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Batesford, Fyansford, Stonehaven Landcare Group

Peri-urban planning - What’s happening to our backyard  birds?
Sightings of magpies, laughing kookaburras and willie wagtails are on the decline in some regions, a report tracking the health of Australia's bird populations has found.

The State of Australia's Birds Report, published by Birdlife Australia, analysed data collected in more than 400,000 surveys across the country, the majority done by bird-loving volunteers. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count built a snapshot of bird populations in urban areas. It required people to spend 20 minutes in their garden, local park or beach identifying the birds they could see and listing them in the Aussie Bird Count app. There were 652 species of birds identified across Australia in the count this year. Birdlife said the count gave an indication of the health of the environment. 

Editor of Australian Birdlife Sean Dooley said the decline of common birds in parts of Australia was a surprise to researchers. He said while predators including cats, habitat loss and even changes in climate might be to blame, more research was needed before certain species became endangered.

"The stuff that Birdlife Australia has come out with is showing that a lot of birds that we assumed were really common and sailing along quite fine are showing significant declines," he told 774 ABC Melbourne ABC in 2015. 

Experts have noted that the urban sprawl and removal of large gardens for in-fill development is forcing our beautiful, friendly or familiar native backyard birds away from residential areas with their consequent loss of habitat or shelter.  Traditional urban sprawl where we bulldoze bushland and put in ‘McMansions’ is devastating. Often we end up with only three or four bird species where once there were once 60, and those are possibly introduced sparrows, ravens and starlings. 

The impact of bird habit removal by urban in-fill is of concern.  Where there were once larger blocks, councils later permit further subdivision and another house is put on the back of that block with a consequent loss of vegetation. If there’s a large enclave like that, then birds are deprived of freedom of movement and there are further obstacles in the form of fences, cats and dogs. 

The gardens in peri-urban areas with a diverse range of tall native trees, bushy shrubs and flowers, are a pit stop for birds travelling from nearby bushland. Gardens are an extension of their habitat and connect to remnant vegetation, forests and streams nearby. Birds use gardens as a refuge in the summer when there's no water in the nearby bush, when we've burnt an area, or a wildfire's burnt it. Gardens are links to the birds’ bush habitat.

While governments do have major responsibility to protect bird habitats, there are things that householders could do too, such as planting native, bushy plants to provide food, shade and nesting sites, planting vegetable gardens, keeping cats indoors, and cleaning out roof gutters rather than chopping down the tree nearby. 

While we are looking at urban in-fill as a way of fitting more people in and making better use of land,  we should also be looking at creating urban in-fill that has green space in it which supports birds and creates a pleasant environment for all living things. The environmental cost of continuing the urban sprawl is incalculable and strategic land use planning is needed to ensure the environment is not further compromised by population growth. 

Governments need to conserve important areas of remaining native vegetation and plant more trees not only to preserve the biodiversity of our wildlife but also importantly to improve air quality and temperature in urban areas. Strategic conservation plans are needed as part of the growth plan for any peri-urban region. It is up to all of us who live in these areas to make sure this happens. Remember, all living things are connected. Our survival is linked to the survival of other living things.

Willie Wagtails nested successfully in our vineyard last Spring. What determination !