Chris Coleborn

One of Australia’s most rare and endangered birds is a shy bird of the Mallee country, the Black-eared Miner. This reclusive species of honeyeater is a relative of the common and extrovert Noisy Miner, found in most backyards and paddocks of the towns and countryside of eastern Australia. It is also a relative of the assertive Yellow-throated Miner (of the inland and west of Australia) and of the Bell Miner, the "Bell Birds" that make the forests of our eastern coastal forests ring with their beautiful sounds. The Black-eared Miner, the Yellow-throated and Noisy Miner are superficially alike, but are recognized as different species, though the Yellow-throated invades the territory of the Black-eared Miner when Mallee is disturbed by man, and hybridizes with it.

This rare and special bird was formerly found widespread in the Mallee country of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. It is almost extinct in NSW & VIC, with only a few birds in isolated colonies still retaining the distinctive traits of the Black-eared Miner. Most former colonies have died out with the loss of their habitat, or with its fragmentation and disturbance by man, have been "bred out" of existence locally by hybridization with the more aggressive Yellow-throated Miner. Until quite recently it was thought that there were only a handful of individual birds of this unique Mallee species left in existence. Wonderfully, several large and thriving pure Black-eared Miner colonies have been found in recent years in S.A.

Black-eared Miners rely on old growth unburnt Mallee with an understory of spinifex and low flowering shrubs for their existence. This type of habitat is now quite limited, having been degraded (usually as a result of man’s ignorance of the needs of this bird) by land clearance and bushfires.

In Victoria there are insufficient numbers of this Mallee species to recolonise the suitable Mallee that has regenerated in National Parks after some years of protection. Because of this, a Recovery Team was organized with the assistance of the Healsville Sanctuary east of Melbourne, to capture a number of basically pure Black-eared Miners and commence a captive breeding programme in an effort to rescue the species in Victoria. The idea was to cross breed to achieve a pure bred Black-eared Miner. A colony in Wyperfeld National Park was captured by netting, and relocated in a specially prepared avery at Healsville in 1996. They have successfully bred every year since their first year in captivity, and from this captive colony a second captive breeding colony has been established in the Adelaide Zoo. It is planned to begin releasing colonies back into the wild when numbers prove viable to do this. A programme has also been implemented to improve the genetic quality of the few remaining colonies in Victoria.

One of the best ways to tell the differences between these three birds in the field, is to look at their heads and backs. The Black-eared is grey from the top of its head to the tip of its tail, and hasn’t a black forehaed. The Noisy Miner is all grey on the back, just as the Black-eared, but the Noisy has a black forehead, and white tips to its tail. The Yellow-throated Miner not only has yellowish markings on its throat and wings, it has a very distinctive white rump, and white tips on its tail. It also has a grey head. So, while this bird was once so close to extinction, its future is now much more encouraging. We can be thankful that another of the incredible variety of birds in God’s creation continues to exist, to show His glory and to give us wonder and pleasure. I will never forget these feelings of awe and pleasure when I first sighted this species with my son Peter, and daughter Lydia. It was a small colony breeding at the time. If you are able to visit the Mallee, keep an eye out for this very rare and endangered bird, or if you have the opportunity to visit the Healsville Sanctuary or Adelaide Zoo, you may be able to get a glimpse of them there too.

This report was published in The Christian Bird Observer’s Magazine, October 1999