FOR NEARLY A CENTURY, all that had been seen of Australia’s most elusive bird, the night parrot, were fleeting glimpses – the occasional unconfirmed sighting, the odd dead specimen. For a long while it was assumed to have become extinct.
That was until July 2013 when ornithologist John Young announced that a decade of scouring the spinifex clumps, gibber plains, caves, gullies and salt lakes of the outback had paid off.
At a press conference held at the Queensland Museum, John revealed the first blurry images and a 17-second film clip of this exceptionally cryptic bird. “I know now from walking through their habitat that they are the most secretive thing I have ever seen in my life and certainly the hardest [species] I’ve ever worked on,” he said.
Night parrot location shrouded in secrecy
John had found a small number of birds in south-western Queensland, at a location shrouded in secrecy to prevent birders flocking to it. The find was so surprising it made the front page of The Australian.
Since then – apart from the alleged killing of a parrot by a cat, reported earlier this year – little had been made public about the rediscovered population. However, conservationists working to protect the bird, alongside the Queensland government and local landholders, say they are now close to an agreement that will see the site turned over from pastoral land to habitat dedicated to the conservation of night parrots.
Dr Steve Murphy, a Charles Darwin University fellow, who’s been studying the birds at the site, says an announcement should follow within months about a new conservation area, which may cover hundreds of square kilometres. The negotiations will “create a structure whereby the focus of the parcel of land is purely about conserving the parrot and other native species”, he says.
Bird that's back from the dead
One of only five ground-dwelling parrots, the night parrot was described in 1861. The last live specimen of the tubby species was caught in Western Australia in 1912, but, since then, it has rarely surfaced again. Prior to 2013, the last unconfirmed sighting was in the Pilbara in 2005, while a dead female was found in Queensland’s Diamantina National Park in 2006.
In 1989 AG’s founder, Dick Smith, even joined in on the hunt, offering a reward of $25,000 for the discovery of a night parrot, dead or alive (see AG 23). A dead specimen was subsequently found on a Queensland roadside by Dr Walter Boles and Wayne Longmore of the Australian Museum, who claimed the prize.
With so few sightings, the biology of the species was poorly understood. But research over the past 18 months has revealed many more details.
One insight is that the parrots live deep within clumps of unburnt, old-growth spinifex – now rare in central Australia. Preliminary work also suggests that the birds are most vocal after rainfall, and they may remain in the same location despite dry conditions. This is at odds with the observations of early naturalists, who suggested the birds come and go according to the seasons.
Unusual biology of the night parrot
It seems that some of the unusual biology of the bird – such as the fact it is very wary, calls infrequently and lives in dense cover – may explain why it has been so difficult to find over the years.
Steve’s work has shown the population is larger and spread over a bigger area than first supposed. Although he hasn’t succeeded in photographing the birds with camera traps, he uses automatic audio recorders, which “record all night, every night, for months on end”.
Steve uses computers to chew through the data and pinpoint night parrot calls. Using this method, he has detected bird calls at several sites, some up to 40km away from John’s original location. Steve’s very rough estimate puts the total population here at between 10 and 30 birds.
The next step is using knowledge about the bird’s call, its old-growth spinifex habitat and the same audio recording method, to find night parrots in other parts of central Australia.
One such survey is already planned for South Australia in the next year.
John Pickrell is the author of Flying Dinosaurs: How fearsome reptiles became birds, published by NewSouth Books in June 2014. Follow him on Twitter @john_pickrell.