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Clearing bush has created Myna heaven


 
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Mining the Truth: Dr Richard Major, from the Australian Museum, explores the myths surrounding the Indian myna and Noisy miner birds.    
The Indian myna bird and the noisy miner bird are not related at all, even though they are of a similar size, both with yellow bills, eyepatches and legs and both are very noisy. The Indian myna, or the common myna, is a member of the starling family and were introduced to Australia from Asia.

 
There is a difference in colouring.
Common myna birds are brown with yellow colourings while noisy miners, native honeyeaters, are grey with yellow colourings. The Indian mynas were introduced as a means of controlling insect populations.
The first recorded introduction was in 1862 and since then, there have been more introductions with the last one being sometime around 1972.

 
Their distribution is closely tied to human populations so they are city dwellers, although they are moving into towns along the north coast of NSW. They have carved out an urban niche, preferring to nest in roof spaces and scavenging for food on the ground. Much like ibis, Indian mynas do not have a great reputation and there are many myths about their perceived threat. While it is true that, as an introduced species they should be monitored, they are not having a big effect on native wildlife at this stage.

 
The hysteria surrounding Indian mynas is quite misplaced.
Resources spent by some councils, for instance, to cull the birds in a bid to encourage small native birds may be better spent on keeping the habitats that the small birds use, which is not roof spaces (which mynas frequent).
Bush regeneration, however, is slow by its very nature so the instant results of a quick cull are tempting.

 
This information was uncovered in a project by University of Sydney Honours student Katie Lowe, her supervisor Dr Charlotte Taylor with assistance from Dr Richard Major and culminated in a paper published in the Journal of Ornithology.     
One myth about the Indian myna is that it is very aggressive, chasing other birds out and creating exclusion zones with claims that other birds were being mobbed and pecked to death.
Katie Lowe spent hours observing mynas in urban, industrial and bushland edges habitats. Those observations proved that
Indian mynas were no more aggressive than other birds and were far less aggressive than the noisy miners whose aggressive behaviour was five times that of Indian mynas.

 
Because these birds are similar, it seems a case of mistaken identity for the outcry surrounding Indian mynas.
Another myth is that the birds will out compete native birds when nesting in tree hollows, which is how they nest in their natural habitat. A survey of 117 hollow trees in urban settings showed that 44 were occupied, 18 hollows inhabited by rainbow lorikeets, 13 hollows inhabited by sulphur crested cockatoos and 10 hollows inhabited by honey bees. Just one hollow had Indian mynas with two others having one crimson rosella and a dollar bird. The myth was exposed.
In fringe bushland areas, Katie Lowe observed the bird during the breeding season to discover where the birds were nesting. She found 36 nests of Indian mynas, 30 of which were in built structures, three were in vegetation such as palm trees and another three were in tree hollows, proving there was no impact on native nesters.

 
Noisy miners on the other hand are pugnacious and aggressive. They live in colonies of extended families and are cooperative breeders, meaning that everyone will defend a colony’s territory forcefully, even against bigger birds such as ibis.

 


 
Noisy miners prefer habitats of eucalypt trees with a short grass understorey without shrubs. This is why they thrive in urban areas as well as woodland areas along Australia’s east coast which fringe open pastures. Their numbers are far greater now, especially in urban areas.
It seems that keeping habitats for small birds, which prefer shrubby understoreys, is also a way of restricting mynas and miners alike. This new research is at last mining the truth.

Dr Richard Major was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Photos of Common (Indian) mynas and of Noisy miners are all by R. Major, Australian Museum. Summary text by Victor Barry, September 2011.

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