Helmeted Honeyeaters

Scientific name

Lichenostomus melanops cassidix

 

What is a honeyeater?

Honeyeaters are unique to Australasia with around 170 species recorded. Most honeyeaters are nectar feeding birds with long, brush-tipped tongues which function in the same way as a paintbrush, soaking up fluids by capillary action. Most honeyeaters can protrude their tongues well beyond the tips of their beaks, enabling nectar collection from the base of long tubular flowers, honeydew extraction from deep, narrow cracks in bark and collection of manna from damaged tree trunks and branches. They lap up these fluids at rates of 10 or more licks per second and can empty a flower in less than one second.

Honeyeater beaks are thin, curved and sharply pointed, reflecting to some extent the sorts of flowers they frequent. Honeyeaters are not totally dependent on nectar. For some, such as the Helmeted Honeyeater, nectar only forms around 25% of their diet (for Helmeted Honeyeaters, we can estimate this from what the captive breeding program provides). See below for more on What does the Helmeted Honeyeater eat?

 

Why is the Helmeted Honeyeater unique?

In 1971, the Helmeted Honeyeater was chosen as Victoria’s bird emblem because it represented what was unique and special about Victoria’s fauna. The Helmeted Honeyeater, as far as anyone knows, has never existed anywhere other than in Victoria.

 

What does the Helmeted Honeyeater look like?

They are black, yellow and olive-brown in colour with a bright yellow crest or helmet which distinguishes them from all other honeyeaters. The outer tail feathers are tipped white. There is no colour difference between male and female birds. The Helmeted Honeyeater is approximately 20cm from bill to tail tip.

A newborn bird is about the size of a jelly bean and weighs approximately 5 grams. When it fledges (leaves the nest) at 13-14 days of age (wow!!) it looks like an adult bird, but with some subtle colour variations of its feathers, bill, eyes, palate and gape. Over its first 12 months of life, particularly in its first months of life, these colours change to look more and more like an adults.

An adult weighs approximately 30-35 grams, but they can be lighter or heavier. To get an idea of how little an adult weighs, a fruit tingle packet weighs 35 grams. Eat 1 fruit tingle from the pack, and there’s about 30 grams left. Generally males are slightly larger than females but it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine this by sight alone. We never assume we are seeing a male or female by sight alone. Observed behaviours give us some extra clues, but genetic studies are needed to positively determine the sex of individual birds. There is one exception to this rule. See below for more on What are the breeding habits of the Helmeted Honeyeater?

 

What is the status of the Helmeted Honeyeater?

Helmeted Honeyeaters are Critically Endangered. This means that they are at risk of becoming extinct in the wild. Numbers declined from a counted 167 birds in 1967 to a low of 50 birds in 1990. As with any species, the population rises and falls with the seasons. In March 2020 there were estimated to be about 240 birds in the wild – in the world.

Helmeted Honeyeater’s are listed as:

 

How long do Helmeted Honeyeater’s live in the wild?

The oldest bird on record was a male hatched and banded at Cockatoo Swamp at Yellingbo in mid-November 1994 and was still being seen in June 2011, making him over 16 years old. Helmeted Honeyeaters born in the wild at Yellingbo usually have a shorter life span however. Females have an average life expectancy of around 4.44 years and males approximately 5.73 years.

Currently, the oldest positively identified Helmeted Honeyeater in the wild is a male that fledged on 26/12/2010.

 

What is the Helmeted Honeyeater’s Taxonomy?

The Helmeted Honeyeater Lichenostomus melanops cassidix used to be considered a separate species. Today it is considered to be the largest and most colourful of the four subspecies of the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater Lichenostomus melanops.

 

I saw a Helmeted Honeyeater in my garden… or was it another subspecies of the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater?

If you see a Helmeted Honeyeater, please take a photo and email our Environmental Coordinator so we can help confirm the ID, and importantly, understand more about the habitat types that Helmeted Honeyeaters are living in.

