The gang-gang cockatoo, the animal emblem of the Australian Capital Territory, could soon be listed as a threatened species after the 2019-20 bushfire disaster reduced already declining population numbers by as much as a fifth.
The threatened species scientific committee has recommended that the small cockatoo be listed as endangered due to the large drop in its population and the growing threat the birds face from the climate crisis and more frequent fires.
The committee also recommended that the east coast populations of the glossy black-cockatoo be listed as vulnerable. Neither of these birds was recognised as a nationally threatened species before the bushfires.
Gang-gangs are small, grey cockatoos found throughout south-eastern Australia. The adult males are known for their distinctive red facial feathers. They are a common sight in Canberra, where they are often found in back yards in the inner suburbs and in nearby bushland reserves.
In its listing advice, which is now out for public consultation, the committee said before the fires gang-gang populations had already declined by between 15% and 69%.
In the year since the fires, their numbers were thought to have declined by a further 21%. That is expected to reach 29% over the next two decades.
The listing assessment says increased heatwaves and fire frequency as a result of the climate emergency were increasing pressure on the species across its range, with bushfires likely to reduce the amount of nesting habitat available to the birds.
Sarah Legge, a scientist who sits on the committee, said the bushfires had affected 36% of the birds’ range and about half of that had been burnt by high-severity fire.
“That would have potentially taken out nesting hollows and destroyed a lot of their foraging resources,” she said.
She said gang-gangs needed time to recover after such a disaster, something that would be made difficult with more frequent severe bushfire seasons. “Any species that’s fire sensitive is going to really struggle,” she said.
The committee has moved to quickly assess wildlife that might qualify for a threatened listing or upgraded threat status after the fire disaster.
A decision on whether eastern koala populations should be listed as endangered is expected later this year. The southern long-nosed potoroo is another affected animal and has been recommended for a vulnerable listing.
Glossy black-cockatoos are also fire sensitive and are dependent on casuarina seeds as their food source.
There were fears for the birds on Kangaroo Island in the aftermath of the fire disaster, and concerns its status might reach critically endangered. The committee’s listing assessment for that population recommends its status remain at endangered.
But the south-eastern populations, previously unlisted, have been recommended for a vulnerable listing, in part due to the pressure on foraging habitat.
One assessment cited by the committee suggests that the 2019-20 fires had led to a decline in populations of 15% to 30%.
Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning
Samantha Vine, the head of conservation and science at BirdLife Australia, said glossy black-cockatoos and gang-gangs were among many birds that were heavily affected by the fires.
“Sadly they are likely to be the harbingers of things to come as the interrelated climate and biodiversity emergencies escalate,” she said.
She said the gang-gang’s plight was particularly concerning, having gone from being unlisted straight to a recommendation for an endangered listing – just one step away from critically endangered.
“Now that we’ve recognised how much trouble these birds are in, we need strong recovery plans that protect their remaining habitat and coordinate recovery efforts,” Vine said.