Are Night Parrots (Pezoporus occidentalis) really extinct?

Are Night Parrots (Pezoporus occidentalis) really extinct?

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This incredibly rare animal has been reported to be extinct since 1990, however several cases has been raised that night parrot was spotted in the areas of Australia. What is the cause of their extinction, or in the first place, are they really extinct?

As per Wikipedia it is listed as endangered having been downgraded from critically endangered due to the spread in sightings over the years over a large area. Sightings have been rare with a reported sighting on 12th April 2005 and a dead specimen found in 2006 The first photos and a 17 second video of the bird was taken by a wildlife photographer John Young in 2013. Details can be found in this link.

According to the reason for its population to decrease significantly include predation by feral cats and foxes, altered fire regimes, competition for food, degradation of habitat near water by stock or rabbits, and reduced availability of water as a result of over-use by feral camels.

Are Night Parrots (Pezoporus occidentalis) really extinct? - Biology

Pezoporus occidentalis, better known simply as the “night parrot”, is often described by ornithologists as being the most mysterious and enigmatic bird on Earth- a moniker the night parrot earned by being so rare and elusive that fewer people alive today have seen one with their own eyes than have ever walked on the Moon.

Described bluntly by one of the few people to have handled one as a “dumpy oversized budgie”, the unassuming greenish-yellow bird is endemic to Australia, with confirmed sightings largely being limited to the deserts of Western Australia and Queensland.

Unusually for a bird that is capable of lengthy and extremely fast flight, the night parrot spends much of its time on the ground hiding amongst the brush and shrubland of the Australian outback, making the species one of only three known “ground parrots” as they’re commonly known.

That said, a very recent tagging of one of these birds which provided GPS data for the animal for 15 days demonstrated that, as mentioned, the night parrot can cover a lot of ground very quickly, with the shortest distance the tracked bird flew in one night being approximately 40 kilometres (about 24 miles). As for this travel, it would seem the purpose behind it is generally to find water. Its food, on the other hand, is speculated to be things likes the seeds of Triodia grasses that it likes to hide in.

Speaking of its nocturnal movements, as you may have guessed given the night parrot’s name, the bird is described as being a mostly nocturnal creature, generally hiding in tall foliage during the day, with their coloring patterns blending in well with such shrubbery.

First “discovered” in 1845 by members of an expedition trying to find a “mythical sea” that supposedly existed somewhere in the heart of Australia (an amazing story we’ll no doubt cover another day), the bird was seemingly quite common at the time, with over a dozen specimens being easily collected in the 1870s alone. In fact, the indigenous Maiawali people are known to have once made extensive use of the night parrot’s feathers for ceremonial clothing.

For reasons experts can’t quite agree on though, around the turn of 20th century the bird almost completely disappeared, with the last live specimen caught in that century being captured sometime in 1912. As to where the bird went, it’s speculated it was simply displaced by humans or perhaps hunted to near extinction by feral and domestic cats, but nobody really knows. In fact, there have been some who have speculated that perhaps the bird isn’t endangered at all it’s just extremely good at hiding.

That said, after that 1912 capture of a live specimen, while amateur bird watchers sporadically claimed sightings of the parrot, as the century stretched on with no well documented sightings occurring despite many pro bird-nerds conducting extensive searches, many experts began to write-off the bird as being extinct.

Not willing to accept this, in 1989 Australian businessman, entrepreneur, and conservationist Dick Smith offered a $25,000 reward to anyone who could provide proof that the bird was still out there somewhere. A year later, this proof was found almost entirely by accident when three ornithologists decided to randomly pull over to pee while driving through south-west Queensland. During their little wizz break, they stumbled upon a dead night parrot by the side of the road.

As if that wasn’t fortunate enough, it’s noted that the only reason the ornithologists were even able to identify the bird at all is because two of them just so happened to be “among a handful of people in the world to have handled stuffed night parrots”.

Dick Smith dutifully paid the men the reward money (which they in turn donated to the university they all worked for) and Australia’s ornithologists once again began searching for the night parrot with vigor.

The next reasonably well documented sighting occurred in 2005 when a pair of biologists claim to have spotted not one, but three night parrots while the scientists were studying a region for potential iron ore mining.

A much better documented sighting occurred in 2006 when another specimen was found dead by a park ranger, Robert Cupitt, working in Diamantina National Park. Oddly, this bird was found without a head, seemingly flying into a barbed wire fence at high speed and, it is generally thought, decapitating itself. However, a search for the bird’s head proved fruitless, and it is possible the bird simply had its head eaten off by some wild animal or it was otherwise eaten after it was removed by the fence wire.

Whatever the case, after several more years of nothing but unsubstantiated reports of the night parrot from enthusiastic bird watchers, wildlife photographer and ornithologist John Young became the first human in over a century to definitely have seen a living night parrot when he managed to snap a photo of one in 2013. By his own estimation, Young spent some 15 years and around 17,000 hours searching for the bird in the Australian outback, eventually managing to get a handful of photos of one, a few seconds of footage of it in flight, and sound recordings of its call. (For the curious, the night parrot is variously described as sounding like everything from a bell going “ding ding” to a croaking frog.)

Since 2013, several more confirmed sightings of live night parrots have been recorded with an ecologist called Dr Steve Murphy even managing to capture one and tag it for study in 2015. Murphy caught the bird (which he affectionately called Pedro) with the help of his wife Rachel, but refused to divulge where exactly Pedro was spotted except to a select few, including fellow ecologists, ornithologists and academics. (You can see a picture of the night parrot here.)

Seemingly the information must also have been divulged to some politicians, because to protect Pedro and his kin, the Pullen Pullen Reserve was established consisting of some 56,000 hectares of land in Queensland around the area Murphy found him. However, the exact location of the reserve has never been publicly released because of course Australia has empty areas of land so vast that they can reserve approximately 140,000 acres (560 kilometres squared) for wildlife without needing to tell the public where it is.

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The Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) in northern Western Australia: a recent sighting from the Pilbara region

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In: Emu , Vol. 108, 2008, p. 233-236.

