Can mistletoe save the honeyeater?

honeyeater
Picture by Mark Gillow, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The Regent Honeyeater, Anthochaera phrygia, an Australian bird, was once so common that its call was heard everywhere. Today, following much habitat loss over several decades, plus recent bushfires, it is endangered, with just a few hundred left.

Indeed it is so rare that young males can no longer learn their mating calls, there being insufficient older males for them to learn from.  No mating call = no mating. Which makes a bad situation even more critical.

A local species of mistletoe might help. Not with the mating calls but with food, particularly nectar, the honeyeater’s primary diet (hence ‘honeyeater’). The loss of eucalyptus forests, in which the birds fed on nectar from both the eucalyptus trees and the mistletoes growing on them, has been the main cause of the bird’s decline. More nectar availability would therefore be useful.

But eucalyptus trees, though fast-growing, aren’t fast growing enough for any new planting scheme to have an rapid impact. But mistletoe is. So an initiative in NSW is focussing on propagating mistletoe by hand, gathering the seeds and planting them on the available trees to increase mistletoe numbers. This should increase nectar availability within a few years (these mistletoes must be faster-growing than our mistletoe here in the UK).

This all sounds great, but I do wonder about the sustainability of it. It would seem to be a programme to significantly intensify mistletoe infections – which may not be the best plan longer-term.  But presumably there are tree-planting initiatives too.


You can grow your own here in the UK with Mistletoe Grow-Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop.

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