In 2015, conservation biologists Down Under came to a grim conclusion: within just sixteen years, the colourful swift parrots found in south-east Australia and Tasmania could very likely die out.

The swift parrot (Lathamus discolor) is critically endangered. Image: Leo, Flickr

A research team from the Australian National University (ANU) sounded alarm bells after their five-year study found parrot populations were declining much more rapidly than previously thought.

"Our research predicted the swift parrot population would halve every four years with a possible decline of 94.7 percent over 16 years," Dr Dejan Stojanovic, who spends his working days studying the parrots, tells the university's ANU Reporter magazine

Most parrots prefer a settled lifestyle, but the small, fast-flying swift parrot (Lathamus discolor) ranks among the world's three migratory species, journeying between Tasmania and mainland Australia each year. 

The range of the swift parrot in south-east Australia and Tasmania. Image: Wikimedia Commons via Atlas of Living Australia

The swifts' dire situation comes down to two long-standing threats. Decades of logging in native forests have taken their toll on the parrots' precious breeding grounds. Despite migrating to the mainland during the winter, the nomadic birds hatch their young only on the island state, making the forests there crucial to their survival. The other threat came in the furry form of the sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps). This mainland native was introduced into Tasmania in the mid-1800s, becoming the parrots' main predator.

Taken together, these factors meant that perhaps just 2,000 swift parrots remained in the wild at the time of Stojanovic's study. The dire estimates was brought to the attention of the Australian government and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

"It's really a call to action to turn this trend towards extinction around," Stojanovic told ABC in October of that year. "They have been tracking towards this precipice for some time."

Conservation officials took notice. The IUCN Red List, on which the species already ranked as "endangered", revised the listing to "critically endangered". The federal Australian government followed suit. The Australian state of New South Wales, meanwhile, listed them as endangered.

A Red List ranking one step away from extinction in the wild is certainly dire, but for these parrots, the classification was also a hopeful development – in no small part thanks to the efforts of Stojanovic and his fellow researchers.

Determined to protect the birds, the team launched a crowdfunding campaign to construct and install experimental nesting boxes on a smaller island off the coast of Tasmania, safe from the clutches of hungry sugar gliders. The response was amazing. In just the first three days of the campaign, the team exceeded its initial target of AU$40,000 in donations, and went on raise AU$73,000 in total – a record-breaking amount for any crowdfunded Australian ecological project. 

"The scale and speed of the public's response to our call to action was so humbling and gratifying," Stojanovic says.

They might be cute, but sugar gliders are a major threat to the future survival of Australia's swift parrots. Image: Josh More, Flickr

So far, the project appears to be a success. But that's not all the team has been doing. The researchers have also continued to gather important intel on the birds.

"Our monitoring program is unique – no other nomadic species is monitored as intensively, and the data we collect have been fundamental to understanding what is happening to the swift parrot population in Tasmania," says researcher Matthew Webb.

Public support has been just one crucial element in giving the birds another chance at survival. According to ANU research fellow Dr Debbie Saunders, government help and willingness to treat the parrots' plight with the urgency it deserves have also been essential.

The state of New South Wales recently offered AU$1 million in funding, which will go towards securing and protecting swift parrot habitats in areas of New South Wales where the birds migrate during the winter.

"The recent funding was fantastic news – we will put it towards getting important food trees back in the ground as well as protecting existing habitat using fences, weed control and regeneration techniques," Saunders notes, adding that the swift parrots won't be the only beneficiaries. "The work in NSW will also benefit 38 other threatened species, which is great for our diverse ecological landscape."

The parrots may not be out of the woods yet, but they look set to defy that dire extinction forecast.

Top header image: Lizardstomp, Flickr