The extensive bushfires following a long drought in Australia in 2019 devastated populations of many of the country’s smaller indigenous animals. For some species, human intervention was a benefit in helping the survivors regain normality. Here, Ronda Green, proprietor of Araucaria Ecotours and chair of Wildlife Tourism Australia, talks about what could be done for Australia’s wildlife in those circumstances.
By Ronda Green PhD
Fire is a natural phenomenon in many Australian ecosystems. Many of our open forest and heathland plants have adaptations to deal with it, and many of our animals can readily escape a slow moving fire, their populations bouncing back shortly thereafter.
However, very severe fires can have very severe consequences. There are then two problems for Australian wildlife: the welfare of individual animals that are wounded, orphaned or have survived the fire but now cannot find enough food and are more vulnerable to predators because of the lack of shelter, and the conservation of populations.
If the fire is sufficiently fierce and widespread, especially in areas of fragmented habitat, it has the potential to eliminate local populations of the species either by mortality during the fire or by destroying the resources they need.
Death is normal in natural ecosystems, as in human societies, and we can’t change that. Most animals never live to adulthood – they are caught by predators, succumb to parasites or diseases, or starve. Old animals become more susceptible to all of these problems (old Koalas often end up starving because their teeth have been worn down too much to chew eucalypt leaves).
Everything and everyone dies eventually. Sad, perhaps, but again nothing we can do about it and we could cause more problems by trying. In normal circumstances we shouldn’t alter anything in natural habitats.
I would thus not normally suggest feeding wildlife, especially in natural or near-natural areas: it can cause all kinds of problems. However, natural disasters, sometimes accentuated by human activities (including climate change) can put unusually high pressures on our wildlife for short periods.
Here are some of the animals that especially needed a helping hand during or after our recent fires, followed by some of the Australian wildlife that people should have avoided helping, and the reasons why.
Antechinuses are small carnivorous/insectivorous marsupials – small cousins of Quolls and Tasmanian Devils. They may look like mice but they have sharp carnivore-style teeth and eat mice, along with small lizards and insects, worms etc.
With their short legs they can’t run very far very quickly, but if the fire is not too hot they can hide under logs, and such like, as it approaches. After a fire that eliminates much of their insect prey, they can’t range wide areas to seek food.
Photo credit: Ronda Green, Antechinus
They mate in late winter and early spring, and soon all the males die off, with the females living on to raise the family.
By mid-spring each female is either burdened with several babies firmly attached to her teats, making it even harder to travel far, or she has the relief of finally being able to leave them in a nest while she forages, but again she can’t go far because she has to return to feed them.
The problems this species encounters after a fire stem from their lack of mobility. There will be a lack of invertebrate prey amongst leaf litter and a lack of cover of low vegetation, making them vulnerable to predators.
They were helped by people scattering dry dog food or dried mealworms thinly amongst the leaf litter. A tiny amount of peanut butter, sausage, bacon, sardine or linseed oil, ideally placed under a log, helped attract their attention by smell. Care had to be taken not to attract their predators (Dingos, domestic dogs, foxes, cats) by supplying any large or conspicuous pieces of food.
Water was also provided to counteract the dryness of the food offered. If their local shelter was severely compromised, logs were also provided.
Skinks are the most numerous lizards in Australia, both in individuals and number of species. They typically have small, weak legs and most are quite small (10cm or so).
Even the largest skink in Australia, the Land Mullet, can’t travel long distances to find food after a devastating fire, and nor can its slightly smaller cousins, the Major Skink and the Pink-eared, in the rainforests and adjoining eucalypt forests.
Geckos mostly live in the trees and can go higher to escape fires that just burn quietly through the lower layers, but are in trouble in canopy fires, and have the same problems as other small lizards afterwards.
Photo credit: Ronda Green, Land Mullet
Dragon Lizards can travel a bit further, but by doing so may intrude on the territories of other Dragons. Goannas are the largest lizards, but with their lumbering, prehistoric gait they also have their limits on how far they can travel to find more food.
All of these species were helped in the same way as Antechinus, as their needs are similar.
Small insectivorous birds
Small birds such as Scrubwrens and Log-runners may also find it difficult to find food after a severe fire. They are more mobile than the Antechinus and lizards, but their mobility is limited and they simply may not be able to move into neighbouring forest because, once again, they may be occupied by other members of their species guarding their territories, especially in spring when everything is breeding. Other birds returning from the valleys in spring ready for breeding in mountain forests are also trying to find resources that may not be available in sufficient quantities to feed a family of hungry nestlings.
Photo credit: Ronda Green, Log-runner
As with the lizards and Antechinus, these small birds can be given a helping hand by being provided with water and similar foodstuffs.
Pademelons, Potoroos and bandicoots
Kangaroos and wallabies can move long distances in search of food, the smaller macropods and potorids less so. Red-necked Pademelons often rely on leaving the rainforest to forage on grasses, especially at dusk and dawn, and Red-legged Pademelons will do the same but less often, mostly staying in the forest eating other leaves.
