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Where it began

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Graham H Pyke, School of the Environment
University of Technology, Sydney

Professor Graham Pyke from the School of the Environment at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) outlines the amazing demise and return of an Australian bird, the night parrot. The night parrot was unknown to science until 1861 when the famous naturalist John Gould described the species, followed by the first published image, a painting, in the 1869 supplement to the book Birds of Australia.

Back then it inhabited hummock grasslands, which are dominated by spinifex, as well as chenopod shrub lands, areas dominated by sandfire and bassia. Hummock grasslands and chenopod shrub lands occupied a lot of Australia, amounting to most of the continent. This included almost all the arid and semi-arid parts and the distribution of the night parrot in those areas was just as wide 200 years ago, occurring over most of inland Australia. It is hard to define actual numbers but in the period 1870 to 1890 some 20 specimens were collected.

Of these, 16 were collected by one person, Frederick Andrews. He worked at the Adelaide Museum and collected them from north-west South Australia, each specimen having been shot, a collection technique of those times. The specimens then became permanent records of the species and could be studied for things like taxonomy. The Australian Museum still has five specimens of the night parrot which until recently was the largest known population in the world. By 1900 the species was already close to extinction, the many expeditions sent out coming back empty handed.

Indeed the species would have been declared extinct if not for a specimen found in Western Australia in 1912. There were no confirmed records after that time so 50 years later, in 1962, the night parrot was declared extinct. Since then there have been over 100 reports of night parrot sightings, but without proof, they remained tantalising accounts of the species.
In 1990, however, a worker from the Australian Museum, Walter Boles, was near the south-west Queensland town of Boulia when he and his colleagues found a dead night parrot, one which had recently been alive. That got people like John Young enthused again and the night parrot became the holy grail of birding.

Further interest was added in 2006 when another dead night parrot was found in the Diamantina National Park, this time an immature one, proof that the birds had been breeding. From 2007 onward, John Young continued to gather similar evidence culminating in his recent recording of the bird on still and video film. This total confirmation means the rediscovered population will need protection from people who might love it to death by visiting in their hordes or by those with less benign motives, since a night parrot would be worth a lot of money on the black market.


Above: No one really knows what pre-European distribution of the Night Parrot was, though the shaded area is probably a reasonable estimate. However, though covering most of Australia, it may be an underestimate, as indicated by reported observations of the Night Parrot outside the shaded area and indicated on the map. Post 1900 there have, until recently, been just three confirmed records of the Night Parrot, one somewhere (location unknown) in WA (1912) and two in SW QLD, one near Boulia (1990) and one in the Diamantina NP (2006). Now John Young has found a small population of the species in SW Qld.

The management of this secret site consists of keeping things as they are, the site having proved to be a great habitat for the bird. The discovery also creates opportunity for research about species numbers, species behaviours and diet. John Young confirms that such research is already under way.

How such a widespread species of birds came to be virtually wiped out across Australia has not yet been researched but Graham Pyke believes that feral cats are the most likely culprit. Introduced around the time of the First Fleet in 1788, feral cats have now spread to all parts of the continent. There certainly were reports of pet cats presenting dead night parrots in Central Australia.
Humans have interfered in other ways. Foxes also went feral as did released rabbits and the fire regimes have changed, more burning encouraging fresh growth for cattle and sheep.

Traditional Aboriginal landowners have also been translocated and dislocated, further changing the fire regime, the lack of fire being an important factor for night parrot habitat. John Young believes that the bird only uses habitats that have not burnt for 30 years, so the new fire regimes of graziers would have consequences. Knowing what actually happened to the once widespread night parrot means that steps can be taken to ameliorate and ideally reverse the situation.

Large area burned by a Spinifex grass fire lit by carelessness. Image by Alan Fox

The fact that John Young was the person who rediscovered the night parrot is down to his deep understanding of the species and to the scientific methods he adopted.     
Changing one variable at a time allowed him to abandon waterholes as a habitat feature and to focus on other areas. Reasoning that feather-collecting birds like fairy wrens might reveal the presence of night parrots was another, even though it eventually proved fruitless. Most of all, however, is John’s capacity to think like a bird, a skill he has used to find the nests of some 600 species of Australian birds. When John inevitably finds a night parrot nest he will once again be making history.

Above: We currently know that the Night Parrot still exists in SW Qld and suspect that it is present but undiscovered within the Pilbarra region of WA. These two areas are shown on the map. Sadly, there are no clear indications that this once-widespread species occurs anywhere else.

The future for night parrots ?

icons of the harsh, enthralling, mysterious red heart 
of Australia                  
                        or mere museum specimens

Professor Graham Pyke was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images (apart from spinifex burning) provided by Dr Pyke. Night parrot image by Graham Fulton of specimen from the Macleay Museum University of Sydney. Summary text by Victor Barry, August 2014.

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The quest for the Night Parrot Three outstanding Australian conservation programs

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