Crimson Finch Recovery around Cairns – the first ten years
by John Davies-Griffith
In February 2000 I was approached by Ergon Energy scheduler Steve Warren to have a look at three power poles in the Aloomba District south of Cairns that had been marked for replacement. They had signs of fresh nests that had been made in rot holes in the poles and they turned out to be active Crimson Finch nests. Local Environment officer, John Peters, was called and after much discussion it was decided that the nesting season for these finches was nearly over and it would be better to replace the poles later in the year. I was given permission to make three nest boxes to hang on the new poles after they were stood, but I was to keep it low key.
The First Year
In October 2000 I made six nest boxes, twice as many as I was supposed to and hung them on recently replaced poles around the Moller, Volands and Hesp roads area at Aloomba. They were a simple square cylinder of timber open on each end but with a large wire mesh. I monitored these about every second weekend. In the third week of November it rained, and nesting activity started the next week. By the end of December all six nest boxes were actively being used, not all by Crimson Finches, however. Two had been taken over by Indian Mynah birds which could get through the wire and four were being used by Crimson Finches. One of these nest boxes on Volands road had Crimson Finches nesting in one end and a pair of white-breasted Woodswallows nesting in the other. I will talk about the importance of these Woodswallows later.
These first six boxes were mounted high on the poles, the same height of the rot holes in the previous poles. With several people involved in monitoring these nest sites a flood of information was coming back regarding what was happening. Poles inspectors, linesmen and farmers all provided valuable feedback. Pole inspector Laurie Davies noticed a Nankeen kestrel (Falco cenchroides) regularly perched on a ladder rack over one of the nest boxes. Every time from then on when I visited the area, I saw these falcons perched on crossarms near nest sites, watching the finches come and go. This was also when I noticed the importance of Woodswallows and other birds, like Willie Wagtails and Tree Martins that act as an alarm for the finches when predators are nearby.
In August 2001 a visitor from NSW suggested we lower the nest boxes to around the height of the sugar cane, so the Crimson Finches didn’t have far to go for protection. I approached Ergon Energy about making boxes to exclude the Indian Mynah’s and my plan to lower their height. At the start of October 2001, I made new boxes, from a design provided by Aldo Moretto, a retired headmaster from Ingham State High School. Essentially, we added a small square welded mesh on each end. This still allowed easy access for the Crimsons but excluded the Indian Mynahs and they were a great success.
Six boxes turned into twelve and all were hung in October 2001; ready for the next breeding season. By April 2002, all twelve boxes were in use by the finches. By now people in the district were aware of what was happening, although some thought they were owl nest boxes. One farmer told me that in September 2002 he would have 30 or more Crimson Finches on his lawn when his wife put the sprinkler on to water the grass; a sight he had never seen before and a sight he was proud of.
By 2005 these nest boxes became weathered and needed replacing. So, members of the Far North Queensland Bird Breeders Club set about making 26 new nest boxes. These were painted with wood preserver by a group of school children from Bentley Park College. Another class of students from Caravonica State School used the program to produce a brochure as part of a school project highlighting what can be done to help conserve nature.
Gaining Political and Public Support
In April 2005 a meeting and information morning was held at Colin Irvin’s farm in Aloomba. Queensland Environment Minister, Desley Boyle, and Federal member for Leichardt Warren Entsch were invited, along with staff from Department of Natural Resources and Environment and Ergon Energy, farmers, school children and bird club members. The meeting was attended by over 40 interested people and really expanded awareness and support for the Crimson Finch.
2010 was the tenth year of nest boxes in this area, and really signalled the start of much wider expansion of the program with additional nest boxes at Behana Gorge road and in the Sandy creek area of Gordonvale. At this time private homeowners also became involved and requested nestboxes or built their own to hang in their own yards. One resident of Edmonton got me to put some nests at the back of his house. He told me he can tell when the finches are nesting, because he sees white feathers flying across his yard. These the Crimson Finches collect from around the pond where he keeps his ducks. Requests to hang boxes also came in from north of Cairns in the Barron River area and in the northern beach suburbs of Cairns.
So Why Did Crimson Finches need help?
A retired sugar cane farmer, Mr. Robin Johnston from Aloomba attended our meeting in 2005, along with Mr. Steve Raumer, a retired local builder that had worked on farmhouses in the area since the 1950’s. They told how the Crimson Finches disappeared in the 1960’s, probably due to the use of farm chemicals and burning of cane prior to harvest. By the mid 1970’s these birds were rarely seen in this district. It was not until the late 70’s to early 80’s when green harvesting of cane was introduced and the limited use of safer chemicals in farming that we saw a slow return of the Crimson Finches.
Sugarcane is important to Crimson Finches as they use the trash from harvested sugar cane to construct their nests. They are then lined with seeding grass heads and feathers. More importantly the cane provides great cover for newly fledged Crimsons. One of the main predators of young finches is the Black Butcher Bird. Young fledglings in shrubs or trees become easy prey for these skilled hunters. But Crimson Finches routinely take their fledged young into the sugar cane fields, as this provides protection because of its dense nature and serrated leaves.
The use of knot holes in power poles highlighted a shortage of nest sites in the area. The swamps had been drained and cleared of trees like the Pandanus palms that have serrated leaves that not only provide protection from predators, but also gave the finches a solid base to build their nest. A farmer from the Sandy Creek district in Gordonvale, Mrs. Bronwyn Thomas told how Crimson Finches nested in the pine trees around her house. The nests were blown out of the trees during windy weather. This is one reason our nest boxes have proved successful. The Crimson Finches didn’t need food or habitat, just a secure nest site.
How many young birds have been reared from our boxes?
Many observations of nest boxes around Gordonvale show that the boxes produce between four and six young per nest and up to three nests per year have been recorded. From these statistics if four young are produced from a nest three times a year in one year, then 20 nest boxes produce 240 young per year. This would mean our nest boxes have produce something close to 2400 young Crimson Finches or more over the past 10 years. Of course, not all these young will survive to maturity. Many fledglings are lost to predators, but we know that these days Crimson Finches are a common sight in the area and the nest boxes have certainly played a part.
Where to for the future?
Since 2010 the program has continued with a dedicated group continuing to build and replace boxes as needed and has expanded further south to Babinda. Revegetation projects are now restoring Pandanus Palms to the moist flatlands where they once dominated, and Landcare groups continue to protect riparian areas frequented by Crimsons. Overall the environment is now more supportive of Crimson Finches and the nest box program just adds an extra dimension. In 2020 there are about 70 boxes in place and most are actively in use.