Perhaps you’re seeing another species? We sometimes receive reports of Helmeted Honeyeaters visiting gardens, and we absolutely know this happens at times, in some areas, however species such as the Eastern Yellow Robin and Eastern Spinebill are commonly mistaken for the Helmeted Honeyeater.

There are four subspecies of the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater:

  • Helmeted Honeyeater Lichenostomus melanops cassidix
  • Gippsland Yellow-tufted Honeyeater L. m. gippslandicus
  • Inland Yellow-tufted Honeyeater L. m. meltoni
  • Sydney Yellow-tufted Honeyeater L. m. melanops

 

Some genetics explained… but there’s so much more to know

Individuals of the gippslandicus subspecies can have a helmet; though, usually smaller than that of cassidix (Helmeted Honeyeaters). There is overlap in overall body size between small cassidix and large gippslandicus individuals. The meltoni and the melanops subspecies are smaller and duller in plumage.

A 2013 genetic study suggests that L.m.cassidix is genetically distinct from L.m.gippslandicus and L.m.gippslandicus is genetically distinct from L.melanops. Geneticists also tell us, with absolute certainty, that the historical range of L.m.cassidix and L.m.gippslandicus overlapped and that there was a small, but important, level of inter-breeding. This inter-breeding was an important mechanism that ensured long-term resilience (breeding success) in the Helmeted Honeyeater. Land clearing and habitat fragmentation since European settlement has effectively prevented this natural inter-breeding. It is important work that now informs what we term ‘genetic rescue’ for the Helmeted Honeyeater recovery program.

Acknowledged authorities in the field of ecological genomics/genetics at Monash University inform a combination strategy of wild population management and carefully managed maximal useful genetic diversity into Zoos Victoria’s captive breeding program that mirrors what would have occurred naturally. A carefully managed small percentage of offspring will have the genes of both L.m.cassidix and L.m.gippslandicus, however they will always be Helmeted Honeyeaters. There is absolutely no intent, or danger of, creating a different species. Geneticists advise that without this type of management, the Helmeted Honeyeater’s breeding success would gradually decline and they would very likely become extinct in 50 years time. This is true even with our current population growth successes being factored in. It’s sobering information, informed by many decades of genetic knowledge. Genetics is not the new science that we often think about it being.

 

What is the wild distribution of the Helmeted Honeyeater?

There are currently multiple wild to semi-wild colonies established in remnant streamside swamp forest to the east of Melbourne. Young birds produced in captivity during the previous breeding season are released into reintroduction sites each year to either establish new colonies, or supplement existing ones.

In 2006 a reintroduction site was established in Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve (YNCR). Currently, multiple colonies exist throughout the Reserve. Between 2001 and 2012 reintroduction sites were established in Bunyip State Park (BSP). The 10-year millennium drought had a significant impact on the BSP habitat and this population no longer exists. The YNCR population is doing well, however we are always mindful that threats to this fine balance of survival exists.

In 2021 a new reintroduction site in the O’Shannassy catchment was established. Under geneticists advice to the Helmeted Honeyeater recovery team, a combination of captive bred birds and specially selected birds translocated from Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve were used to establish this new population. This population will be closely monitored, and supplemented where deemed appropriate, over coming years until it reaches a sustainable population level (anticipated at around 100 individuals).

The map (right) shows the past known distribution of the Helmeted Honeyeater in the mid 1800’s (extensive documented surveys provide evidence of this range), the only remaining wild population (in red) and the reintroduction site at Bunyip State Park where Helmeted Honeyeaters no longer persist (in green). NB the 2021 reintroduction site isn’t shown on this map.

 

What is the Helmeted Honeyeater’s natural habitat?

The Helmeted Honeyeater prefers riparian and swamp forests dominated by Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis), Swamp Gum (Eucalyptus ovata) and Mountain Swamp Gum (Eucalyptus camphora). Understorey shrubs, such as Broom Tea-tree (Leptospermum scoparium), Scented Paperbark (Melaleuca squarrosa), Prickly Currant-bush (Coprosma quadrifida) and Woolly Tea-tree (Leptospermum lanigerum) provide nest sites for the Helmeted Honeyeater.