Research output : Contribution to journal › Article

T1 - The Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) in northern Western Australia: a recent sighting from the Pilbara region

N2 - The Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) is an enigmatic species thought possibly to be extinct until the recent recoveries of two dead specimens from Queensland. The type specimen and many early sightings, however, came from Western Australia. We describe a new sighting of the Night Parrot from the Pilbara region of Western Australia, on 12 April 2005, at a well near the Fortescue Marshes. We provide details of our sighting and review the behaviour observed in the context of historical and contemporary records from the north-west of Western Australia.

AB - The Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) is an enigmatic species thought possibly to be extinct until the recent recoveries of two dead specimens from Queensland. The type specimen and many early sightings, however, came from Western Australia. We describe a new sighting of the Night Parrot from the Pilbara region of Western Australia, on 12 April 2005, at a well near the Fortescue Marshes. We provide details of our sighting and review the behaviour observed in the context of historical and contemporary records from the north-west of Western Australia.

Second discovery of mysterious night parrot

One of the world’s most elusive birds is located right here in Australia. The night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) has baffled scientists since the discovery of remains in 1845. Technology, along with a bit of luck has led to the recent discovery of a second small population of the endangered species in Western Australia.

Why so mysterious?

As the name suggests, night parrots are nocturnal which is rare in itself, with only one other nocturnal parrot known throughout the world. It has been difficult to locate populations of night parrot because they are nocturnal and live within the arid interior of Australia. The way night parrots live is still based on best guesses and rumors.

Scientists have continued to search for more than 100 years with no sight of the night parrot. Sadly, two deceased birds were discovered in 1990 and 2006 in south-western Queensland. With this discovery there was promise that the night parrot wasn’t extinct. In 2013, photographs led to the discovery of a population in Pullen Pullen Reserve, Queensland. The population appeared to have occupied the site for a number of years. This discovery has given scientists the chance to study the species.

Surprising discoveries

Scientists peered into the night parrots’ private lives using night vision googles. It was rumored by farmers that night parrots liked to form their nests in Triodia, a type of grass which forms in mounds. On closer inspection the nests were much more elaborate than was initially thought. A tunnel is formed which opened up to a main hollow that was dug low in the live grass mounds.

Aboriginal elders had said that night parrot breeding was initiated by much higher than the normal rainfall for the area. This association was confirmed through observations by scientists. With only a few nests to inspect, it was estimated that the parrots would lay two to four eggs. One nest which had been abandoned had only a few shell fragments remaining. These were tested and DNA analysis showed a king brown snake was the culprit.

Next steps for night parrot conservation

Since the discovery of the population, the night parrot has been added to the top 20 birds that are a priority for conservation. To catch poachers, satellite cameras were placed around their nesting sites and traps have been set to catch feral cats.

A second population of night parrots has been detected in Western Australia. For the past four years, sound recorders were moved around the Pilbara Desert. The analysis of the recordings by experts at the University of Queensland have confirmed the calls at two locations. Rangers will conduct searches of the areas looking for nests. A significant threat to Night Parrot conservation is wildfire. By identifying nests, rangers can protect the population and exclude planned burning form the areas.

Further reading:

Murphy, S. A., Austin, J. J., Murphy, R. K., Silcock, J., Joseph, L., Garnett, S. T., … & Burbidge, A. H. (2017). Observations on breeding Night Parrots (Pezoporus occidentalis) in western Queensland. Emu-Austral Ornithology, 117(2), 107-113.

The Night Parrot: A bird in the hand but how many left in the bush?

In 2005 the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology published its report of the rediscovery of the iconic Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis, rightful claimant to the title of Grail Bird in US ornithology, and presumed extinct since the 1940s. Exhaustive searches of the Cache and White River systems ultimately produced no further evidence and the "rediscovery" is now widely discredited. The similarly elusive Pink-headed Duck Rhodonessa caryophyllacea, may have been sighted in 1988 on the banks of the Brahmaputra (north-eastern India), by Rory Nugent and Shankar Barua - but we can't be sure. The only known photographs of this species alive are from 1925, and the last specimen was shot in India, in 1935. That much of its habitat lies in remote and poorly surveyed parts of Myanmar is a cause for some optimism and its official classification is Critically Endangered, rather than Extinct. But despite a few reports in the last decade, no evidence of its continued existence has ever been produced. In Australia there still remains one living species that, despite being seen and identified by a few determined birders in its difficult north Queensland home in most years, no photographs of a live specimen have ever been produced* - the Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii.

The world of birds offers many tantalising mysteries to the intrepid adventurer, but pre-eminent among these has always been the Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis - a bird tailor-made for controversy and a species which eluded some of the best field ornithologists in the land for a century. A fair dinkum enigma.

The Night Parrot has laboured under many unfortunate monikers The Loch Ness Monster of birds, The Tasmanian Tiger of birds, The Holy Grail of Birding, The Fat Budgie, or simply, The Ex-Parrot. If you have been following this story however, you will understand that none of these epithets is fitting, if indeed they ever were. While it will almost certainly remain the Holy Grail for some birdos, some of the mystery surrounding the species was banished forever on Big Wednesday. On the 3rd of July 2013, Australian naturalist John Young revealed at an exclusive, invitation only, private function at the Queensland Museum, irrefutable evidence of the species' continued existence at an undisclosed site in the southwest of the state. Marking the culmination of many years of fieldwork and study including 17000 hours at the one site, John Young, with his mate John Stewart holding the torch, managed to capture high quality digital photographs and 17 seconds of video footage of the species, very much alive, in its native habitat of thick spinifex. Only a few photographs were displayed at the strict no-cameras and no-recorders event, and only 6 seconds of the video footage, but the images have been studied around the world and there is no doubt that they're the real deal. John’s stunning images graced the cover of our national bird magazine, Australian Birdlife, and one of them now graces my wall.

A more demure and heavily-watermarked image appeared on the front page of The Weekend Australian accompanying an article by Tony Koch on June 29th 2013. The online edition of that story can be found here.

