The Diamond Firetail Stagonopleura guttata is a spectacular finch, popular amongst naturalists and the general community due to its brilliant plumage and social demeanour.
Characterised by its vivid red tail, the Diamond Firetail can be recognised by a flash of red from behind as a startled flock zips from open grassland into low bushes. Unique white spots against black flanks are its sparkling diamonds. Although it can boast being the largest of the Australian finches, the Diamond Firetail is small, weighing approximately 17 grams.
Endemic to woodlands and open forests of temperate, semiarid and arid areas of south-eastern Australia, you’ll find this bird foraging in groups for most of the year (around 5-10 individuals, but sometimes up to 30). Diamond Firetails eat the seeds of grasses and small forbs directly off inflorescences or the soil surface.
During the breeding season (which is generally SpringMarch) look out for breeding pairs or lone birds collecting long grass stems as nest material, or extra seeds for their young. You may even be lucky enough to witness a mating display; a male holding the tip of a long inflorescence stem, perching high up on an exposed branch, and bobbing up and down whilst lowering its head and hopping from side to side.
Diamonds Aren’t Forever!
Sadly, our Diamond Firetail is one of a suite of groundforaging birds with rapidly declining population abundance in the Mount Lofty Ranges region (MLR). This once widespread species has retracted to a fraction of its former range, and is now considered vulnerable for the MLR, and near-threatened at a national level.
In the MLR, the species is part of a limited extant South Australian distribution with adjacent, isolated subpopulations on the Eyre Peninsula and in the Flinders Ranges. The SA population is isolated from its eastern states counterparts by a large stretch of arid mallee habitat, leaving our small SA communities particularly at risk.
Habitat clearance is widely accepted as having a major role in this species’ decline. However, the specific processes affecting the ongoing survival of Diamond Firetails remain unknown. Being predominantly ground-foragers, Diamond Firetails are particularly susceptible to disturbances in the ground layer. Invasive weeds, changes in the composition of grass and forb communities, and altered grazing regimes can affect the distribution and abundance of food resources for ground-foragers.
Recent evidence suggests that a shortage of food at critical times of the year might be inhibiting the recruitment of juveniles into the adult population in the MLR. The ‘pinchpoint’ for this species is likely during winter, when breaking rains cause seeds from exotic annuals to mass germinate and become unavailable to foraging Diamond Firetails, and there is extra pressure on resources from young born the previous summer
Ecological studies of this population are important, as without remedial action and targeted management practices, the disappearance of this once widespread species from the MLR is inevitable.
What can I do?
- Get involved in local field naturalists groups that support effective habitat reconstruction in the MLR, like Bio-R (http://bior.org.au/)
Diamond Firetail. Photo: Dennis Kuhlmann, Monarto 2015