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The quest for the Night Parrot


 
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John Young, wildlife consultant and wildlife filmmaker, outlines his 15 year quest to find a rare bird, the elusive Night Parrot. John Young readily admits that he eats, drinks and sleeps birds and believes that it is not possible to protect something unless it is known where it lives and what it eats. The Night Parrot had not been officially seen since 1912 and so 50 years on was declared extinct in 1962. Then in 1990 Walter Boles found a dead bird by the side of the road in western Queensland.

 
This prompted John Young to search for a live one and find its nest.He looked at what literature was available and found the claim that the Night Parrot was attracted to water yet it hadn’t been seen by the many thousands of bird watchers who frequented waterholes and the like.

 
Then because of a piece of literature that said “him all same rabbit live long burra” he decided that the Night Parrot might live in caves which encouraged him to search hills in western Queensland and places as far west as Poeppel Corner and Lake Eyre. Again, many months of searching and many caves but no success. Finally, when he looked inside a cave and found a large mulga snake ready to strike, John decided that the Night Parrot could not live in such a place!

 
He stopped searching for a while but in 1998 began another attempt. For almost two years he watched waterholes, even spending 37 nights in a row in the Simpson Desert. When that came up blank he began to search the caves again, also with no success.

 
He spent three years looking into the nests of species of birds who he knew lined their nests with feathers such as Fairy Martins and Zebra Finches, hoping to find one from a Night Parrot. He looked at tens of thousands of zebra finch nests that were often in the sides of Wedge-tailed Eagle nests and Fairy Martin nests after the wet season. By 2005 he had absolutely no evidence that the Night Parrot existed. Then out of the blue in late 2006 he got a call from a friend saying that a Night Parrot had been decapitated in a fence west of Winton.

 
When John examined the bird he discovered that it was a juvenile, proving that the species was not only alive but breeding. He then spent five months looking for the bird in the deserts around that area before extending further afield. Then in April 2007 while camped on a still, chilly, moonlit night he heard a bird call that he had never heard before, a call that his younger companion James confirmed. The piping whistle was way off in the distance and sounded like a parrot. He mimicked that call as best he could and soon had (what he later realised was) a male appear, followed by a female.

 

 
Fortunately he recorded the calls which he used in June 2009 at a site just 250m further north. He thought he’d heard something in response which his friend John Stewart confirmed. The next encounter happened in June 2012 at a site some 500-600m further distant. John had two friends with him helping him look for the bird. After playing the recorded calls they heard a response from down the hill but, even though they spent the next week at the site and could hear the birds after dusk in the spinifex, they could not sight one. He then got some finely sieved sand and laid it in every alleyway in the spinifex spaces within 20 metres of where he thought the female was. After almost two weeks there was one parrot print (two toes forward, two toes backward) in one narrow space, proving that the parrot was moving about, still without being seen.

 
Still determined, John returned to that site but the pair had seemingly disappeared but, encouraged by his wife Lindy (don’t come back until you find it!) he decided to look for a similar site, which he found some 800m away. John Young positioned himself on one side of the rise with his friend John Stewart on the other watching the dense spinifex on each side. They both heard the call of a male Night Parrot, an event which was repeated the next night. It was very cold and very windy when they returned but, as the night became pitch black the wind dropped, making the site dead silent. That was when the male Night Parrot called from the shadows some 30m away. John had his recording gear ready (both sound and camera) and the male Night Parrot moved closer, stopping every ten metres to call again.

 
When John put the speaker on the ground the response was instantaneous, the Night Parrot approaching like a Bondi tram to get within three metres. John managed to get a tail shot, a head shot and a body shot as the Night Parrot ran backwards and forwards through the spinifex. Then, in an inspired moment, he decided to put the torches on and was astonished when the bird accepted the light, slowly crouching into a sitting position.

 
This allowed John to capture over 600 images and 16 seconds of the Night Parrot on video, a world first and a numbing experience. Further attempts have failed to find more birds so this little hub of Night Parrots with its small population reinforces its status as one of the planet's rarest birds. Quiet and secretive, it lives rodent-like among undisturbed, unburnt spinifex that is at least 30 years old.

 
Stubby, with powerful shoulders to push through the spinifex and to launch itself vertically into the air, the Night Parrot is two thirds the size of a rosella. It has a very large black eye and an iridescent green body with gold chest markings. It also has two layers of tail feathers, one being black and gold striped at the top, the other being gold striped, hard to see when it moves between the spinifex. It can hop like a kangaroo away from spinifex but runs when inside the spinifex and in John’s opinion is definitely not attracted to water. It has a broad, flat beak seemingly not suitable for eating seeds, suggesting it eats something soft and moisture-laden like portulaca or chenopods.

 

 
There are threats to the birds from cats but in those areas where there are dingoes, that threat lessens, a fact that any baiting program should bear in mind. So far the Night Parrot has co-existed with stock and John believes that property owners should receive compensation in return for looking after the birds. It is amazing that after 15 years, there are now moves for conservation, making the original sighting and subsequent recording a great nightspot indeed.

John Young was recorded for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Summary text by Victor Barry. All images provided by John Young. July 2014.

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