Since this first appearance in the media, John’s story has done the rounds and an online search will take you to any number of articles that have summarised the find with wildly varying degrees of accuracy. Among the coverage that has been less burdened by truth, rectitude, and research, I got a particular chuckle out of the following that claims the species can be "commonly found" while still being one of the "world's most mysterious birds" in the same sentence. It also credits the discovery to a "Mr John King", (there's been a second discovery?) and accompanies the news with a stolen picture of a Ground Parrot Pezoporus wallicus, here.

Suffice to say that the coverage in the media has been patchy at best, and is a nice reflection of a conversation that is gaining momentum across the country about the loss of good science journalists. Other reports unnecessarily perpetuated some old myths and even started up a few new ones. Chief among these is the fallacy that the species was presumed extinct. Very few, if any, people with any interest in the subject thought that the species had already gone extinct. This would be a difficult assumption to maintain in the face of much evidence to the contrary. Although the last specimen was actively acquired in 1912, two dead specimens were found more recently within 200 kilometres of each other in western Queensland one in 1990 and the second in 2006. Dead birds have to come from living populations.

Other news reports claimed this to be the first time the bird was seen alive in over 100 years. This is another clear exaggeration - the excitement in the ornithological community was over the first photographs of a live specimen, ever. It would be unusual for more than a few years to pass without one or two reports emanating from the outback of observations of the species. While many of these reports have common and questionable characteristics (they occur in poor light, observers had fleeting glimpses, observers were not bird experts or even practised bird-watchers) and are rightly treated with some skepticism, not all of them are likely to be apocryphal or mistaken. Some observations have been by highly respected, experienced field ornithologists, and some have been well-documented and ratified by peer review as recently as 2005 in Western Australia. Add to this the fact that anyone seeking or claiming to have seen the Night Parrot has often been treated to raised eyebrows and some level of derision with labels like "Yowie Hunter" sometimes thrown around. In such an atmosphere it's easy to understand that there are probably other sightings that have gone unreported due to the fear of ridicule or the loss of professional credibility. Furthermore, if we look at other examples of species whose former range covered much of the continent inside the 280 millimetre isohyet, Greater Bilby Macrotis lagotis, say, it's possible that there remain remnant populations at widely separated locations - it's unlikely that John discovered the last of the Night Parrots. He just happened to be the only one with the talent and the grit, and let’s be fair perhaps a bit of good luck, to find them. At the time of writing he remains the only living person to have found a population of Night Parrots.

John’s photographs are spectacular, and provide satisfying evidence of the bird's continuing existence, but they don't really provide any advantage to other people looking for the species we already know what the bird looks like and we have 24 museum specimens to study at close quarters.

Make no mistake - it is a recording of the Night Parrot's call that professional ecologists have been really excited about. This will provide an immeasurable advantage in any attempts to locate populations of this bird elsewhere. As, by John's own accounts, the bird is so difficult to observe, knowing what it sounds like will be the crucial tool for professional scientists hoping to identify remnant populations in other locations, and prevent the destruction or disturbance of their habitat. For professional ecologists working on the site of a development, the key to halting or modifying the extent of habitat disturbance or destruction comes down to proving the presence of listed species. So seen through the eyes of an ecologist conducting pre-clearance surveys in remote areas with undisturbed tracts of potential Night Parrot habitat about to be flattened, the importance of this recording is difficult to overstate. As it stands, field ecologists have Buckley's chance of actually observing a bird, and even less chance of being able to authenticate the sighting unless they also manage to photograph the bird. However, if they know what to listen for, or better yet, have an automated recording device allowing them to screen both audibly and visually for the bird's vocalisation after several weeks or months of constant recording, the chance of verifying the species' presence, and stopping land clearing, heads into the realms of practicality.

Withholding such a crucial tool for establishing the species’ presence hampers attempts to locate the birds in other locations. John kept his recordings of the bird’s call to himself in the weeks and months following his announcement and I was too hasty to be critical of him for this at the time. I’ve since got to know John quite well and have come to understand the immense pressure that he must have been under at the time. He had a lot of different interests competing for his attention and his response, and in hindsight perhaps the best thing he could have done, was to keep the welfare of the bird in the front of his mind and keep the recordings under wraps. Once the dust had settled he had the unenviable task of trying to work out what to do next and the rest, to coin a phrase, is history.

I know nothing of the supposed acrimony surrounding John’s parting of company with the current research team at Pullen Pullen Reserve so there is no point engaging in baseless speculation. But the availability of acoustic data remains a pertinent and pressing question three years on. Why can’t it be released? Bush Heritage, or people operating on their property, are in possession of an unprecedented library of calls. Just a few call recordings is all it would take for ecologists operating in potential Night Parrot habitat elsewhere to positively confirm the species’ presence. The species range once took in most of inland Australia so they might not necessarily occur in habitat identical to that at Pullen Pullen Reserve we should be looking and listening far and wide. Just a few individuals and organisations have been in possession of this critical piece of knowledge for some years now, while potential Night Parrot habitat has been going under the dozer blade for developments of all types across the outback. Bush Heritage and the team they have researching the Night Parrot at Pullen Pullen deserve full credit for the work that they are doing. It will be a landmark publication when the findings of their study finally see the light of day but we have no way of knowing how far off that publication will be. Their lack of engagement has some in the conservation community pessimistic that the call will ever be released.

Courtesy: social media commentators

A common cry from supporters of the current status quo, in rebuttal to those requesting the release of call recordings has been, "go and record it yourself". Apart from being the sort of argument I'd expect from a petulant eight year old, this demonstrates a particular backwardness and a deep misapprehension of the process of scientific investigation. I'm not going to be so naive as to suggest that the scientific community is free from spats, rifts, and schisms - there are even a few famous examples of what might be termed long-running feuds. By and large though, these are intellectually driven and rarely internecine. Scientific competition and rivalries drive opposing teams to greater rigour in their experimentation and investigation to disprove the counter position - thereby driving the process of understanding. We all benefit from the hard graft of our predecessors, hence the much-quoted saying attributed to Sir Isaac Newton of those who achieve greatness doing so only by, "standing on the shoulders of giants".

