When Is A Feral Not A Feral?

Intriguing question. I think we would all agree that foxes, cats and dogs are feral, except for the dingo, of course. Even though it was brought to Australia by humans, for some reason the dingo is claimed as a native. Perhaps when the fox has been here for 3500 years it too will be considered native?

More contentious are our friends the grey headed flying fox and the rainbow lorikeet. While they are obviously Australian should they be darkening the skies around Melbourne? While the occasional grey headed flying fox has wandered south for a number of years now it wasn’t until 1986 that a colony took up permanent residence in the Botanic Gardens (http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/plants-and-animals/flying-foxes-home-page/flying-foxes-melbournes-flying-foxes). These animals are as feral to the Botanic Gardens as the fox is to Australia and are only there because of abundant food trees. While native trees were planted they were not native to the Melbourne area and so attracted the bats, in the same way that putting bird feeders in gardens has brought in the lorikeets, which now plague orchardists and grape growers. Unfortunately people have once again allowed emotions to rule over logic, refusing to have the bats removed or dispersed and even trying to have them declared as an endangered species.

But are all feral species inherently detrimental?

The Maremma is a large (30-45 kg) white Italian dog that has been used for centuries to protect sheep from predation by wolves. In an interesting variation on this theme two of these dogs now protect a colony of little penguins on Middle Island, near Warrnambool, Victoria, from predation by foxes (http://www.janedogs.com/big-dogs-save-little-penguins). Colony numbers had declined from 600 to less than 10 birds by the 2005/2006 breeding season. Since the introduction of the dogs fox predation has ceased and penguin numbers have rebounded to over 180.

The project has been so successful that another pair of Maremmas was deployed in 2007 to Point Danger, near Portland, Victoria, to guard Australia’s only mainland breeding colony of Australasian gannets.

Dr. F. Bunny

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  1. #1 by Maddy on 06/08/2012 - 7:51 pm

    Unless your definition of feral includes “occupying an area they have always occupied with a changed pattern of use” then I am not sure how either the rainbow lorikeet or the grey-headed flying-fox could be considered feral.

    It would appear that rainbow lorikeets and grey-headed flying-foxed were, prior to white settlement more nomadic than they are now. White people arrived and proceeded to both cut down large areas of food trees and then grow food trees in concentrated areas around their houses. The change in food patterns resulted in a change in habits for theses species.

    The grey-headed flying-foxes are listed as a vulnerable species. Species can be relatively common and still be vulnerable; after all that is the cheapest and easiest time to ensue their conservation. This species had a demonstrated 30% drop in population between 1989 and 2001. This is one of the criteria used to judge threatened species.

    Rainbow lorikeets and Laughing Kookaburras are both, quite rightly, considered feral in WA as they were transported there by people, across an area of land they could not have crossed under their own power, and have formed self sustaining wild populations. Both species create pressure on species that already live in the area.

    As for the Maremmas, great dogs, fantastic job they are doing. But they are not free living, self supporting animals which is where the questions of feral and native come from. The Maremmas are dogs who are owned, fed and cared for humans in order to complete their work.

  2. #2 by vetsbeyondreason on 09/08/2012 - 10:15 am

    All good points. I am particularly concerned by the rainbow lorikeets which, while not feral to Melbourne, have increased in numbers at least partly because of the provision of bird feeders. As they are aggressive birds this imbalance may cause the decline of other less aggressive species.

  3. #3 by Maddy on 09/08/2012 - 8:24 pm

    No argument from me about the provision of bird feeders – they are a menace in every possible way, centres that facilitate the spread of circovirus and other diseases, malnutrition in chicks, encourage rats and have no redeeming features.

    People wanting to enjoy birds in their gardens should plant trees that will attract them, although this would encourage the birds from staying around it will at least provide less food and more healthy food.

    If you ever work out how to separate a person from their feeder, I will be interested to know.

  4. #4 by vetsbeyondreason on 10/08/2012 - 6:29 pm

    I must admit to getting discouraged when zoos, the very organisations that should be educating people against using bird feeders, actively promote the practice by putting feed out themselves.

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