Image: Illustration of the Night Parrot by Phil Wharton.

Two months ago I wrote an article about an enigmatic bird on the edge of extinction, a near-mythological creature flitting on the edge of our senses, a parrot of the night.

After an absence as a confirmed living presence for at least 101 years, the Night Parrot has granted us a sighting. And naturalist, cinematographer and serious bird man, John Young has the photos. Marvelously he also has the video and the sound recording.

And on a Wednesday in early July, at the Queensland Museum, he shared some of his treasure with an excited gathering of enthusiasts who had the good fortune or chutzpah to acquire a place at the invitation-only event.

John Young and others of similar determination have been questing through the arid zones of Australia seeking this secretive, elusive spectre.

The Smithsonian Institution has listed it as one of the most mysterious birds in the world.

Rob Nugent, a man making a film about a bird that was not there, spoke of it existing “only in inference”.

This inferred existence received a bittersweet but substantial boost with the 1990 and 2006 discoveries of deceased specimens; one road kill and one decapitated by fence wire.

Pilgrimages are made to the sites of these events by amateur and professional seekers alike.

Philippa Horton, Senior Collection Manager, Ornithology, at the South Australian Museum granted that Pezoporus occidentalis is “one of the holy grails”, of the ornithology world.

Finding the Grail

The event debuting John Young’s photos, video and sound evidence of the Night Parrot was opened by Tom Biggs, John’s colleague and supporter.

He gave us three questions to consider:

“Why did it take so long for the bird to be found and photographed?”

“How did John Young find it?”

“How best now to protect the habitat and bird?”

The first question comes down to three elements – rarity, secrecy and density. There are likely very few night parrots scattered  across the arid zones which cover more than 60% of Australia, secretively making a living in dense spinifex.

And it is John’s firm conviction that the bird is active at night and not, as earlier documents would have it, a denizen of the twilight or “crepuscular” time.

How John found the bird is a story of persistence, commitment and hard work. Click here for John’s own story.

Where did John Young find this parrot-shaped grail?

“On private property, somewhere in the Lake Eyre Basin in Western Queensland,” we were told.

And so to the third question; the one that speaks of protection.

No finer grained resolution of the location of the bird will be made widely available until proper protections are in place.

By Kmusser [CC-BY-SA-3.0] (], via Wikimedia Commons.

By Kmusser [CC-BY-SA-3.0] (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Sean Dooley, Editor of Birdlife Australia, speaking on ABC’s Bush Telegraph warned of wildlife smugglers who could get tens of thousands of dollars for a nest with eggs of this rarity. He spoke of, “obsessed collectors”, and the need to protect the find.

Detection, Protection and Research Strategies

Dr Steve Murphy, a senior ecologist for the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Management (APYLM), Unit in Kalka in South Australia, has himself been a seeker of the ‘grail’ bird.

He celebrated the discovery and got down to the business of outlining the immediate management response.

Dr Murphy reported that the fire risks were already being assessed via an analysis of 30+ years of Landsat imaging of the habitat, which will supply data on how and when the sheltering spinifex burns.

In a gathering of enthusiastic birdwatchers and working scientists the dangers of feral animals, particularly the cats and foxes, was a major consideration.

How does a ground roosting, hopping, ‘fat budgie’ escape the devastating predation of these introduced killers?

The threats section in the Birdlife International Night Parrot fact sheet states:  ‘One early account suggests the decline at Innaminka and Alice Springs coincided with the arrival of feral cats.’  According to an 1892 report, ‘many were brought in by cats at Alice Springs Telegraph Station’.

Steve Murphy reported that the recent good seasons have lead to a “spike in the cat population”, which represents a real and present danger to ground dwellers.

He informed the gathering that two professional shooters have been engaged to target feral animals. Baiting is being considered. Dingos are not being targeted as they may be eating the cats and must have co-existed with the Night Parrot prior to the arrival of the predatory felines.

Grazing pressure from sheep or cattle, although not an issue at this site, will best be managed via the continuation and enhancement of collaborative relationships with landholders. Each speaker emphasised the critical importance of these relationships. If/when other populations of this avian rarity are identified, some and perhaps all will be on private property. Collaboration and cooperation are essential.

Some organisations immediately offered resources and collaboration. For example Desert Channels Queensland would like to cooperate in identification of other habitats and already has a feral cat management program underway.

In north eastern South Australia, Steve Murphy, as Senior Ecologist, has oversight of the 10.2 million hectares of Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara, (APY), land. This is land that was superbly managed for tens of thousands of years through complex climatic changes by a people whose descendants are today engaged in the management of a post-colonial landscape.

In the land management section of their information booklet the APY says their objective is, ‘the sustainable use of the natural resources for economic development – in both the traditional or contemporary sense’. The list of specific objectives includes threatened species management.

Using the Data Management Program,  ‘Anangu and staff collect many different types of land management data using digital cameras, geographic positioning systems, National Livestock Identification System readers or radio trackers during monitoring and survey work. This data provides a long term record of change’.

Given that APY land encompasses a substantial portion of the Lake Eyre Basin, and is likely to have Night Parrot habitats, providing resources to this existing research infrastructure seems sensible.

John Young’s discovery provides data  that will enable the refinement of detection and protection strategies. All seekers of this ‘grail’ bird will draw on his data and the output of any research programs based on his find. Those who have had the mixed fortune of an ‘unconfirmed’ sighting can look again equipped with new data which will increase what Steven Murphy called “detection probabilities”.

Improving the odds

We need to improve the Night Parrot’s odds of survival. Detection, protection and research is the treble. Collaboration and cooperation is the double.

There’s no percentage in merely hoping that it will be an odds-on favourite for survival. Each speaker at the event was quite clear on the need for good will, cooperation, hard work and money if we are  to save the sensitive, secretive, mysterious Night Parrot of Australia.

Those of us who have seen some of the photos and just those few seconds of video footage, know that Pezoporus occidentalis is charismatic and therefore an ideal figurehead for the protection of significant habitats for our endangered creatures.

Securing habitat for the Night Parrot begins with the protection of an ecosystem.

There are people of goodwill, skills and knowledge gathering together to collaborate on preventing the extinction of our Night Parrot.

Resources are needed. Anyone for a little crowd funding?

More information:

An interesting article from Crikey with descriptions of various sightings prior to the recent discovery.

Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Information Booklet. This gives an oversight of land management practices on APY country. There is also information about cultural and social matters.

Birdlife International Night Parrot fact sheet

Management guidelines and links to online information resources for Night Parrot. An extensive list of documents relating to the parrot.

Lake Eyre Basin Coordinating Group

“The Lake Eyre Basin  is one of the world’s largest internal drainage system. It covers approximately 1.2 million square kilometres  of arid and semi-arid Central Australia.“

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

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3 Comments Leave a comment
  • Mary Withrow

    This is fantastic new and protecting them is #1. I would love to see the video

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