Streamside forests are now rarely more than 200m in width in agricultural areas such as Yellingbo. Whilst the Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater work with Parks Victoria, Melbourne Water and other key agencies to protect and restore critical habitat within Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve, we are also looking beyond the boundary fences. Take a look at how the Friends are working with local landholders to conserve habitat on private property HERE.

 

What does the Helmeted Honeyeater eat?

From what we have observed in the wild over decades, and from what the captive breeding program provides to ensure the health of its Helmeted Honeyeaters, we estimate that approximately 25% of the Helmeted Honeyeater’s diet is nectar and 75% comes from other sources, including lerps that are often found on the leaves of Eucalypts and insects that they search for constantly.

Did you know one of the Helmeted Honeyeater’s favourite snacks is insects? They rely on a diverse diet of protein sourced mostly from arthropods (insects), and carbohydrates sourced mostly from nectar (flowers), manna (tree sap) and honeydew (sweet substance insects exude). A healthy habitat that has a rich diversity of plant species is what they need in order to find everything they need to stay healthy and breed successfully. The web of life!

 

What is the social behaviour of the Helmeted Honeyeater?

Each breeding pair has a territory of its own which it defends vigorously as an exclusive feeding area, around half a hectare in size. These breeding territories are clustered into overlapping neighbourhoods called colonies, or sometimes termed social groups. If an intruder enters one of the territories within a neighbourhood, Helmeted Honeyeaters from nearby territories will come to help drive out the intruder. This is called cooperative breeding. How intelligent is that!? Puts another dimension on the term ‘bird brain’. We can learn quite a bit from birds 🙂

Commonly, the female offspring will disperse (go off to find their own territory) whilst male offspring are accommodated within a territory until they either find a territory of their own or disperse looking for a partner. Male offspring may take up a territory that is close to their parents, whilst females will often move quite a distance away to another colony. Outside the breeding season, these female offspring may return to their natal territory for a number of years, but will be driven away by their parents once breeding season starts. We can’t speak for the birds, but this does suggest an innate ability to ensure inbreeding doesn’t occur.

“Both sexes of Helmeted Honeyeaters were found to undertake exploratory movements amongst the population, often prior to permanent natal dispersal. Females consistently explored and dispersed further than males… Fidelity to breeding partners and territories was found, however both were shown to be variable and dependent on geographic neighbourhoods in which birds lived. In many cases both were lifelong, but neither was obligatory and changes of partners and territories occurred routinely.”
Smales, I.J. (2004).Population ecology of the Helmeted Honeyeater Lichenostomus melanops cassidix: long-term investigations of a threatened bird. Honours thesis, Melbourne University, Melbourne, Victoria.

 

What are the breeding habits of the Helmeted Honeyeater?

The breeding season can run from early August through to early March. Birds are sexually mature at one year of age but most do not breed until they are two years or older.

Helmeted Honeyeaters construct a suspended cup shaped nest, often located in prickly shrubs. Nests are made of strips of bark, grasses, dried leaves and are bound loosely with cobwebs. Spider egg sacs are used for decoration. Nests can range from as low as 1 metre from the ground to as high as 4-8 metres in dense shrubs. Occasionally, nests are over 20 meters high in eucalypts.

Usually two eggs are laid, very occasionally three, with experienced breeding pairs having three or four clutches per season. The female sits on the eggs for 2 weeks before the young hatch. This is the only time that a positive identification of a female bird can be made through observation alone. Helmeted Honeyeaters are cooperative breeders. The young are fed in the nest for a further 2 weeks by both parents and sometimes related males. The young remain with their parents after leaving the nest for several months. At 40 days they are considered independent.

