Black-throated finch wins 2019 Australian bird of the year

November 19, 2019, 12:57 p.m.

The black-throated finch has been voted "bird of the year" in Australia for 2019, helping draw attention to the species' decline as human activities increasingly threaten its habitat. The finch's victory was reportedly driven by support from conservationists, who connected its plight to deforestation and bushfires in Australia, as well as opposition to a planned coal mine.

The finch won the online vote in a landslide, The Guardian reports, noting it received 11,153 votes in the final round of 10 birds, or about 35% of the total. That put it 7,802 votes ahead of the tawny frogmouth, which came in second. Third place went to the superb fairy-wren (2,875 votes), followed by the magpie in fourth (2,725) and the laughing kookaburra in fifth (2,650).

Black-throated finches once inhabited dry, grassy woodlands throughout northeastern Australia, gathering in small flocks to forage for seeds and insects. They experienced steep declines in the 20th century, though, and were last seen in the state of New South Wales in 1994, according to BirdLife Australia, leaving Queensland as their final refuge. There are two subspecies, and while both may be at risk, most of the concern focuses on the southern "white-rumped" variety, which now exists at only a few scattered sites. Its range has shrunk by about 80% in recent decades, and fewer than 800 individuals are thought to be left.

The decline of both subspecies is largely due to "the spread and intensification of pastoralism," according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, along with changing bushfire patterns and the spread of woody weeds in grassland habitats. As people continued to repurpose land for livestock grazing and other uses, swaths of the birds' habitat were cleared, fragmented or otherwise altered, especially in southern portions of their range.

black-throated finch The black-throated finch, already a victim of habitat loss, may soon lose even more space to make room for coal mining. (Photo: markusmayer/Shutterstock)

And now, with the southern subspecies limited to just a few enclaves, conservationists are worried a new danger is poised to wipe it out. Much of its remaining range falls within the footprint of the planned Carmichael coal mine, a controversial project that has been under consideration in various forms for about a decade. Although developer Adani Mining has scaled back the original scope of the project, it would reportedly still be one of the largest coal mines in Australia. Adani has offered to clear the land gradually, supposedly giving the finches time to move somewhere else, but this plan has been criticized by scientists.

Growing concerns about the mine played a big role in elevating black-throated finches to "bird of the year," but as Sean Dooley of BirdLife Australia tells The Guardian, that isn't the only reason they won. In addition to being threatened, he argues, they also happen to be beautiful. "As someone who has gone out and seen that bird in nature, they are subtly stunning," Dooley says. "No illustration I have seen has done justice to the beauty of the bird in real life. They are a literal breath-taker when you see them."

Australia's bird of the year contest only began a few years ago, but while it's younger than a similar competition in New Zealand, it has quickly become a high-profile event. This year's poll even featured a scandal, thanks to the discovery of a sophisticated voter-fraud operation favoring the sulphur-crested cockatoo. Within minutes, the cockatoo received thousands of automated votes from the same location, along with other votes for the finch and rainbow lorikeet "in an attempt to disguise the ruse," according to The Guardian, which notes all the fraudulent votes were "promptly identified and removed."

And aside from that kind of unwanted attention, the contest's popularity has also helped it grow, Dooley says, shifting to focus less on already-famous birds than on those in need of more awareness. "People could be cynical and say nobody had heard of this bird five years ago, and that is exactly the point. That just shows how the awareness of Australian birds is growing," he says. "When we did the first poll in 2017 we essentially focused on birds we thought people would recognize. But the sad reality is that many of our birds are becoming iconic for all the wrong reasons; they are now emblematic of the extinction crisis."