Introduced predators are a global driver of species decline, but their impact on highly mobile species is poorly understood. We report the severe impact of a previously undocumented introduced predator on the endangered, migratory swift parrot (Lathamus discolor). Sugar gliders (Petaurus breviceps), a supposedly benign introduced species, were detected acting as a major opportunistic predator of cavity-nesting birds. We assessed the intensity and geographical extent of sugar glider predation and investigated whether habitat loss exacerbated predation risk to swift parrots.
We monitored nests of swift parrots for 3 years with motion-activated cameras. We used bioclimatic modelling to predict the potential distribution of introduced sugar gliders across the study area and assessed the predation risk to swift parrots and other threatened birds in the region using nest-survival analysis.
Daily survival of nests in areas where sugar gliders occurred was mean 0.97, which equated to a true likelihood of 0.17 for a nest to survive the 60-day nesting period. No nests failed on an offshore island where sugar gliders were shown to be absent. Most cases (83.3%) of glider predation resulted in the death of the adult female parrot. On the Tasmanian mainland, there was a positive relationship between nest survival and increasing mature forest cover at the landscape scale.
Predation risk varied dramatically across the breeding range of swift parrots, depending on the presence of sugar gliders. Offshore islands are an important refuge for swift parrots because sugar gliders are absent. However, islands are vulnerable, and our bioclimatic model shows that they are bioclimatically suitable for sugar gliders. Synergistic interactions between predation and habitat loss combine with low breeding-site philopatry to expose swift parrots to dramatic variation in predation risk depending on nesting location.