AN UNWELCOME IMMIGRANT
Small, brown birds with a black head and a bright yellow beak, legs and eye patch; notoriously aggressive and quarrelsome; thought to compete with native species of birds and mammals for food and nesting space.
The Indian myna was introduced to Australia as a pet and pest control in the 19th Century, but like so many other introduced species, it’s now in plague proportions. It’s so successful, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared it one of the world’s most invasive species; it’s one of just three bird species in the top 100 posing a threat to agriculture and biodiversity.
An 2000s ABC survey found it was considered Australia’s most significant and growing pest problem, greater than the cane toad, rabbit and European wasp.
The myna was also the pest people wanted controlled most of all. Yet it has spread unceasingly along the east coast of the continent, establishing itself in the coastal capital cities and then expanding.
Until very recently, it was thought that Ballarat was too cold, too high up, to sustain the Asian bird species. Recently however, the bird has been sighted in Ascot and Cardigan, and in limited numbers in the town itself. It has been recorded in Creswick and further north towards Maryborough.
SO WHY IS THE MYNA A PROBLEM?
The Indian myna (Acridotheres tristis) is a problem species on many levels. It carries diseases and parasites that native species do not, and spreads them readily. One of the reason it can do this is it roosts communally, in groups of anywhere between a half-dozen and many hundreds, depending on the habitat. They will also co-roost with European starlings, another pest species to which they are related.
Buildings are often damaged by nesting mynas, with nesting materials clogging drains and gutters causing water ingress and allowing other vermin to gain access through fabric damage.
They are aggressive. They displace native species up to the size of small parrots from nesting places such as tree hollows, and males will defend their territory up to almost a hectare. But their tendency to expel native species is not limited to birds. Small species of mammals such as sugar gliders, reliant on hollows for their survival, are common victims of the myna’s aggression. They will throw the fledglings of native birds from their nests.
A study conducted in Canberra, where the myna was introduced for some inexplicable reason in the late 1960s, found the species was responsible for a decrease in such native birds as ‘the sulphur-crested cockatoo, crimson rosella, laughing kookaburra, and eight small bird species.’
Mynas also have an advantage in their prolific breeding capability. They lay four to six eggs in each clutch – more than a parrot’s one or two – and will lay throughout the year. Chicks get through to flight in about 24 days, whereas a galah can take up to eight weeks, giving the myna a distinct advantage in building up populations.
THEIR HISTORY IN BALLARAT
Ian Ashton has been an active amateur bird watcher since the late 1970s in England. After moving to Australia he’s observed avian fauna in the local Ballarat area since 1990. Since 1993 a member of the local branch of BirdLife Australia (formerly Bird Observers’ Club of Australia), he says a review of the impact of the Indian myna in Ballarat is timely.
“It is no doubt more complex a problem than we think,” says Ashton.
“They’ve been turning up, on and off, probably for four or five years in the general area, but not in the same place at the same time.”
Nevertheless, he’s recorded Indian mynas near his Allendale property 33 out of the 36 months between 2014 and 2016.
Ian Ashton says he fears Ballarat is being outflanked by the pest species, with the birds being seen here most likely coming over from Hepburn and Daylesford, where colonies have been established for years.
“One interesting thing that happened, about two years ago, when the Mount Bolton fire occurred, was that about 20 Indian mynas arrived in the paddock opposite our house. They stayed for a while, then dispersed. But there is no doubt they are here – I saw three or four this morning.”
Quoting The Courier’s nature contributor Roger Thomas, a stalwart of bird observing in the district for many years and whose Birds of the Ballarat region: a handbook (with Jack Wheeler) is a standard reference work, the Indian myna was first seen in Ballarat in 1956 – two at Lake Wendouree and one at Bungaree in 1957.
“I wonder if they were mild years,” says Ashton.
He says a shifting climate could be assisting the myna and other species to come west to Ballarat.
“The Cicadabird first found in the Wombat State Forest in 2013, has returned every year since and has bred. We used to think of them as an east Gippsland species. This last spring/early summer, there were many more records of Scarlet Honeyeater in Victoria including several in the Ballarat district. They were previously found well east of Melbourne.”
WHAT CAN WE DO?
A trapping program in Canberra had an initial impact on numbers, although the myna is a notoriously intelligent and wary bird as an adult, and if captured will warn others of its plight. A trap designed by Dr Chris Tidemann of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University has since been commercialised and is being sold widely.
Various shire councils and municipalities on the eastern seaboard have environmental guidelines and management plans in place, but none so far have been established in Ballarat.