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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Friday, 5 July 2013

That Benighted Parrot

Really there's only one natural history topic in Australia this week; the presentation of the first photos ever taken of a living Night Parrot at a remarkable extravaganza in a meeting room at the Queensland Museum. 

I have hesitated long and angstfully before committing myself to this posting - so much has already been said that it's doubtful there's more that is useful to be written, and the whole issue is fraught with cross currents. On the other hand I've been challenged at home, quite justifiably, to explain my apparent curmudgeonliness about the whole issue (curmudgeon?! me?! never - grumph...). And in truth when I tried to, I found myself uncertain. So, here goes.

OK, some background. The Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis has almost mythical status, having probably only been seen by a handful of living people. As you would expect, it is essentially nocturnal, and its habitat is essentially Spinifex (or Porcupine Grass) Triodia spp. hummock grassland; in South Australia at least its favoured sites seemed to be stony rises. So far so good - until you realise that 25% of the whole of Australia (ie almost two million square kilometres) is dominated by spinifex... 

Spinifex-covered hill, Gawler Ranges. Maybe there's a Night Parrot behind one of the clumps...
It was described by John Gould in 1861, from a specimen from "the interior" of Western Australia. Subsequently he was delighted to discover that Ferdinand Mueller had obtained a live one from the Gawler Ranges in South Australia, and had sent it to the London Zoo, where Gould examined it. For much of its shadowy history, the Gawler Ranges were a hotspot for the parrot. Indeed, at one stage I knew of 17 skins, of which 12 were from South Australia and 10 from the Gawlers; I understand that the latest count of museum specimens is 24. Local accounts described it as abundant, but this might simply have reflected a time when shepherds were on the ground to see birds flushed by the sheep. From the 1880s fencing was introduced, which led to the demise of the shepherd and of Night Parrot reports. It may well be that increasing Dingo numbers (without shepherds to control them) were affecting the parrots, but it is impossible to be sure if the issue was less parrots or less observers.
Night Parrots from John Gould's Birds of Australia.
courtesy National Library of Australia.

Certainly, as the 20th century progressed, reports slowed to a trickle. The excellent South Australian Museum ornithologist Shane Parker saw a group of Night Parrots in northern South Australia in 1979, by searching on camels which enabled him to sight them well ahead. Other accepted sightings (six of them) cover a huge arc of Australia from the Pilbara in the far west to central Queensland; these include two dead specimens (a road kill, and a bird which flew into a barbed wire fence) in Queensland. So, there was no question that they are out there, but how to find a scarce bird which is reported to spend its days in tunnels under spinifex, sealed with bitten-off stems?
Shaded area represents historical Night Parrot range; recent sightings as red dots.
Gawler Ranges at end of blue arrow.
Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Enter controversial bird guide and entrepreneur John Young, and the whole story becomes a little surreal. I have not tossed off 'controversial' lightly. In the 1970s he sensationally declared that he'd found a breeding population of Paradise Parrots in north Queensland, well outside the known range - or I should say 'former range', because there have been no confirmed sightings since 1922 and it is officially extinct. No-one else ever saw the birds (though he showed a select group of three the purported nest, a hollow in a termite mound). Startlingly he claimed (confessed?) to have taken six clutches, a total of 31 eggs for unspecified purposes, though they have never turned up in any museum collections. He seemed to have lost interest in the birds, as there was no apparent follow up. The eggs, if genuine, would have commanded vast amounts of money in the black market; in this case I can only hope he was lying.

In 2006 came another dramatic claim - a new species or sub-species of Fig-Parrot from the rainforested ranges of the south-east Queensland-New South Wales border, with photographic evidence. Given that it was within the range of sub-species Coxen's Fig-Parrot, it could hardly have been another sub-species, so another species was implied (there is only one recognised). Where Coxen's has a red brow, this bird had a blue one. In addition to the photographs, Young claimed to have taken pin-feathers from chicks for DNA analysis. Everyone, including the Queensland government, was very excited. In the event the photos were examined by a scientific photographic expert at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, who declared that the areas of image containing the very features which made the bird in the image unique were, to use a technical term, dodgy. Remarkably, Young claimed to have deleted the originals! And the promised pin feathers apparently went the same way, because they never appeared.

So, when Young bobbed up again, inviting people to a presentation at the Queensland Museum (in a hired room) at which he promised to show photographs and video of Night Parrots somewhere in western Queensland, there was some disquiet. In the event only six seconds of the video were offered, but the photos were apparently incontrovertible this time. (I wasn't there, but I know people who were.) Some of Australia's most eminent bird people, who would certainly known of Young's form, were convinced, which is good enough for me. It seems that fears based on the boy who cried wolf (dingo?) were this time unfounded.

Quite properly he is not divulging the location. More disturbingly there are signs that he doesn't intend to let any professional scientists or wildlife managers in on the secret either. Since the previous incidents, relations between him and government people have been somewhat frosty. Indeed, he is talking about raising up to $3 million from the private sector to prepare a management plan. Whatever Young may be he is not a scientist, and to my knowledge has never written a management plan; on the other hand there are scientists already employed to do just that, with extensive experience and expertise. 

Worryingly to me, one contact who was there reports that the 'white shoe brigade' was out in force. This is a reference to a group of Queensland Gold Coast property developers in the 1980s with powerful and wholly improper links to the state government. Is this where he's hoping the money will come from, and why he declined to show the video? It could worth quite a bit if offered as an exclusive. But of course I could be misreading the situation entirely and my contact may have simply misidentified a group of birders wearing suits and tennis shoes.

