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The toll of the Bell Miner

May 27, 2022

Everyone used to love the tinkling call of the Bell Miner (Manorina melanophrys), known colloquially as ‘bell birds’. Then word got out about studies that showed they could be a problem in the landscape and they became dreaded more than prized.

Beautiful but heard more than seen, Bell Miner –
Photo: Robert Gardiner

Bell Miners live in fairly large colonies and nest, feed and play in the one area, which they patrol thoroughly, chasing out any pardalote or honeyeater that chances into their territory. And that is the problem: their elimination of the other birds allows certain pests and parasites of eucalypt trees to get a free pass, causing trees within a Bell Miner colonial area to suffer from ‘dieback’ because the predators of the leaf-eaters are kept out. It is called BMAD (Bell Miner Associated Dieback). For instance, lerps are a favourite food of Bell Miners but they never predate the psyllid which produces the lerp, so the psyllids proliferate and cause widespread leaf browning because the pardalotes and Shriketits that might eat them are unable to enter.

When I first came to Yea in 2012, a busy Bell Miner colony around Cummins Lagoon in Yea Wetlands was a guaranteed presence on every visit, yet people told me they had only arrived there after the 2009 fires. It was a perfect site for a Bell Miner colony – they like to be near water and have large trees to patrol. But suddenly, one day, the colony disappeared.

It was about 5 years ago, and they did not move far. They can be heard now, tinkling beautifully down at the Caravan Park where Miller St joins the Melba Highway. It is a distance of only 800m perhaps but since then I have never heard a Bell Miner in Yea Wetlands.

I know of several other stream-side colonies in the district; there is no shortage of these aggressive birds, although they remain confined to their colonial territory. Interestingly, the colonies I have observed in the district have not caused the alleged tree damage for which they have been maligned. The suggestion has been offered that where there is a healthy understorey, it is harder for the miners to keep everyone else out.

So I don’t regret the existence of Bell Miner colonies in our district. Their unforgettable bell-like notes toll clear and beautiful across the landscape. We would be depleted if their story was un-tolled.

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