The time has well and truly come, for those in possession of Night Parrot call recordings and findings about the species’ ecology to put their cards on the table, hoist any critics to their shoulders and let them see what else they can see.

At the time of John Young’s initial rediscovery of the Pullen Pullen population, the one thing that there was little disagreement on, across the board, was that it would probably be best if the location of the population remained tightly controlled. There was sound reasoning for allowing a small team of researchers in to commence a detailed study. Beyond that though, even hardcore twitchers, rabid birders, and fanatical photographers were in rare, if slightly grudging agreement - the site should remain protected for as long as possible. This, despite the fact that it's arguable the site was adequately protected already. If it was anywhere within any sensible interpretation of John's description of "southwest Queensland" then it had the benefit of being remote, probably not accessible on sealed roads, and probably difficult to get to from any major centre with anything less than a fairly costly field expedition. In an area as remote as that, any such expedition could be fairly sure of attracting attention before they'd got within a stone's throw of the site.

Once again though, the long-standing fallacy of the "twitching hordes" was wheeled out for another tired lap around the forums and social media sites. It’s a myth albeit a persistent one. Of all the numerous threats facing Night Parrots, the occasional unethical happy-snapper is the least of them. The slightest acquaintance with other cases where the binocular-wielding bogeymen of the twitching hordes have been invoked, shows it to be pure fantasy.

Courtesy: social media commentators

The excitement of Princess Parrots Polytelis alexandrae, present west of Alice Springs in 2010, attracted fewer than 150 people to travel out to see them. Of these, more than half were the families and friends of locals connected to authorities charged with the protection of the site - mostly not birders, just curious locals going for a gawk because they could. Sure there were a few car-loads of interstate twitchers, and a few knobs who did the wrong thing by going out there without permission too, but what are we talking about? 5 people? Maybe 10? Remember there were hundreds of Princess Parrots, probably with the Night Parrot, the most sought-after species on the Australian List. Admittedly, there was one confirmed report of sinister activity from a prominent aviculturist during this event (let's just call him "Ladder Boy"), but twitching hordes? Hardly.

Then Princess Parrots turned up again in 2012. This time they were on publicly accessible land, just a short drive from Alice Springs at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy's (AWC) Newhaven Sanctuary. You could leave Alice Springs after breakfast and be on-site by lunchtime. This has a well-serviced and beautifully set up campsite too - hot showers even. AWC had volunteer wardens guiding people to see the birds every morning and afternoon. Again, there were flocks of over a hundred birds, super reliable every day for close to a month! How many of the horde, twitching or otherwise, came to see them? Fewer than a hundred is my information from AWC's managers. Again, a good portion of these were locals. I went out there twice the first time the only other visitors were a few members of the Alice Springs Field Naturalists Club, and four people from the nearby community of Nyirripi who didn't even have binoculars! On my second visit I shared the campground with only two other people.

Courtesy: social media commentators

What about a situation perfect for the terrorisation of a bird by unethical birders and photographers? A first for the Australian mainland list in a suburban garden. When a Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus, appeared in Alice Springs in April 2013, many prognosticated the end of the town as we knew it. The hordes were saddling up and galloping to the Red Centre to swamp us supermarkets were emptied of baked beans and cockroach spray and locals hunkered down in their panic rooms. Sure enough though, a few birders came for a dekko, but again, the greatest visitation was by locals. The total number of people who have this bird on their list eventually, and in a very polite and convivial atmosphere, crept north of 100 during the bird’s almost three month occupancy of the Cormacks’ back lawn. In a garden. With chairs, and shady trees, and cups of tea, scones, toilets. Around the corner there are cafes, and shops, and fuel stations, and hotels. If this twitch was too arduous for the twitching hordes, what’s the likelihood of them going after a bird that foxed one of the greatest bushmen in the country for 5 years? In a fly-blown, spinifex-covered gravel-pit in western Queensland?

No, the whole myth of the twitching hordes, while it might be a concern in similar situations in the UK, is just a red herring in an Australian setting. More than alerting us to the dangers of over-zealous birdwatchers it raises the valid question of why those who perpetuate the myth, continue to do so.

Bulldozers: an actual threat to bird conservation

In contrast, I have stood in broad daylight with not a twitcher in sight, in very remote parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia and watched people, fully sanctioned by Australian law, driving 49 tonne bulldozers through hundreds of kilometres of pristine, potential Night Parrot habitat. I often feel like the reality of this land clearance is elusive to the majority of Australians with little experience of the outback, but land clearing has been identified by numerous bodies as one of the greatest threats to Australian ecosystems and the primary cause of species extinctions on the mainland. The outback can seem so big and indomitable that a few cuts of a dozer blade might seem inconsequential in the vast scale of things. If you’re at all uncertain of what a serious threat this is to our environment, just do a Google search for “reflection seismology” and have a read of what you find. This is a common practice in mineral exploration in Australia and it is cutting lines right across the outback every single day. At present, the only thing likely to stop this is professional ecologists confirming presence of Night Parrot (or other listed species) on exploration tenements. Again, this brings us back to the urgency for a survey methodology informed by acoustic data.

The protection of the location of Bush Heritage’s Pullen Pullen Reserve, while condoned by most in the Australian conservation community, is certainly less critical than the search for other populations in potential Night Parrot habitat under imminent threat of such clearing. Considering the number of journalists that Bush Heritage have been flying in and out of the site, how long can the site remain a secret anyway?

In fact, it turns out, the site is now all but common knowledge. In The Weekend Australian published yesterday, Greg Roberts reveals that the cattle property John Young found the birds on is Brighton Downs Station, from whom Bush Heritage recently negotiated the purchase of the 56,000ha Pullen Pullen Reserve. With Google Earth and SatNav, even Blind Freddy can find Pullen Pullen Reserve now. Not that it really matters though. This still makes not a jot of difference to the likelihood of the site receiving any unwanted visitors, be they birdwatchers, egg-collectors, Jehovah’s Witnesses or otherwise. The site is under 24-hour surveillance, with intensive coverage of camera traps and listening devices and… it’s still a bloody long way from anywhere.

