CANBERRA, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) -- Australian researchers are hopeful that the world's most endangered parrot species can be saved from extinction.
To mate, tiny orange-bellied parrots fly from Victoria to a remote breeding ground in Melaleuca in southern Tasmania, a perilous journey of at least 560 km.
Only three wild female adult parrots returned to Tasmania in the last two years, prompting immediate action from Australian National University (ANU) experts.
In recent years, around 20 parrots bred in captivity were flown by helicopter from Victoria to Melaleuca, avoiding the danger of the migration, but those birds had problems with fertility and disease, largely failing to survive the return journey to Victoria.
Dejan Stojanovic, an ANU researcher based at Melaleuca, said that after the failure of the captivity program, for which he had no explanation, a new approach was taken; that of adding protein to the birds' feed after concerns were raised that they weren't getting enough to produce viable eggs.
"The availability of natural food at the last breeding site is very low and the birds depend on supplementary food," Stojanovic told Xinhua News on Tuesday.
"Recently the food was changed to see if better outcomes can be attained for nestlings."
More than 30 fledglings made it out of their nests and joined the main flock this summer, Stojanovic said, the best result in years.
In addition to the fledglings, more than 30 youngsters bred in captivity also joined the flock, the best result in the history of the ANU-lead recovery process.
Orange-bellied parrots grow to be up to 20 centimeters in length and 50 grams in weight. They are one of only three parrot species that are known to migrate.
Males are identified by their vibrant grass-green upperparts while females are typically a duller green in color.
Once mating season concludes, the research team plans to capture much of the population that migrated to Melaleuca and keep them in captivity over the winter so as to prevent them making the dangerous trip back to Victoria.
"Holding the females over winter will ensure that next year we have a larger pool of breeding females to work with, and avoid mortality from migration. This is critical for such a small population," Stojanovic said.
"It is unlikely that holding the birds over winter will be worse for survival than letting them migrate, as annual migration mortality is the main problem for this tiny population."
While this summer produced the best results in the recovery process, the total wild orange-bellied parrot population remains below 100 with Stojanovic saying a self-sustaining population was "a very long way off."