Survivorship of juveniles was high and similar to that of adults. Dependent fledglings experience quite high survivorship, whilst it was low and equivalent in eggs and chicks. High survival rates of fledglings, juveniles and adults permitted the population to maintain itself despite very low survivorship of eggs and chicks. Identification of survivorship rates of the different life history phases, in particular the very low rates of eggs and nestlings, and high rates for all other stages, including fledglings… is an important outcome. It provides an opportunity to focus recovery actions for the population in a manner that offers potential to significantly and efficiently increase the population…
Smales, I.J. (2004). Population ecology of the Helmeted Honeyeater Lichenostomus melanops cassidix: long-term investigations of a threatened bird. Honours thesis, Melbourne University, Melbourne, Victoria.

Question:  What does 14 plus 2 plus 1 (sometimes 2) plus 15 plus 13-14 equal?

Answer: The Helmeted Honeyeater nest building, egg laying, incubation and fledgling time frame.

14 = the approximate number of days that an experienced female Helmeted Honeyeater takes to build a nest. Inexperienced females may take longer.

2 = the number of days that go by before the first egg is laid. This first egg is not incubated, meaning that the Helmeted Honeyeater does not sit on the egg.

1 (sometimes 2) = another egg is laid, usually the following day, then occasionally a 3rd egg is laid the day after. Only after the last egg is laid does the female Helmeted Honeyeater start to sit on the nest. This process delays development of the first egg so that chicks hatch around the same time.

15 = the number of days that the eggs are incubated. Only the female Helmeted Honeyeater incubates the eggs. On day 14 the young birds start to hatch from the eggs. They are called nestlings at this stage of their development.

13-14 = the number of days that the nestlings remain in the nest and are reared by both of their parents. Sometimes another related male Helmeted Honeyeater will help feed or protect the nestlings. This is called cooperative breeding.

Around day 14, the nestlings are encouraged by their parents to leave the nest. They are now called fledglings. Their parents will continue to feed them for a while whilst they learn to fend for themselves. At 40 days they are considered to be independent and the parents rarely feed them, however the family group stays together for a number of months.

Each pair of Helmeted Honeyeaters may do this four times over the course of a breeding season – August to March. Young females who are breeding for the first time however are more likely to have one, perhaps two clutches.

Wow. We think young people today grow up fast and that parenting is in the fast lane! What an incredible journey from birth to adulthood for our native species.

 

Helmeted Honeyeaters at Healesville Sanctuary

The captive breeding program for Helmeted Honeyeaters at Healesville Sanctuary began in 1989. Today the Sanctuary holds up to thirteen pairs of Helmeted Honeyeaters in purpose built aviaries, with each aviary housing a single pair of birds. Closely related Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters are also held for use as foster parents. Each year the majority of Helmeted Honeyeaters bred at the Sanctuary are released into an existing wild population to supplement that population and manage for genetic diversity. Usually some of each breeding seasons young birds are retained at the Sanctuary for use as breeders in the captive population. Fledgling birds from the previous breeding season are released into the wild before the start of the next breeding season. A release of birds is done under ethics approvals that carefully consider why and how the release will happen. Throughout the breeding season, eggs and nestlings may also be moved between the Sanctuary and wild nests as required. Parent birds are very accepting of this intervention, as long as it is done carefully, again, under ethics approval. This may happen for a number of reasons:

  1. If a wild nest is abandoned the eggs/nestlings can be fostered into a captive nest or placed into an incubator and hand raised or fostered after hatching
  2. If the age of a captive and wild nest are within a day or two in age of each other, eggs/nestlings can be fostered from captive to wild nests. This is a preferable form of ‘release to the wild’ of captive birds as they are then raised and socialised in a wild situation.

Reference: Karina Cartwright. Wildlife Supervisor, Threatened Species Unit, Healesville Sanctuary.

 

A bird in time

1866
The first Helmeted Honeyeater and Leadbeater’s Possum specimens were taken from the Bass River area near Westernport Bay.

