be phased out anytime soon, though, because of the joy it brings the public.
“It is a tremendous tourism draw,’’ Kennedy said.
The ocean also provided Kennedy and her husband a chance to get up close look at the lives of Australia’s “little penguins.’’ The little penguin, the smallest in the world at only 18 inches high, is one of 11 found off the coast of Australia but the only one that nests in the country.
Kennedy observed the penguins while they were raising their young.
Each day one parent spends hours at sea gathering food. The bird then returns to a dirt burrow site or nest box that contains its mate and young. The penguin then regurgitates food for its young.
First, though, the returning penguin identifies itself with a contact call. Each call is distinct and tells the birds inside that a family member, not a predator, is entering.
Following each call comes a loud conversation between the birds and slapping and hitting.
“It sounds like a marital squabble. It is a riot to listen to,’’ Kennedy said.
Another bird with fascinating behavior Kennedy observed in Australia is the malleefowl. The malleefowl female lays eggs, and then the male creates a compost pile. Eggs are buried under the compost pile to incubate.
Kennedy talked about not just birds but camels. Conditions in most of Australia are normally hot and dry, which explains why camels fare well there. Camels were brought over more than a century ago to serve as work animals. They thrived and today Australia has many feral camels in addition to domestic stock.
“There are more camels today in Australia than in the Middle East,’’ Kennedy said.
The dry climate camels thrive in has an enormous impact on bird behavior. Birds migrate not to find warmer weather for nesting but to locate water. Some birds nest only during years when water is more abundant.
“Everything birds do is a function of water availability.’’ Kennedy said.
She noted that when there is a rainstorm, huge lakes may appear in the desert.
“Thousands of birds will appear. You wonder where they all came from,’’ Kennedy said. “They are very good at locating water.’’
Kennedy’s sabbatical in Australia was sponsored by Oregon State University and grants from the The Joint Fire Science Program and the U.S. Geological Survey. Kennedy, who teaches a principals of fish and wildlife conservation class at EOU, will return to Australia later this year to meet with biologists she is collaborating with on projects. Kennedy said making a trip like the one she made to Australia has enormous benefits.
“It expands your perspective so that you can apply a new perspective to problems.’’