helmeted honeyeater

August 1, 2016 - Helmeted Honeyeater (Lichenostomus melanops cassidix)

A subspecies of the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, these birds are only found in a small portion of the forests of southern Victoria, Australia. They feed on nectar, invertebrates, and sap, but the majority of their diet is made up of lerps (crystalized honeydew created as protective coverings by insect larvae, found on Eucalyptus trees). Pairs defend breeding territories, which are grouped into neighborhoods. If one is invaded, the neighboring birds will help to drive away the intruder. Both males and females care for the chicks. Helmeted Honeyeaters are critically endangered. While conservation efforts have shown some success, as of 2014, their population was estimated at around 130 individuals.


ON THE ROAD — Zoos today walk a narrow path at the edge of an ethical precipice. Our 21st century moral sensibilities no longer find it acceptable for animals to be kept in captivity solely for the entertainment of our species. Healesville Sanctuary on the outer edges of Melbourne was set up in 1920 with a research agenda but now has a formidable reputation for developing skills in captive breeding for vulnerable and endangered species. In the precarious state of the environment today, sanctuaries are often places of protective custody rather than captivity, where fences are more about protecting critical populations of endangered species from predators, than about keeping animals for our interest or entertainment. Healesville has been one of only two institutions to successfully breed platypus. The sanctuary is also playing an important role in a recovery program to save a Victorian sub-species of the Helmeted Honey-eater aka the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater (Lichenostomus melanops cassiddix) from extinction. The bird is listed as critically endangered with only three small semi-wild populations in remnant streamside forest to the east of Melbourne. Through a program of captive breeding the sanctuary aims to establish a stable wild population with at least ten distinct but inter-connected colonies as well as keeping a protected population as insurance against loss of populations in the wild. As for many native species in Australia, habitat loss through forest clearing has been the main threatening process. The incursion of the aggressive native Bell Miner (Manorina melanophrys) through range expansion is another critical factor. With limited habitat the Bell Miners’ aggressive territoriality makes it difficult for the Helmeted Honeyeaters to get the resources they need to survive. At Healesville the Helmeted Honeyeater is an institutional icon, branded a “Headstrong Hero” and I was lucky to photograph them perched on their signage in the large open flight aviary where they help to spread the word about the threat of extinction faced by many species today.