If the grass beside a forest has been affected by fire, or if many understorey plants have been affected, these animals can be given a temporary boost until the plant life recovers by thinly scattering pony pellets or, better still, macropod pellets amongst the leaf litter. This, combined with small dried dog food or dried mealworms, will also assist bandicoots and Potoroos, which are omnivorous.
Possums, including gliders, parrots, native bees and other species may lose many of the trees with hollows they need for nesting. A few artificial nestboxes may help these through the tough times, especially in the breeding season.
Photo credit: Araucaria Ecotours, Ring-tailed Possum
Small animals such as Sugar Gliders and Feather Tail Gliders will find it hard to compete with larger species, and tree-climbing predators such as goannas and Carpet Pythons can also enter a nestbox, so it is important to include a few boxes with small openings (e.g. 3.4cm diameter).
If possible, it’s also advisable to face the opening towards the tree trunk, with something to hold the box slightly away from the trunk so these tiny creatures can climb in but their larger competitors and predators will be more challenged.
Animals that do not need help
Number one is the Currawong. These are large birds, powerful flyers, omnivorous and very adaptable, so although individuals may well be hungry they’ll mostly do just fine. The same goes for Kookaburras and crows. The animals they prey on won’t, however.
Photo credit: Araucaria Ecotours, Kookaburra
Small lizards that have to expose themselves on the forest floor when foraging for food are easy prey for feathered predators, which often do very well just after a fire because the small vertebrates and large invertebrates that have survived lack shelter.
Probably the greatest problem is the raiding of nests. The small birds may be finding it very tough anyway to raise their broods following fire and/or drought, and it may well be impossible for them to do so if they are also faced with these predatory birds that are constantly on the lookout for eggs and nestlings to eat.
In the New England district of New South Wales, the Currawongs used to go to the lowlands for winter, until residents started growing winter-fruiting plants such as Hawthorns and Cotoneasters, which encouraged them to stay year-round. Some local patches of bushland have, as a result, lost 100% of all nestlings in some years.
This is why I’m recommending a light scattering of food amongst leaf litter or under logs or dense plants to help the smaller creatures. A large pile of food, or even the scattering of small pieces of food on open ground, will be readily seen by Currawongs, crows, butcherbirds, Kookaburras, and others it would be better not to encourage, if the aim is to help the Antechinus, small lizards and small birds mentioned above.
There are also large birds and mammals such as Brush Turkeys and Brush Tailed Possums that are very adaptable and can probably take care of themselves much better than those discussed above (and Brush Tailed Possums do also raid bird nests). While it is not so bad to feed these as feeding Currawongs, they are not the priority.
Following the 2019 fires I wanted to be careful to assist the creatures most in need without making things worse for them by feeding too many of their more mobile competitors and, worse still, their major predators. With the assistance of a couple of local folk (especially Barry Davies and Alinta Krauth) I set up motion sensing cameras to see if scattering as suggested above could work.
When conspicuous food was presented it was soon eaten by Currawongs and crows, precisely what we didn’t want to happen. When spread thinly and inconspicuously in leaf litter (some of it close to burned areas) it was soon found by bandicoots, pademelons, bowerbirds, whipbirds, goannas and others, but not Currawongs, crows or Dingos.
In our experiment we didn’t find any Antechinus – maybe they had already all died from drought or fire-induced lack of insect life at a hard time for the new mothers, or maybe they just didn’t find the dog pellets and mealworms as readily as other more wide-ranging foragers.
This is why I made my suggestion of putting a tiny bit of peanut butter under logs or dense ground-hugging plants. If that failed to attract their attention, other lures used for trapping them during field surveys have included such things as sausage, salami, bacon, sardines or leather soaked in linseed oil.
If using any of those, though, it had to be in tiny amounts or it could also attract Dingos, domestic dogs and cats, and foxes. We were not trying to actually feed them with those foods, just attract their attention to the food we were providing for them.
The badly burned areas seemed just so bare initially that there was probably not much surviving or trying to use them, so any food scattered there was too readily seen by Currawongs, crows, etc.
Scattering appropriate food under logs or any greenery that started to appear after the first rains, especially where local species were known to have occurred previously, and then gradually extending further into the burned areas as they started to recover, seemed to be the best course of action.
How long and where to help?
Australia had been in a very long drought before the fires began, and so those fires just made things harder for the animals. The forecast for the country at the time we began our supplementary feeding predicted more drought and more high temperatures.
Although we did not wish to make these animals dependent on handouts, I suggested continuing some amount of supplementary feeding and provision of water (in shallow bowls with rocks or branches that small skinks could climb out on so they didn’t drown) until the worst of the summer droughts were over – perhaps until the end of February 2020 depending on what the weather was doing – and gradually trailing off until conditions improved.
A couple of weeks of good rainfall would mean a quick recovery of plants and insects and supplementary feeding of the Australian wildlife would no longer be necessary.
Note: the actions taken were for private land only, and perhaps Council land with permission. The Australian National Parks have a strictly hands-off policy, so nothing should be provided there.