1867
The bird was described as Ptilotus leadbeateri by Frederick McCoy, then director of the Victorian Museum on 1st December from specimens from “Bass River, South Gippsland.” In London, the name Ptilotis cassidix was apparently assigned by zoologist Sir William Jardine to specimens collected at “Western Port Bay, near Port Phillip Heads”, and published by John Gould on 1st December. Gould is recognised as the author of the species. Read more about Frederick McCoy & John Gould’s Helmeted Honeyeater discoveries & see images of the birds they collected here

1880’s
Clearing of Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp begins and continues for another 80 years.

1923
Ptilotis cassidix is reclassified as Lophoptilotus cassidix.

1926
L. cassidix reclassified as Meliphaga cassidix.

1933
Helmeted Honeyeater first found at Woori Yallock Creek ‘about two miles south of Yellingbo’, by the son of ornithologist A. G. Campbell. November edition of Victorian Naturalist is devoted to the Helmeted Honeyeater.

1947
Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU) survey at Cardinia Creek area suggests around 100 birds exist there.

1952
Survey Cassidix commenced by Bird Observation and Conservation Australia (known then as the Bird Observers’ Club) at Yellingbo and investigates the bird for 10 years.

1965
First portion of Yellingbo State Fauna Reserve is established specifically for a Helmeted Honeyeater sanctuary.

1967
Yellingbo State Faunal Reserve officially proclaimed. Around 200 Helmeted Honeyeaters counted in the wild.

1971
The Helmeted Honeyeater is proclaimed as one of Victoria’s State Faunal Emblems on 10th March.

1973
The Helmeted Honeyeater is reclassified as a sub-species of the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater Meliphaga melanops cassidix.

1975
The Yellow-tufted Honeyeater is included into a redefined Honeyeater genus, Lichenostomus. The Helmeted Honeyeater is thus Lichenostomus melanops cassidix.

1978
The Fisheries and Wildlife Division commences staffing and active management of the Yellingbo State Faunal Reserve. The State and Commonwealth Governments contribute funding to a land purchase program of adding substantial further land to the reserve.

1983
Ash Wednesday fires destroy the habitat of colonies of Helmeted Honeyeaters at Cockatoo and Upper Beaconsfield. Subsequently the birds become locally extinct leaving the Yellingbo population as the sole remaining group. Long-term monitoring of the Yellingbo Helmeted Honeyeater population commences.

1986
Leadbeater’s Possum is discovered at Yellingbo.

1989
A public meeting is called and The Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater is formed on 23rd May. The Helmeted Honeyeater Recovery Team is officially formed. A captive breeding program is commenced at Healesville Sanctuary.

1990-91
Only 15-16 pairs of breeding birds and a population of approximately 60 birds remain in the wild

1991
The Friends establish an indigenous plant nursery at Healesville Sanctuary.

1992-93
The Friends indigenous plant nursery commences operation at Yellingbo.

1995
First reintroduction of captive bred birds back into the wild occurs at Yellingbo. It was unsuccessful but much was learnt.

1996
After a fight to save it from demolition, the former Ranger’s House at Yellingbo becomes the Friends headquarters.

1999
Helmeted Honeyeaters go on display at the Healesville Sanctuary. The wild population increases to 90-100 birds with 15 potential breeding pairs in the captive group at Healesville Sanctuary.

2001
The first reintroduction of captive bred birds into former habitat occurs at Tonimbuk within Bunyip State Park.

2003
A plan is proposed to link the renamed Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve (YNCR) with Bunyip State Park along a revegetated Shepherd Creek.

2004
Bushfires come within 300 metres of the release sites at Tonimbuk. Fortunately no birds are lost. The wild population decreases to around 70-80 birds at Yellingbo. The Friends investigate the possible purchase of land adjoining the Reserve.

2005
A forum is called to bring together all relevant parties to draw up a future habitat plan for the Yellingbo area. A 20 hectare property on the Woori Yallock Creek containing significant streamside habitat is purchased by the Judith Eardley Save Wildlife Association for a future extension to YNCR.

