North Sydney sometimes seems like Rainbow Lorikeet Central. By day, these showy birds can be seen feeding on a wide variety of flowers, like this one on a bloodwood (Corymbia ficifolia):
Or they may be seen perched on convenient branches, watching the scene below:
Rainbow lorikeets are the largest and most successful of Australia’s nectar-feeding parrots. (The word lorikeet is a portmanteau of lory and parakeet.) They come from a primarily seed-eating family but have adapted to exploit the sugar-intensive plants found in Australia’s less fertile soils. These plants include Banksia trees with their large flower cones:
Another group of nectar-rich native trees attractive to lorikeets are the eucalypts and their relatives, the bloodwoods. Unfortunately, flowers on these trees sometimes have to be shared with bees and/or beetles, as shown below:
It requires excellent grip and agility to climb along narrow twigs to reach flowers. The rainbow lorikeet’s feet have the typical parrot plan of two pairs of opposing toes, allowing them to hang comfortably at any angle. Look at this one feeding on a Callistemon blossom:
Some of their agility in climbing is also on show in this brief video.
The next photo gives a closer view of the lorikeet’s other adaptation to nectar-gathering—the brush-tipped tongue they use to lick up nectar and pollen. The pollen provides most of their protein requirements.
You can see that their feathers have a hard sheen, and it’s thought that this restricts soiling by the sometimes extremely sticky nectar:
Rainbow lorikeets are also comfortable with a variety of exotic flowers such as this salvia.
And these palm blossoms:
Being bold birds, rainbow lorikeets don’t fear human proximity, especially if food is on offer. They are quite capable of taking sugar from bowls on empty tables in outdoor cafes. This pair was in the tree at the front of our garden, and I decided to see if they were prepared to feed from my hand. They were!
Eucalyptus trees provide another service to lorikeets – nesting hollows. This bird is checking the possibilities of the hollow left by a dead branch:
This one looks very happy with the hollow it has found:
Lorikeets will also check out other possible nesting cavities, like this weathered lamp post:
The breeding season is from September to January, and the immature birds that eventually emerge from the nesting hollow can be distinguished by their less brilliant colour, darker iris, and blackish patches on the beak.
I began by saying that North Sydney sometimes seems like Lorikeet Central. This is particularly true at night. As evening approaches, groups of lorikeets begin to assemble in the taller trees around the North Sydney CBD. After sunset, they use the fading light to fly into Victoria Cross at the heart of the CBD. Lorikeets are never quiet, but at this time the noise from the assembled flocks is deafening, with the reflective surfaces of office towers amplifying the volume. The birds perch in the plane trees in the gathering darkness. (Two stars are visible on the right edge of this photo, taken last week.)
They quieten down after an hour or two, and settle to sleep, usually in pairs, under the dimmed office lights.
I am not sure what the attraction of the CBD is, but I suspect they see it as a safer place than a bush reserve. Oher birds go there too – currawongs and Indian mynas. Next morning, the lorikeets are up and doing before sunrise, flying back out to their feeding haunts.
We on the east coast of Australia are fortunate to have so many of these spectacularly coloured birds that we take them for granted. But there is a cost. There used to be a more balanced selection of lorikeet species on the east coast until the rainbows pushed the other lorikeets out. Their rise follows the increase in plantings of native flowers in suburban gardens, giving many more food sources. This matched a decline in nesting hollows due to deforestation and a human tendency to cut down ‘hazardous’ older trees. This in turn led to greater competition for the remaining nesting spots. The bigger more aggressive rainbows were always going to win that contest, and sadly smaller species like the Green (Scaly-breasted) Lorikeets are now much scarcer. I certainly haven’t seen a Scaly-breasted for decades. The much more migratory Musk Lorikeets seem to have evaded this problem by not coming into Sydney until late summer and autumn, after the breeding season.
(It’s a similar story with the equally successful noisy miners - aggressive honeyeaters that have pushed out a lot of the smaller birds from around cities.)
Rainbow lorikeets have also been introduced to Perth in Western Australia, and the same thing is happening there. The losers in the competition for nest sites there are the similar-sized but less aggressive Twenty-eight Parrots, which look like this: