One student’s COVID lockdown silver lining

Written by Dan Pagotto
Bachelor of Environmental Science (Honours)

COVID-19 is one of the biggest challenges our generation has faced. In mid-March my life made the transition from full time honours student with a stable casual income, to the possible deferment of my studies until 2021 and becoming unemployed, all within the span of 24 hours. After baking all the sourdough and focaccia breads one household can manage to produce and pondering the meaning of existence several times over, my supervisor Professor Darryl Jones offered me an incredible opportunity. Lorikeet Paralysis Syndrome (LPS) has been affecting local lorikeet populations particularly hard this year, and I’m now involved in a national project collaborating with RSPCA to find the source of the syndrome.

“With my bachelor’s done 2020
would be my year!”

So let’s rewind 6 months. It was the end of 2019, three challenging years had passed and I was finally graduating from an environmental science degree after spending more years than I’d like to admit dipping in and out of other courses. 2020 was looking like it was going to be a particularly productive year with plans of honours, stable employment and social contact with other humans. Fast-forward 6 months. Yep. It is safe to say that none of those three things have gone to plan. With the outbreak of novel coronavirus, 2020 has mutated into something far removed from what we all expected it to be – and it has thrown several challenges that, as students, require a certain level of flexibility and dynamism to overcome.

Lorikeet fieldwork without a field; how COVID halted my honours research

It’s impossible to believe that this doesn’t have an effect on one’s mental health and wellbeing – and I know I certainly wasn’t the only one out there in a situation such as this. Unfortunately, due to the nature of coronavirus and the outdoors fieldwork component of many ecology-based research projects, there was an understandable blanket ban on fieldwork. This essentially forced me to postpone my honours project, as I was investigating the feeding ecology of Rainbow Lorikeets in urban Brisbane – which as you can imagine requires consistent, long-term data collection in the field.

The importance of lorikeets in urban environments

This sort of project may seem somewhat dull or simple, yet it has the potential to be incredibly influential in the way we design our cities and gardens with regard to green space and street trees. Rainbow Lorikeets are the most populous bird on the East Coast of Australia. The interesting thing is, within the space of 7 years Rainbow Lorikeets went from being the 21st most populous bird in urban Brisbane to being the most populous and yet we have no idea about the scale of how many different species of plants and trees they are feeding on and what may be driving this incredible population growth. The main theory is that we have planted our streets and gardens with so many ornamental plants with large, showy nectar and energy-rich flowers (think Grevillea cultivars, Bottlebrushes, Banksias, Jacaranda’s etc.) that the lorikeets just can’t help themselves but to gorge. This investigation into the energy rich plant communities found within the suburban landscape can also explain why birds like Noisy Miners are so prevalent and smaller, less aggressive birds are not.

From no fieldwork to a high-profile project

Now I must admit, coronavirus has thrown some positives my way. With the postponement of my honours project, I had found myself with a little more time on my hands than I imagined at the start of the year. My supervisor Professor Darryl Jones offered me the opportunity to research Lorikeet Paralysis Syndrome (LPS), which veterinarians have managed to rule out a contagious disease or virus as the cause, and are investigating whether it originates from a toxin that is found in the diet of wild lorikeets. Fortunately, I have been able to be involved with this project looking at what the Lorikeets are feeding on in LPS hotspots and attempting to narrow down what may be the source of the toxin. It really is quite true that opportunities arise when you least expect them to.

Appreciating the positives of 2020

Well, we’re not even halfway through 2020 yet but believe it or not there is a lot to look forward to this year. I think it is really important to understand that COVID-19 is one of the biggest challenges our generation has faced, and that its okay to feel like things aren’t going to plan. I believe it is also really important not to put too much pressure on ourselves as we try to navigate these challenges and to put our mental health at the forefront of our priority list. I wish everyone who is about to enter the exam period good luck and to enjoy your time off afterwards.

Do you want to help your local lorikeet population?

How you can help:

  1. Let us know the name of plants you have seen either Rainbow or Scaly Breasted Lorikeets feeding on in your backyard or neighbourhood (photos are a bonus)
  2. Tell us your suburb or area
  3. If you see recently deceased lorikeets, let us know their location.

Email these detail to Dan Pagotto

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