2006
A further reintroduction program begins at Yellingbo with the release of seven Helmeted Honeyeaters. More releases follow at Yellingbo and Tonimbuk. Former Premier Joan Kirner launches the Woori Yallock Creek Local Area Plan which is designed to seek local landholders cooperation to protect and improve the natural habitat.

2009
A record number of 28 birds are released into the wild for one season.

2010
A third reintroduction site is established at Gembrook. A new release strategy is employed, using portable aviaries.

2011
The Friends campaign hard, together with like-minded local environmental groups, to bring public land in the Woori Yallock Creek sub-catchment under the one banner of Yellingbo State Emblems Park. This Park would further protect and provide greater coordinated management of public land. Bi-partisan political support is gained and the proposal is referred to Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) for consideration. The proposal is accepted and the Yellingbo Investigation begins with the first round of community consultation! This is a significant milestone to protect future habitat for Helmeted Honeyeaters and Leadbeater’s Possum, beyond Yellingbo.

Radio tracking of release birds is re-established.

2012
The Gembrook release site was unsuccessful. Helmeted Honeyeaters were found to be moving between Tonimbuk and a 2009 fire affected area at Labertouche North. A new release site is established in Labertouche North. Three monitoring systems are employed: visual monitoring, radio tracking and, new in 2012, microchip sensors at supplementary feeding stations.

2013
A new reintroduction site is established at Yellingbo, with twelve birds released in October. Microchip sensors augment the daily monitoring undertaken by volunteers. 65 regular volunteers are now part of the supplementary feeding program which operates 365 days p/year. On average, these volunteers contribute 575 hours every month to this program.
The Final Report of the VEAC Yellingbo Investigation is released. The State Government is expected to report on the recommendations in early 2014.

2014
Across Yellingbo NCR, 36 fledglings were produced in the 2013-14 breeding season.
In March, the State Government hands down its response to VEAC’s Yellingbo Investigation. There is overwhelming support for the recommendations. A Yellingbo Conservation Area Coordinating Committee is to be formed this year to oversee and coordinate land management for nature conservation and biodiversity programs.
At 1/12/14, there are more Helmeted Honeyeaters at Yellingbo (at least 130) than at any time in the Helmeted Honeyeater Recovery Programs history (25 years).

2015-2020
There is much to say! Coming soon… the successes and challenges in this period. Spoiler alert, the breeding success at Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve broke records multiple years in succession!

2020-2021
The COVID-19 pandemic first seriously impacted on Australia, the Friends activities and how all on-ground activities at Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve were managed, in March 2020. In the subsequent 22 month period (with an indicative ‘COVID economy’ where the following strategies mostly cease in 2022), Victorians lived with six hard lockdowns where 5 km travel limits, no group gatherings, 5 reasons for leaving home, 1 hour exercise per day and an evening curfew were part of our lives.

The birds, and the natural world generally, went about their normal routines.

What was described as a once in 100 year event, severe storms and floods swept through many parts of Victoria overnight on 09-10/06/2021. The Yarra Ranges region was the hardest hit, causing widespread and significant tree fall, followed by significant flooding. Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve, and surrounds, was heavily impacted.

2021
On 11/03/21, we celebrate 50 years since the Helmeted Honeyeater and Leadbeater’s Possum were proclaimed as Victoria’s state emblems.

A new reintroduction site is established in the O’Shannassy catchment, in a catchment separate from the exisiting wild population at Yellingbo. This is a key recovery objective, providing a level of protection from natural disasters such as bushfires and disease. Helmeted Honeyeaters from Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve that are selected for their genetic diversity are translocated to this site, in combination with captive bred birds. The first nest was observed being built in September!

The much anticipated 10-year management plan for the newly formed Yellingbo Conservation Area is expected to be released (around September). This brings to fruition what the Friends, together with like-minded local environmental groups, campaigned hard for from 2011, ie,. to bring public land in the Woori Yallock Creek sub-catchment under the one legislative banner to ensure further protection and provide greater coordinated management of public land. This is another significant milestone to protect future habitat for Helmeted Honeyeaters and Leadbeater’s Possum, beyond Yellingbo.

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