For those readers who haven’t looked at a map recently, Australia is a big place. What’s more, with the vast majority of its population living along its coasts, the big empty desert stretches (‘outback’) are pretty remote by any measure. And it’s thanks to this hot, desolate nothingness that one of Australia’s iconic parrot species was able to simply vanish…
Parrots are birds. Birds fly. So parrots fly. Simple, right? Well, not exactly. You see, whilst all parrots bar one have the ability to fly, there are a few among them that simply choose not to. The night parrot is one of these.
Way back in 1845, an explorer by the name of Charles Sturt was trekking through the heart of Australia when he stumbled across this remarkable bird. Sturt was no novice when it came to birds, but at this point he made a critical if understandable mistake- attributing the parrot he saw as another member of the similar, coastal, Ground Parrot species.
Fast forward a century, and the Night Parrot was gone! With sightings few and far between throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the last specimen obtained of this elusive parrot was collected in 1912. What happened after that? Well, not a lot- and yet also really quite a lot. As the years ticked by, Night Parrot mania took an ever-firmer grip on aspiring young Aussie ornithologists wanting to make their mark. Countless expeditions were organized into Australia’s baking interior, with one sole purpose- to find and prove the continuing existence of this species.
Five years turned into fifty, and still no evidence was forthcoming. 1979 came with a break in the silence when a birding guide claimed to have spotted four of the parrots, but alas no photos were taken. So the hunt went on. Driven by a desperation, the owner of Australian Geographic magazine threw down the gauntlet and offered a massive reward of AUS$38,500 to anyone who could provide proof against the looming possibility of the Night Parrot’s extinction… and it worked! … well, sort of. In 1991, a dead specimen was uncovered lying by a roadside- and the reward duly paid out. Yet still no live parrots were forthcoming!
Galvanized by this latest finding, one of Australia’s foremost ornithologists- a man by the name of John Young- set his formidable powers to the task. Once more the years flew by, as the famous ground-dwelling parrot kept its cover.
September 17th 2006 dawned along with a remarkable breakthrough: a second dead parrot- a young one this time- was discovered, mangled and headless, ensnared by a wire fence. Robert Cupitt, its finder, was no ornithologist. In fact, he was a roo-shooter: a tough outback man who spent his spare time hunting any kangaroos he could find. Fortunately, he recognised the find for the potential value it had, and on his return that day presented the find to the owner of a local inn.
Paul Neilson, proprietor of the Tattersall Hotel, was an avid collector and naturalist. As such, he was all too aware of the huge stakes surrounding the Night Parrot. The result?
“Oh my God, yes.”
His way of saying that this indeed was another Night Parrot find. John Young was called in to the scene, and the hunt began.
Well, I guess by now you already know the story. In brief, things aren’t easy when you’ve got a vast featureless expanse of outback to search, even with such a golden lead. Finding a young parrot meant that there was indeed a stable, breeding population of the birds nearby- he just needed to find them!
Of course, John was no amateur when it came to locating tricky species such as this. Proving his reputation as a “Wildlife Detective”, he took into account the landscape in which the young bird had been found, and made a guess at its intended destination.
Night Parrots are largely terrestrial in their habits- avoiding flight most of the time in favour of an inelegant hopping over desert ground. That said, they can and will fly out, especially around dawn and dusk, to visit the grasses on which they feed.
Bearing this in mind, John pinpointed the parrot’s destination as a nearby cattle ranch called Brighton Downs. And he was right. In April of 2007, after almost a month of camping out in the scrubland, he was finally rewarded with a succinct two-note whistle emanating from the darkness. Apparently, he then mimicked their call and had a pair of parrots land nearby. The problem is, when you have a bird species that moves about at night, taking photos of them can be more than a little challenging. Despite this overwhelming success, John was left with only an audio recording to take away from the experience, and nothing in the way of the photographic evidence he needed and craved. The parrots disappeared once more, never to be seen again.
To cut a long story short, it was six years, and more than 200,000 miles of driving later that John finally obtained the success he deserved. On 26th May 2013, he managed to capture not only photos but also a short video proving beyond all doubt the presence of a population of these parrots hanging on in the wild. July of that same year saw the evidence presented to a packed audience at the Queensland Museum, and the rest- so they say- is history.
Follow-up investigations uncovered a total of seven confirmed sightings, and three active nests with eggs. 140,000 acres of Queensland outback was promptly set aside, and the Pullen Pullen Night Parrot Reserve was formed- an intensive effort to safeguard the species, with access strictly prohibited to the public and its location kept a strict secret. Since then, a few other scattered populations have been uncovered but population estimates remain as low as 50-200 individuals.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Night Parrots and the amazing efforts underway to conserve them, you can learn more at: https://nightparrot.com.au/
Night Parrot Update: New findings question the work of John Young
Recently some of the fieldwork of John Young for the Australian Wildlife Conservancy has been called into question by an independent panel of ornithologists and conservationists brought in by the AWC to verify the findings. Specifically, Young’s claim to have recorded night parrot calls in Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary is now seen as dubious as a result of analysis of the original recordings, which contain only the sounds played by Young himself to attract the birds. A suspected night parrot feather collected at the same location is also now very much in doubt in the light of findings that show the specimen subsequently presented to the South Australian Museum was in fact collected elsewhere. Finally, Young’s photographic evidence of night parrot eggs in Diamantina National Park is believed to be fake, with the majority of the panel in accord with several of the eggs being fraudulent.
The above findings effectively remove all confirmed night parrot sightings from Australian Wildlife Conservancy properties, and the organization has retracted all records of the night parrot detailing this flawed evidence. Confirmed records of night parrot are still, thankfully, at large and the initial discovery of the night parrot by Young has been confirmed as genuine. He himself denies all accusations but refuses to answer to specifics.
- Borrell, B 2018 ‘A Naturalist with a Checkered Past Rediscovered a Long-lost Parrot… Then Things got Interesting’ Audubon Society. Available at https://www.audubon.org/magazine/fall-2018/a-naturalist-checkered-past-rediscovered-long-lost
- O’Donnell, J 2016 ‘Yes! More Australian Night Parrots have been Discovered’ Audubon Society. Available at https://www.audubon.org/news/yes-more-australian-night-parrots-have-been-discovered
- Silber, E 2015 ‘See Rare Footage of a Night Parrot in the Australian Bush’ Audubon Society. Available at https://www.audubon.org/news/see-rare-footage-night-parrot-australian-bush
- Pickrell, J 2015 ‘Extinct no more: protecting the night parrot’ Australian Geographic. Available at https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/blogs/austropalaeo/2015/07/protecting-the-night-parrot/