Night parrot not particularly good at seeing in the dark, study finds

By Australian Geographic 10 June 2020
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Despite being one of only two nocturnal parrots in Australia, scientists have found they’re not particularly made for the dark.

THE ELUSIVE NIGHT parrot may not be as well adapted to its nocturnal behaviours as expected, a new study has found. 

The findings have raised concerns that the night parrot may be adversely affected by fences erected in the Australian outback as they may have trouble seeing them.

“Night parrots must be able to find their way at night – to find food, avoid obstacles while flying, and escape predators,: says lead author Vera Weisbecker.

“We therefore expect their visual system to show adaptations for seeing in the dark, similar to other nocturnal birds – New Zealand’s kakapo parrot and owls with enlarged eyes for example. However, we found that this wasn’t the case.”

The international study, published today in Scientific Reports, used CT scanning of one of the only known, intact skulls of the night parrot and compared these scans to related parrots. 

“We found that the night parrot has similar eye size to other parrots, with smaller optic nerves. It also has smaller optic lobes, which are visual processing areas in the brain,” says co-author of the paper Aubrey Keirnan.

“This suggests that the night parrot may not be great at seeing in the dark: its vision is likely sensitive, but with poor resolution, so that it might not be good at distinguishing obstacles like wire fences or even predators in dark conditions.”

Night parrot specialist and co-author on the paper Nick Leseberg advocated for the removal of old fencing to assist the conservation of the bird. 

“These results suggest that removal of unused fences should be a priority in areas where night parrots are known to occur. However, we probably can’t go entirely without fences – stock needs to be managed with fences, and some forms of predator exclusion could be important for protecting the night parrot.”

“We therefore need to be very careful with our fencing strategies, at least by increasing the visibility of wire fences, but alternatives such as low-tension electric fencing could be even better.”