Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Australian Parrots and Cockies; some one-hit wonders

It seems appropriate to start the year with an Australian topic, and this is one that's been on my mind for a while. Australia (which includes New Guinea for most biological purposes) is a world hot-spot for parrots and cockatoos, the other being South America. I'll be using 'parrots' loosely here, to include all members of the Order Psittaciformes - ie cockatoos, 'true' parrots, and the New Zealand parrots. Australia has 55 species (41 true parrots and 14 cockatoos), representing some 14% of the world's total in roughly 5% of the earth's land area. (By comparison, South America has 2.31 times the area and 2.36 times the number of parrot species, which I find intriguing.)

However, of Australia's 55 species, 11 are the only members of their genus, meaning they divided off from their nearest relatives a long time ago. (I also find it curious that South America has only 12 single-species parrot genera, a much lower percentage, though offhand I can't think what the significance is!)

I find taxa, be they genera or families, with only one member to be particularly interesting, which doubtless tells you something about me; today I want to introduce you to those 11 singular Australians. (The Eclectus Parrot Eclectus roratus could be regarded as an 12th, with the only other species, the Pacific Eclectus Parrot E. infectus of Tonga and Vanuatu, becoming extinct apparently some 200 years ago.)
Male Eclectus Parrot (the female is red), Adelaide Zoo - sorry about that.
I have seen them in their natural habitat in tropical Cape York Peninsula but not managed a photograph.
There are six other genera with only one Australian species, but with other members elsewhere in the region, so I'll leave them for today.

The same is true for me regarding the Palm Cockatoo Probosciger aterrimus as it is for the Eclectus Parrot - that is I've seen it on Cape York, but no photos, sadly. The rest however I can offer you.

The four other cockatoos include two familiar pink species, which both apparently split from the main white cockatoo line long ago.
Galahs Eolophus roseicapilla, Forbes, New South Wales.
These lovely birds today suffer from over-familiarity, but half a century ago they were much less familiar
in the most populated parts of Australia, as they spread south-east with croplands and watering points.
Major Mitchell Cockatoos Lophochroa leadbeateri, north of Bourke, New South Wales.
Named for the controversial explorer Major Thomas Mitchell, whose rhapsodising of them
brought them to popular attention. They are limited to the dry inland.
Gang-gang Cockatoos Callocephalon fimbriatum, by contrast, apparently arose early from the black-cockatoo line.
Gang-gangs (male above, female below), Canberra.
One of the smallest cockatoos, we are particularly fortunate here in Canberra,
the only city where one can see these delightful cockies throughout suburbia.
The name is of indigenous origin - though as is so often the case we are not even sure from which language - and
beautifully captures the creaky-gate call. (I actually am minded of a cork emerging from a wine bottle,
though that is a dying sound in Australia as screw-top caps take over.)
The last of our singleton cockies is not always even recognised as one, though it is the world's second-most popular cage bird. (It is no secret that I find the concept of birds alone in small cages to be an immensely depressing one.) The Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandicus is found throughout inland Australia except for the deepest central deserts. Like the Gang-gang its origins are with the black-cockatoos.
Cockatiels, Sturt National Park, far north-western New South Wales.
As seed-eaters they must find water daily.
They are the world's smallest cockatoo.
Male Cockatiel, Mount Magnet, Western Australia.
The name is a diminutive form of 'cockatoo', as adapted from Malay.
And so to the 'true' parrots. The first four of the 'stand alones' we're visiting today are pretty universally agreed to share a common ancestor with each other and the rosellas (that is, more than with other parrots).
The Ringneck Parrot Barnardius zonarius is found over much of the continent; it has four distinctive races, which in the past were regarded as separate species.
Port Lincoln Parrot, race zonarius, Lincoln National Park (appropriately) ,
southern Eyre Peninsula, South Australia. Despite the name, it is found throughout much of
central and western Australia.
Twenty-eight Parrot (for the call), race semitorquatus, north of Perth.
It is limited to the south-west.
Eastern, or Mallee, Ringneck, race barnardi, south-west Queensland.
This is the familiar form in inland eastern Australia.
There is also a very green race, macgillivrayi, called the Cloncurry Ringneck, from a small area of north-western Queensland.

Another widespread inland south-eastern species is the Blue Bonnet Northiella haematogaster; despite the name its most conspicuous feature is its red belly in flight. It is a relatively sombre-coloured parrot, but I'm very fond of them.
Blue Bonnet, Theldarpa Station, north-western New South Wales.
Sometimes the isolated race called Naretha Blue Bonnet, from the Nullarbor Plain,
is regarded as a separate species.
Red-capped Parrot Purpureicephalus spurius, Albany, Western Australia.
Endemic to the south-west corner of the country, the remarkable beak
(which can be almost overlooked in admiration of the colours) is adapted for extracting
the tiny seeds from Marri Eucalyptus (or Corymbia) calophylla.
The relationship of the fourth member of this quartet to the others and to rosellas is less obvious, but I'm happy to accept the DNA evidence. The little Swift Parrot Lathamus discolor is in terrible trouble from a range of causes, including logging in its Tasmanian breeding grounds in the Blue Gum Eucalyptus globulus forests, loss of woodlands on the mainland where it spends winter, and predation on the nest by imported Sugar Gliders. 
Swift Parrot, Mount Majura, Canberra. In the mainland woodlands they are nomads, following the eucalypt blossoms.
The genus name is for John Latham, English ornithological giant (albeit somewhat erratic) at the turn of
the 18th-19th centuries.
Another inland parrot in this club is the Bourke's Parrot Neopsephotus bourkii, a subtly-coloured and retiring bird found sparsely across a huge swathe of the arid lands. The name commemorates Governor Richard Bourke, a nineteenth century liberal-minded New South Wales governor with a tragic life.
Bourke's Parrot, above and below, Thargomindah, south-west Queensland.
I find it very hard to get good pictures of these; even having found them, it is
very difficult to get close to them.

And finally, another desert-dweller and probably Australia's best-known parrot - though ironically most of the people around the world who keep Budgerigars in cages (see comment above under Cockatiels!) are probably unaware that they are either Australian or even parrots. When I see wonderful flocks of Budgies flashing past the vehicle in the vast outback, I feel very sad to think of them kept in solitary confinement far from home. For it is the Budgerigar which has the dubious honour of being the world's most popular cage bird.
Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus, Mullewa, Western Australia.
The male is on the left, with the blue cere (the waxy structure above the bill).
Budgies have such wonderful stories that they deserve their own posting, and
will receive it one day.
So, there they are - 11 parrots which are the sole members of their genus. I hope you've enjoyed meeting them as much as I've enjoyed presenting them to you. Even more, I hope you can meet them one day on their own ground, if you've not already done so.

And so 2016 has started! Perhaps a visit to South America next time.



Susan said...

A couple of years ago I was standing in the garden of some friends here in central France. A smallish bird flew over and circled around, calling frantically. The call was familiar and I hardly looked up, automatically thinking it was something ordinary. Then I realised the bird was a cockatiel! We think it must have escaped from a nearby private aviary.

Ian Fraser said...

It must have recognised you! A nostalgic moment for you both.