One of the most famous of ‘missing’ birds is the elusive Night parrot, an obscure nocturnal species discovered by John McDouall Stuart in 1845 (though not named until 1861). Small, reluctant to fly, highly nomadic and cryptically coloured, it’s never been well known and even now there are only 23 or so specimens in collections. You might know the Night parrot as Geopsittacus occidentalis but many ornithologists now regard it as so close to the Ground parrot Pezoporus wallicus that both are included within the same genus (and Pezoporus Illiger, 1811 is older than Geopsittacus Gould, 1861).
By the early decades of the 20th century, Night parrots seemed all but gone, and by 1912 it was generally thought that the species was extinct. Hope remained, however, and the parrot became what you might call an ‘avian thylacine’ (Weidensaul 2002): about 20 unconfirmed reports (some made by qualified ornithologists) were recorded in the 1970s, and in 1989 a $25,000* reward was offered (by millionaire Dick Smith) for proof of life. Rediscovery of a sort occurred in 1990 when Walter Boles picked up a dried and flattened carcass from the side of the road near Boulia in western Queensland. The poor bird had apparently been hit by a truck and there’s even speculation that it was carried for some distance on the front of the grille before dropping off and lying at the roadside for more than a year. Incidentally, Boles and colleagues didn’t know to start with about the $25,000 reward: I assume they claimed it! So, the bird was quite possibly still around; a number of sightings were then reported from the Cloncurry area, about 150 km north of Boulia.
* Some sources say $50,000.
A second dead specimen was discovered in September 2006 by Robert Cupitt in Diamantina National Park, south-western Queensland (some of you will recognise this locality as the discovery site of the new Cretaceous titanosaur Diamantinasaurus). This is less than 200 km away from Boulia. Cupitt first noticed some of the distinctive yellow belly feathers of the bird, and then found a desiccated corpse. Its head was missing and couldn’t be found, despite a careful search. Like the 1990 bird, the 2006 specimen seems to have died following a collision: this time, however, the collision was with a fence, not a vehicle, as evidenced by the proximity of a barbed wire fence and by the presence of Night parrot feathers on the barbed wire of the fence. It seems that fatal collisions with fences are worryingly common among nocturnal Australian birds [the 2006 specimen shown in adjacent image and also below: latter photo by Gary Porter, from McDougall et al. 2009, suppl. info.].
A 2006 discovery is, of course, old news, but a paper properly describing the specimen and reporting its discovery in full has only recently been published by Andrew McDougall (of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service) and colleagues (McDougall et al. 2009). What makes this paper really exciting for fans of critically endangered Australian parrots is that the authors report evidence suggesting that Night parrots are not only just hanging on in Queensland, but breeding too.
Because the yellow belly feathers of the Diamantina National Park specimen are unweathered (in contrast to the faded dorsal surface), McDougall et al. (2009) suggest that the carcass was originally positioned belly-down and that it became overturned ‘by vehicle or machinery traffic immediately before the discovery’ (p. 199). They X-rayed it (there were no bone fractures, but stones or grit were discovered in the gizzard: see adjacent image, from McDougall et al. (2009)) and also performed a molecular analysis; they could therefore state with certainly that it was a female. Its moult phase indicates that it was just coming into adulthood, and was also in good condition prior to death. This is all good news; it suggests that the birds are breeding in the region, and hence is ‘an encouraging sign of a population that is not simply senescing to extinction’ (McDougall et al. 2009, p. 201).
Of course, we know all too little about the habitat requirements, ecology, behaviour and biology of the Night parrot, and all we can do is hope that it’s able to cling on, and perhaps recover from the edge of extinction. What also makes the apparent survival of Night parrots interesting is that it seems to verify the various eyewitness reports of the birds made prior to the discovery of the 1990 and 2006 specimens. People who see ‘extinct’ animals can’t always be right, but perhaps they sometimes are.
For previous Tet Zoo articles on parrots see…
Refs – –
Boles, W. E., Longmore, N. W. & Thompson, M. C. 1994. A recent specimen of the Night parrot Geopsittacus occidentalis. Emu 94, 37-40.
McDougall, A., Porter, G., Mostert, M., Cupitt, R., Cupitt, S., Joseph, L., Murphy, S., Janetzki, H., Gallagher, A. & Burbridge, A. 2009. Another piece in an Australian ornithological puzzle – a second Night parrot is found dead in Queensland. Emu 109, 198-203.
Weidensaul, S. 2002. The Ghost With Trembling Wings. North Point Press, New York.