Endangered Asian fairy pitta ‘overshoots’ migration route, hits Aussie bar window, and is killed by predator
Three days after it was first sighted in Broome, this rare Asian fairy pitta was found dead. (Supplied: Damian Baxter)
The second-known sighting of an Asian fairy pitta in Australia has ended “tragically” with the endangered bird overshooting its migration route and hitting a bar window in Broome before being killed by predator, with bird-lovers saying a cat is the likely culprit.
Bruce Greatwich, a conservation coordinator in Broome for the Western Australia Parks and Wildlife Service, said it was a sad end to what had been a pretty rough time for the bird in the north-west West Australian town of Broome.
“It’s really symbolic of the threats all of our native species face every day in Australia,” Mr Greatwich said.
The colourful Asian bird was found unconscious outside a Broome bar last week.
It was thought to have crashed into one of the bar’s windows, temporarily stunning itself.
“The staff there at Matsos, where it had shown up, had just done the right thing and they’d taken it into care and put it in a box,” Mr Greatwich said.
The bird was later released by the bar manager and seen feeding in the bar’s garden over the next two days.
But two days after it was first sighted, the fairy pitta was found dead with bite marks around its neck.
When Mr Greatwich saw photos of the bird, which the bar staff had posted on Facebook, he realised they had made an extraordinary find.
“It’s very rare, probably only a handful of people in Australia have ever seen one,” Mr Greatwich said.
“And even in its natural range where it occurs it’s still difficult to see as well.
“It’s actually a threatened species — there are only a few thousand left of its entire population.”
The fairy pitta appeared healthy and was seen feeding after recovering from flying into a window in Broome. (Supplied: Bruce Greatwich)
The first Australian sighting of the Asian fairy pitta was made 12 years earlier, 250 kilometres further east, when a boy photographed an unusual bird in the backyard of his home in Derby.
Birdwatchers from around Australia travelled to the small Kimberley town in the hope of catching a glimpse of a bird that can be hard to see even in Asia.
Fairy pittas normally breed in Korea and Japan, and migrate to Borneo for the Northern-Hemisphere winter.
The only person to have seen both the fairy pittas recorded for Australia is birdwatching guide George Swann.
He said that occasionally fairy pittas and their close relative, blue-winged pittas, “overshoot” their migration, finding themselves looking for shelter along the Kimberley coast.
“It’s terribly exciting,” Mr Swann said.
“Pittas are iconic birds, they’re very colourful, they’re real characters, they’re just a group of birds that most birdwatchers know about and love.”
With the word out that a rare Asian pitta was in Broome, keen birdwatchers, or twitchers as they are known, started making their way to Broome from as far away as New South Wales.
Birdwatcher Damian Baxter took the first available flight from Perth, arriving in Broome just two days after the fairy pitta was first seen, but it was too late.
“Finding it dead was very unfortunate,” Mr Baxter said.
“Not just the fact that I had travelled the distance to see it, but more so that it is another example of how out of control the cat problem is in Australia.”
Mr Swann said the death of such a rare bird was considered a very unfortunate loss among the Australian birdwatching community.
“This is just rather tragic because it’s an extremely rare bird,” he said.
“And the fact that people wanted to come and see it — a lot of local people who are wildlife enthusiasts were hoping to see it — and it wasn’t to be unfortunately.”
A fairy pitta in Taiwan, which is within the species’ normal migration range. (Creative Commons: Alnus)
Cat blamed for endangered bird’s demise
Hopes had been high that the fairy pitta had fully recovered from its run-in with a window, and that it would be able to eventually rejoin its kin in Asia.
“It appears to have been taken by something, quite possibly a cat, but we’ve really no proof of that,” Mr Swann said.
“There’s no question that feral cats are everywhere.”
Mr Greatwich also said the cat was the most likely cause of the fairy pitta’s demise.
“There are definitely other predators out there that could have done it, so for example, goannas or snakes, or birds of prey like goshawks,” Mr Greatwich said.
“But just the way the bird was presented in the garden, it looks like it had probably been killed by a cat.”
Damian Baxter said the nature of the fairy pitta’s injuries, with a daytime attack leaving bite marks around the head, and the way the bird was left uneaten, make cat predation the only reasonable explanation.
“Cats tend to kill their prey with a bite to the throat, and more often than not, they’ll kill and drop — more so for practice than actual need for food,” he said.
“A kill from another predator such as a goshawk, would have been carried off and eaten.”
Mr Greatwich said the loss of this rare Asian visitor highlighted the massive problem that native wildlife faced every day.
“Recent research shows that up to 377 million birds every year get predated by feral cats across Australia,” Mr Greatwich said.
“Whilst it’s really unfortunate in this scenario just to have a single bird predated, it’s representative of a much larger problem that happens across the continent.”
The fairy pitta’s corpse was recovered and will be preserved in a museum collection for future research.