The Outback: if you think it's going to be an easy twitch. you're wrong

In the mess that this story has now become, birdwatchers are still being touted as among the top threats to the well-being of the Night Parrot and Bush Heritage’s efforts to protect it. This is so far beyond ludicrous that I’m genuinely surprised at the readiness with which the birding community has been prepared to sit back and wear it. By far the biggest threats to the conservation of the species now are the mishandling of public interest and goodwill, the clearing of potential Night Parrot habitat elsewhere, feral cats and foxes, uncontrolled fires and the continued and inexplicable hoarding of acoustic data that should be informing pricked ears and automated recorders right across the outback rather than just taking up space on a hard drive somewhere.

Courtesy: social media commentators

In the three years since John Young’s historic find, the site, to the best of our knowledge, has received no unwanted visitors. Nil. It’s time to dispense with the twitching hordes bullshit. It just doesn’t add up and any further attempts to perpetuate it should be seen as a deliberate attempt to deflect attention and a pointless attack on a group who continue to make a valuable contribution to conservation and our understanding of birds in this country.

It’s also an interesting measure of the mishandling of both the media attention and the overwhelming goodwill of the birding community toward this project that, in the wake of Greg Roberts’ revelatory article, the internet was comparatively silent on the matter.

People have finally got Night Parrot fatigue, something I wouldn’t have thought possible. A bird that once set the birdwatching forums, blogs and chat rooms alight with spirited conversation and debate barely rated a few short threads on Facebook and a few fairly pedestrian posts on Birding-Aus. Bush Heritage may well be protecting the Night Parrot to the best of their ability but their media team seem to have killed the bulk of the public interest in it stone dead. The scientifically incompatible use of secrecy as a marketing tool and the drip-feed of same-old same-old titbits masquerading as news updates, clearly isn’t working.

As it stands, there are probably a few individuals out there who have become infinitely more knowledgeable about the ways of the Night Parrot than anyone else in history. This is some consolation. Publication is a slow process at the best of times and anyone can understand the need for researchers to guard their work until after publication. We can assume they’ll share this knowledge one day, but time is getting on. There are almost certainly populations of Night Parrot elsewhere in the outback that don’t enjoy the same level of habitat protection afforded to the birds at Pullen Pullen Reserve. As long as we don’t have a widely available acoustic survey methodology, every other population of Night Parrot is in imminent danger of being bulldozed into oblivion even before we know where they are.

Another source of great consolation is that John Young now has the full backing of AWC and is back out bush where he belongs. AWC, working with Queensland National Parks and Wildlife (QPWS), have committed to building one of the largest feral predator-proof enclosures in the country at the Diamantina and Astrebla Downs properties in western Queensland. This is in the middle of prime Night Parrot and Greater Bilby country and it’s not revealing any secret at all to state that these properties are right next door to Brighton Downs. So with the only man with a proven track record for finding Night Parrots spearheading their operation, you’d have to say that it’s a pretty safe bet that, in due course, AWC will be sitting on Night Parrots too and that can only be a good thing.

And besides, it’s fitting that John Young continues to be the Night Parrot man. That’s a title he never asked for and actively shuns. At every public occasion he has stated repeatedly that he wants the story to be about the bird and not about him. But you can’t always get what you want. The name of John Young is now irretrievably linked with the Night Parrot whether he likes it or not. If it weren’t for John Young I wouldn’t be writing this, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and the internet would be even more silent (on this topic anyway) than it has been in recent days.

For this, we all owe John our thanks.

Good times in The Alice with John Young (centre) and the committee of Birdlife Central Australia

The Night Parrot resurfaces…again…maybe

Over the weekend Birding-Aus, the Australian birding site for twitchers with attitude – posted a report of a recent sighting of the Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis. Another report has surfaced in the last few days. I’ve never gone looking for the Night Parrot and doubt that I’d ever have enough time, money or commitment to foolish causes to warrant spending a few months trawling the spinifex lands of arid Australia to look for a bird that no-one will believe I have seen…

A few words of caution for the uninitiated won’t go astray here. For a dedicated sub-set of Australian birders the Night Parrot is a “grail” bird. If you can say you’ve seen this grey and yellow smudge of I-look-like-a-fat-budgie bird then you get pretty good bragging rights over your mates. That’s if you have any mates, something that if you are a hard-core twitcher may well be in short supply.

One problem for the hard-core twitchers, and the rest of us, is that the Night Parrot lives somewhere out the back-of-bloody-buggery, no-one has been able to repeat, i.e. confirm, any of the recent sightings and the most reliable sightings have been of – in what makes this all just a little too Monty Pythonesque – dead parrots.

The first Birding-Aus report over the weekend says in part:

I have just received a report of a Night Parrot seen Skull Springs Road in Western Australia from XXXX at 21 52 15S 120 48 29E on 2/06/2010. Notes from XXXX are as follows: “I noticed the single bird fluttering next to the car, so stopped as soon as I could. It has perched a foot off the ground in a dead bush. I got my binoculars quickly only the bird, only 6-7m away. It then fluttered forward a meter or 2 to the ground and hopped once or twice, in front of me but turning it’s face to observe me. The emerald back flecked with dark markings, short tail and very stocky build caused me to immediately dismiss Musk Lorikeet as an option (aside from the range). Largish head had a greyish/horn/black (slightly large) bill. A couple of centimeters larger than a Musk Lorikeet, it may have weighed twice as much due to it’s large body. This bird resembled nothing else I had seen, and even with only 15-20sec (Bino) view of the bird, it is like no other parrot in the West or the whole of region. About 30-40seconds after I first spotted it it, flew/fluttered off into the spinifex, ignoring the tree about 25-30m away. I searched the spinifex for 15-20minutes.”