So why my slightly underwhelmed reaction, which surprised even me? Part of it is that I'm not taken by surprise, in that I've long taken an interest in the parrot, and have never doubted it's out there - the regular, though sparse, records make that impossible. So hyperbole comparing the very existence of it as being equivalent to finding a Thylacine or Elvis (it's true, someone did!) is a bit silly. Nor do I accept that there are only a very few hundred - or less - birds left, based on the few records. Those records span a couple of thousand kilometres of remote harsh country, and I've discussed the bird's very uncooperative behaviour. Of course we must adopt the precautionary principle and assume it is very rare, but I'd not be surprised if the opposite were found to be true; if the bird is living right across that range that means a large and well-buffered population.

I'm also very nervous about the way it's being kept from the people of Australia - not the location, that's essential, but everything else. The photos are made exclusive to The Australian, a notoriously right-wing News Limited paper whose only contribution to conservation in the past has been to attack it. The only access to the photos for the rest of us (via News Limited) is via a hefty fee 'with conditions'. This bird is no-one's private property, no matter how much effort and skill went to locating it. And there, I think, is the nub of my problem; the story ought to be all about the parrot, but it's somehow been shoved aside into a support role.

Nonetheless, just about everyone in Australia has now heard of it, which can only be good. We all await to see how the drama will play out; my big hope is that other populations are confirmed soon, preferably in a national park and by someone else. But what do you think?



Denis Wilson said...

Thanks for the balanced report, Ian.
I have already guessed he is fishing for a Movie Contract.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for that Denis - appreciated. And what a good thought re the movie contract; that hadn't occurred to me!

Susan said...

I guess we need to hope that the publicity generates a rash of people going 'That thing? But I've got dozens of them in my back yard...' Some of them will turn out to be lookalikes, but some of them might just be the real thing. That would put a spanner in Mr Young's works.

Flabmeister said...

Thinking about the concept of 'my back yard" for this species makes me wonder if anyone has actually thought of visiting the desert indigenous communities and asking them?

On a quick 'refresher scan' through Pizzey and Knight I can't really see anything that I'd consider a 'lookalike". Possibly a Grass Parrot turning up out there would be almost as important an observation as finding the Night Parrot!

Susan said...

PS Just back from a few days camping in Nicolas Baudin's back yard (Saint-Martin-de-Ré, his birthplace, on a small island just off La Rochelle). Saw several rare species of bird breeding -- and we aren't even bird watchers. I can highly recommend the place.

Flabmeister said...

A follow up thought to Denis's idea. Who would play JY? One of Peter O'Toole' tormented characters might be appropriate - to my surprise he is still vertical and working.

Berigora said...

Ian, On Friday I spoke to John about the criticism he has received over his past sightings and what I perceive as the need for him to confront the critics. He has done nothing wrong, although the continually rehashed record paints him as a fabricator. So what if he collected eggs. In a time before we knew it was wrong, many people of his generation did and one could argue it was this past that gave him the insights that led him to this discovery. Indeed having been in the field with John, his observation skills, particularly around breeding biology, are second to none.

I have seen the high resolution photos of the fig parrot, and I think you may have misconstrued what he said. It is my understanding that he altered the digital images and no longer has those originals.

As for the paradise parrot, you are simply repeating what Penny Olsen has written, even though she never spoke to John to ask for his side of the story; in my opinion, a serious error of judgement for a scientist not to seek out the primary source.

Like him or not, John deserves credit not criticism. The fact that he had the stamina to continue looking for the night parrot when others would have given up long ago, is testament to his determination and tenacity. Let's focus on the positives!

I don't agree this is a story about JY. It is a story about the NP. But now as a published author perhaps there is another story for you...

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for that Alastair, I appreciate your taking the time to rebut me.
Re the eggs, I'm afraid I disagree that in the 70s (I was there, remember!) we didn't know that egg-collecting was wrong; there was already a very strong reaction to it. In any case, there's a very great difference between collecting eggs of rosellas, say, and 31 of those of a bird so rare that it hadn't by then been reliably seen for 50 years. I don't believe anyone could plead ignorance in that circumstance.
With regard to the rest of Paradise Parrot story, I'm a little puzzled as to your concern with what I've written. I think I was careful simply to relate what was public knowledge at the time; he claimed to have found them, showed a few others the empty nest, and no-one else saw them. Which of those aspects do you think I've misreported? I'd be glad to be corrected.
With regard to the fig parrot pics, I can only report what someone far more expert than I in digital photography - and with no evident axe to grind - found at the time. I can also only repeat that it's hard to imagine the circumstances in which a photographer would delete such invaluable original images, but of course I can't say - and am not saying - it didn't happen.
I fully agree that John deserves recognition for his undoubted bush skills and perseverance; I'm concerned about motives at present, but if he does the right things and involves appropriate scientific expertise I'll be greatly reassured and will happily withdraw my reservations on that aspect of it.
As for your last sentence, of course your interpretation is at least as valid as mine; I can only write what I feel.

Berigora said...

Sounds like we need to sit down over a cup of coffee with this one, or maybe a debate on the morning show...ha ha

Ian Fraser said...

Either sounds good, old friend!