So far there hasn’t been the usual chorus of supporters/doubters that usually follows such reports – but give them some time…

The Night Parrot

The follow-up report on Birding-Aus came from an area about 145km north-east of the previous report and noted that:

“…We were driving slowly at the time with windows down and no music playing. At 5:45pm (sunset was at 5:27pm), 3 fast-flying birds crossed our track about 5-10m in front of our car. They were roughly 1.5m above the ground. I hesitantly said “Night Parrots” and David agreed. The habitat in the direct vicinity consisted of a large mesa and rolling hills, with open Eucalyptus woodland and a spinifex ground cover. This site was the most productive in terms of bird diversity and abundance throughout the survey, most likely due to water availability. For example, a pair of Grey Falcons and 6 Ground Cuckoo-shrikes were observed at this location on May 28th. The birds in question appeared to be coming from a large eucalypt-lined watercourse at the base of the mesa, almost perfecting in line with 2 small pools of water in the creekbed. The direction they were heading was towards rolling hills dominated by spinifex, with very few trees (mainly Eucalyptus and dead shrubs).

The Night Parrot is relatively small, crepuscular, prefers to shuffle about close to the ground (like it’s closest taxonomic cousin the aptly-named Ground Parrot Pezoporus wallicus), is nomadic across a vast area and with exceedingly cryptic plumage, it has never been an easy bird to tick off on your list. There are only a few specimens in museum collections – and most of those were collected from a small part of northern south Australia many years ago. The last confirmed sighting of a live Night Parrot was in 1912 and for the last 100 years it has widely been considered to be extinct and it wasn’t until the 1970′s that a series of unconfirmed reports of sightings started to emerge. In 1989 eccentric millionaire Dick Smith offered a $50,000 reward for proof of its current existence.

The following year Walter Boles, manager of the Ornithology Collection at the Australian Museum in Sydney and a leading Australian ornithology taxonomist and researcher of the evolution, systematics and biogeography of Australian birds, found a dried and very flattened carcass from the side of the road near Boulia in far-western Queensland. In 2006 a second specimen was found by Robert Cupitt at the Diamantina National Park, about 200km from Boulia.

Like many Australian birds – and not just those near to extinction – we know very little about the breeding biology, habitat requirements and life-history of the Night Parrot.

Reading these recent reports got me thinking about other sources – perhaps yet unacknowledged – of information about the Night Parrot. A few weeks ago I was doing some work with a group of Aboriginal women from a community outside of Alice Springs. At one point our discussion turned to the Night Parrot. None of the women could tell of a direct encounter with the bird but they were aware of where in their country it had been seen and of its preferred residential and foraging habitat, including names for their preferred plant species.

Another reference that I have come across in the course of my research into Aboriginal bird knowledge, particularly that of the Warlpiri people that are the traditional owners and custodians of the Tanami Desert in central Australia, is in the story that accompanies this painting by Elsie Napanangka Granites from Yuendumu, a small Aboriginal community 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs. Elsie paints through the Warlukurlangu Artists cooperative based at Yuendumu.

Janyinki Jukurrpa by Elsie Napanangka Granites. Image courtesy of Warlukurlangu Artists

The story that accompanies Elsie Napanangka Granite’s painting reads in part:

This Jukurrpa story is from country called Janyinki, close to Yuendumu. Paintings related to the Janyinki area often tell stories associated with men’s ceremonial activity in that country. The nature of that activity is so sensitive that no further details can be revealed. On another level, paintings of Janyinki Dreaming also often relate stories of women travelling through the area collecting bush foods…Janyinki country is also significant to its custodians for the various Jukurrpa that pass through the area, including that of the night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis), a small parrot considered to be ‘critically endangered’ and close to extinction, who’s ancestral home was in the area.

An earlier local (well out here somewhere a few hundred kilometres away is considered local) reference is the likely discovery of a Night Parrot’s egg in the Green Swamp Well area of the Tanami Desert in 1986 by biologist Dave Gibson. Gibson’s account of this event is contained in his invaluable 1986 report “A Biological Survey of the Tanami Desert in the Northern Territory” published by the (then) Conservation Commission of the NT. Gibson’s report summarises the thirteen survey reports from trips he undertook with fellow biologists and local Aboriginal people between 1981 and 1983. In the survey report for the last of his trips to the Green Swamp Well of the eastern Tanami he reports that:

“An egg was found in the Spinifex adjacent to the Samphire area. Later discussions with Shane Parker, Curator of Ornithology at the South Australian Museum who suggests that there is a very good possibility that the egg is that of the Night Parrot Geopsittacus occidentalis, because of its size, location and habitat in which it was found.”

Elsewhere in the survey report Dave Gibson relates a conversation he had with local traditional owner Engineer Jack Japaljarri and Tom Jupurrula who he reports:

“…knew the Night Parrot, describing how it dug a hole beneath a Spinifex clump. The people could not explain the decline of some species although Tom claimed they could be sung up again.”

Dave Gibson also talks of the assistance provided by local Aboriginal people to his work:

“The Aboriginal women were able to supply a number of new Warlpiri names for the fauna specimens which we had with us. We recommend a greater involvement by women in further surveys possibly the wives of men who are traditional owners of the country being surveyed. The presence of Aborigines on surveys has allowed us to gain a better appreciation of the importance of animals and land to the Aboriginal people. The Aborigine’s knowledge of the country and the animals should prove to be useful in setting up and managing any sanctuaries which can be negotiated with the Warlpiri people.”

In the Introduction to his final Report, Dave Gibson makes this observation of the contribution that Aboriginal people made to the project as a whole:

“Aboriginal informants contributed substantially to the survey, particularly by providing information on species now regarded as extinct in the Tanami Desert. Many of the species are of major cultural concern for Aboriginal people so management or research in the Tanami desert should include their active involvement.”

Prescient words from Dave Gibson there. In the years since the late 1980′s the Warlpiri people of the Tanami – and Aboriginal people across the country – have not only “proven useful” to government agencies setting up sanctuaries and national parks across central Australia but have taken on their own ventures in ways that incorporate their local traditional knowledge, provide local employment and enterprise-development opportunities and provide culturally-appropriate land and species management. For more on this work see this page on the work done by local groups all over Australia on Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs).

And just maybe some of the hordes of twitchers, scientists and obsessives that will be out in the wilds of Australia again this year looking for the Night Parrot might take the time to sit down with some local Aboriginal people to talk about the Night Parrot – and the other wonderful birds and animals about which they know so much…

Night Parrot Sonia Davis, Hermannsburg Potters, 1996

I just received this note from my mate Nigel Lendon over at Iconophilia:

Night Parrot Sonia Davis, Hermannsburg Potters, 1996

He has the following note at his post here:

Who says the Night Parrot is extinct? One example was scraped off the front of a road train near Boulia, in northwest Queensland in 1990, and more recently another was found dead after apparently having decapitated itself flying into a barbed wire fence. But this fabulous painted ceramic vessel suggests the ladies of the desert at Hermannsburg know more than we give them credit for. Sure, they’ve included many exotic species in their repertoire over the years, and yes, maybe some well-meaning whitefella bought them a book of bird pictures to work from – but. But it’s highly likely they know what they’re talking about. Who else, you might ask, knows more about poking clumps of spinifex grass than these naturalists? Is this evidence, or just nostalgia? This example of their trademark ceramic art was made by Sonia Davis in 1996.

Main Photo Credit : Another dead parrot – Diamantina 2006. Photo by Gary Porter

Once Feared Extinct, “Night Parrot” Sighted in Williams Lake Backlands

It’s been an exciting Spring here at the Williams Lake Conservation Company, and it was crowned by a confirmed sighting of a nocturnal bird long considered extinct. Joining the resident population of night owls and nighthawks in the Backlands is the Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) not seen for almost 200 years.

“It’s a wonder we didn’t look in the Backlands before” said bird enthusiast Chuck Wills, who could scarcely conceal his excitement. The terrain of jack pine barrens and broom crowberry creates the perfect scrubland for these mostly flightless birds, who make use of deer or beaver trails to forage after dark. “They even nest on the ground, and we are looking forward to setting up a webcam to capture any young that fledge this year”.

Night Parrot from Sketches From My Wanderings, J. Howe 1817

Joseph Howe’s Favourite Bird

The bird was a favourite of Joseph Howe – yes, that famous Father of Confederation – who was in the habit of hiking from the Northwest Arm to Williams Lake, where he’d swim to what is now known as “Joe Howe Rock”. In his collection of verse published posthumously, such classic poems as “To the Town Clock” and “Once More I Put My Bonnet On” are joined by “Yonder the Night Minstrel” his ode to the night parrot’s distinctive “whistle-whistle-squeak”. Click on the link below for a recording of the calls.

The night parrot is not a true parrot, although it looks like one. “It’s a case of parallel evolution” explains Karyn Plover of Ornithology.NS. “Their beaks have to crack similar pine nuts and seeds, so they look and behave like their parrot cousins. What makes them really different is their ground-dwelling behaviour.”

This of course is what spelled disaster for the night parrot historically. As settlers moved in to the Purcell’s Cove area, and began to exploit the land by quarrying rock and harvesting lake ice, the little birds were caught in the crossfire. “When they started using the old ice roads, and cart tracks from the quarry wagons, they and their nests were decimated”.

The sighting is further proof that the Backlands provides invaluable habitat for endangered and rare species. “We just missed getting P. occidentalis into the latest edition of Breeding Birds of the Maritime Provinces which came out in May of this year” lamented Wills. “We’ll be in the next edition for sure”.

The night parrot is the only true marsupial parrot, and thus deserving of its protected status. Last spotted on April 1st, 1817, it’s been exactly 200 years since this elusive and delightful bird has been known to grace our shores.

Most likely they occur also at other sites, say researchers

“My immediate reaction was excitement – this is great, there are more birds out there than we thought,” said Atticus Fleming, chief executive of AWC to Guardian Australia.

“But when you start to analyse it, the really significant thing about this is that these birds may be more common than we thought. That is something that we will be developing in the next few years as the study extends into other areas,” he added. The parrots were found in part of the national park which is bordered by Diamantina and Mayne rivers. Queensland government immediately declared this area to be strictly guarded and everybody who wants to break set rules can expect high fine.

These sanctions should discourage poachers but also many curious ornithologists from searching of this species. The same restriction was established before in natural reserve Pullen Pullen. Besides people, the Night Parrot is also threatened by cattle which makes considerable damage on local vegetation, wild cats and fires which occur there frequently. The fire destroys tufts of Spinifex grass where these parrots build their nests. Nesting on the ground is one of the main reason why this species is so endangered today. Besides above mentioned threats, researchers also found a nest destroyed by snake.

Secret reserve protects elusive Australian night parrot

The famously rare night parrot's home has just been declared a secret sanctuary in remote Queensland.

The home of Australia’s most elusive bird now is permanently protected with the declaration of a secret sanctuary in remote south-west Queensland.

Night parrots were thought extinct until live sightings were confirmed three years ago in a small patch of spinifex-covered land in the state’s Channel Country.

Non-profit nature conservancy group Bush Heritage Australia bought 56,000 hectare from a local grazier and the Pullen Pullen reserve, the local Aboriginal name for the night parrot, was declared by the Queensland government.

The parrot, also known by its scientific name Pezoporus occidentalis, is a ground dweller that nests in spiky spinifex clusters and comes out to forage for food at night.

When the sunsets over the area's spectacular giant, flat-topped hills known as “jump-ups”, scientists prepare their equipment to stalk one of the world’s rarest birds.

With a microphone in hand, a moonlit hunt begins amongst the spinifex that clings to the side of the “jump-ups” for this secretive parrot.

“About half-an-hour after the sun goes down, the night parrots are still sitting in their spinifex, daytime roosts and they seem to start calling round about then,” said Dr Steve Murphy, an ornithologist and a world leading expert on night parrots.

“So we’ve recorded five main vocalisations now. The main one we hear is a very sweet parrot like ‘ding ding’ and there’s another one we hear quite often that’s like the croak of a frog.”

Last year Dr Murphy and his partner Rachel Barr caught a night parrot, the first live specimen in more than 100 years.

“It was a mix of privilege and excitement and stress,” he recalls.

“All we wanted to do was get this bird back in the bush as quickly as possible.”

Tagged and released, that moment created the impetus for the creation of the reserve and the involvement of Bush Heritage.

So little is known about the night parrot that scientists cannot put a figure on how many would make up a minimum viable breeding population.

First recorded in 1845 but rarely seen, the last living parrot was caught in 1912.

It was considered extinct until dead specimens were found in 1990 and 2006 in south-west Queensland. Finally naturalist John Young captured photographs and a short video in 2013.

Once endemic across central Australia, the number remaining could be just hundreds or even dozens.

Actual recordings of its call, like the location of the colony, is being kept secret.

“There is an element in society that finds things kept in cages highly sought after, there is a trafficking threat, and we know the night parrot responds when they hear a recording of their call,” said Dr Murphy.

“By keeping it secret makes it harder for anyone who might want to do the wrong thing.

“Also we can’t afford to have that research disrupted by people coming out and playing that recording and upsetting what we are trying to find out.”

Poachers and curious birdwatchers are only one of the three main threats to the birds continued existence.

“The location is very confidential, we’ve really put quite a big emphasis on keeping it that way,” said Rob Murphy (no relation), the regional manager for Bush Heritage Australia.

“The secrecy of the site has been one of the best friends of the night parrot. Keeping the site confidential for as long as we can is very important.

“We’re particularly concerned about wild fire, and that could be from people or could also be lighting strike and feral cat control, that’s the key threat.”

After numerous failed attempts to control feral cats, a unique trap is being trialed that sprays the predator with a fast acting poison that kills within an hour of being licked off its fur.

Satellite real-time surveillance cameras are being installed around the site to monitor who comes and goes and a Bush Heritage caretaker will soon take up residence.

Traditional owners spiritual connection to night parrots

One group welcome on the site are the descendants of the Maiawali people, on whose traditional lands the night parrot was rediscovered.

“It’s very emotional and very spiritual to know that they are still here and really it’s good that Bush Heritage is doing that so they will be protected for ever,” said Judith Harrison whose Maiawali grandmother was born near the site.

For years Ms Harrison has been involved with Channel Country land and river management groups and has returned again, bringing for the first time her daughter Tammy Meers and nephew Darryl Lyons.

Their cultural heritage surveys along planned fence Lyons to keep cattle out of the reserve have unearthed a treasure trove of artefacts, stone scatters and bora rings used by their ancestors.

“It’s made us very passionate about our Aboriginality to be involved, to really protect our cultural heritage and find out as much as we can,” said Mr Lyons.

“The Maiawali were known in their main corroboree as the rainmakers and were often summonsed by neighbouring tribes to go to their areas to do the rain dance and the ceremonial dress of that corroboree had the Pullen Pullen feathers in it.”

The region was crossed by Burke and Wills in the 1860s and settled by Europeans in the late 1800s.

Several camps of the notorious native police were in the area and the forced clearing of Aboriginal tribes from the land is thought to be one reason for the night parrot’s disappearance.

“One thing we know for sure is that before Europeans arrived here we had a stable suite of mammals living here in central Australia,” said Dr Murphy.

“The thing about Aboriginal burning (of the landscape) was that when wildfires did occur it left pockets of habitat critical for survival of animals.

“That’s what’s missing today.”

Fortunately for the night parrot, the Pullen Pullen reserve is dotted with isolate patches of spinifex among the “jump-ups” and its immunity to wild fire is thought the reason why it has survived there.

With one site secured, the hunt is on for other remnant night parrot colonies, with an unconfirmed sighting in Western Australia in recent years.

“It’s classified as endangered on the Red List, it’s classified as endangered on the federal legislation, it really does have a high priority,” said Dr Murphy.

“A few years ago it was put at number one on the Smithsonian list of mysterious birds, so it has a really high international profile.”

Dr Murphy is optimistic he may find more.

“Chances of finding others elsewhere in Australia are good if we focus on areas that have similar characteristics as here and a similar fire history,” said Dr Murphy.

“If we use the same survey techniques as we’ve used here, that should work as long as night parrots elsewhere sound the same as in western Queensland.”

Rare Night Parrot Caught And Tagged For The First Time In One Hundred Years

Most bird experts thought that it had all but gone extinct in the 1960s, with only a handful of rare sightings – including the remains of two dead individuals 25 years ago and some not uncontroversial photos – in the last hundred years. But researchers in Queensland, Australia, recently managed to find the birding holy grail, having managed not only to capture, but also to tag a wild night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis).   

It was in 2013 that interest was piqued when, after spending 15 years searching, an ornithologist revealed a 17 second film of a night parrot – the first ever of a live individual – on a remote ranch in Queensland, though he refused to reveal the exact location. Suspected of forging previous photos of rare birds, doubt was cast on the authenticity of this footage, but either way, it was enough for Dr Steve Murphy to be commissioned to investigate further.

Following 18 long months, and collecting a staggering 15,000 hours of camera trap footage, Murphy finally netted one of the birdsਊlong with his colleague Rachel Barr. “When we had the bird … it was terrible to be honest … there was an enormous responsibility, being the first people to touch one,” Dr Murphy told The Australian. 𠇋ut since then we have looked at each other and gone: ‘Wow, we really did it!’”

After collecting a DNA sample, the researchers were able to attach a transmitter to its back, to hopefully learn something – anything – about the elusive bird’s habits. Since the tagging, the bird has only been spotted once more, and Murphy thinks it likely that the tag has since fallen off, but not before they collected some data on its movements. The DNA sample taken also adds to the mystery, as the researchers were unable to determine if the parrot they caught was male or female.

The tracking of the nocturnal bird revealed that it traveled up to 8 kilometers (4 miles) a night in search of food, but always returned to the same nesting site. Due to the likely threat of not only poaching, but also well-meaning ornithologists hoping to get a glimpse of the rare parrot, the exact location has been kept under wraps. Now that at least one location for the night parrot has been confirmed beyond doubt, the wheels are in motion to get the area protected, while Dr Murphy plans on returning to see if he can net and tag any more.    

Center image: An artist&aposs drawing of the night parrot, thought to have been extinct for the last 100 years. Credit: Martin Thompson/Flyingidiot/Wikimedia Commons.

Watch the video: Americas lost snow parrot: the Carolina Parakeet (August 2022).