Tetrapod Zoology

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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.

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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.].

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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.

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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.

Comments

  1. #1 David Marjanović
    October 6, 2009

    Five pages, and then it takes three years till publication? How did that happen?

  2. #2 Earrnz
    October 6, 2009

    It’s not dead, he’s resting. Beautiful plumage the Night parrot.

  3. #3 Darren Naish
    October 6, 2009

    Argh!! Pet Peeve 116: the fact that someone always refer to that ‘Norwegian blue’ sketch whenever parrots are mentioned. NOT funny. Sorry, rant over.

  4. #4 shiva
    October 6, 2009

    LOL @ Earnz…

    That first painting makes it look awfully like a miniature Kakapo. I presume convergence of plumage due to similar nocturnal/ground-nesting habits rather than close relationship, but still.

  5. #5 Chris Wellems
    October 6, 2009

    This is very interesting. Such an elusive species is far more exciting than loch ness monster sightings.

  6. #6 Fortescue Bullrout
    October 6, 2009

    A truck driver friend of mine who knows (and breeds) his parrots told me he has made many sightings of night parrots in the Pitjantjatjara Lands in the Northwest of South Australia, where I lived from ’98 to ’02. He drives a Kenworth with highway lights that are as good as daylight and saw many an “overweight budgie” flying around at night in spinifex country.

  7. #7 Earrnz
    October 6, 2009

    Sorry Darren. It was far too tempting.

  8. #8 Dartian
    October 6, 2009

    near Boulia in northern Queensland

    Apologies for excessive pedantry but… Boulia isn’t quite located in northern Queensland, is it? (To say that it’s in western Queensland would be more accurate.)

    Oh, and Shiva’s point about the superficial kakapo-ness of the night parrot is spot-on.

  9. #9 Sebastian Marquez
    October 6, 2009

    How similar is it to the ground parrot? Are the yellow belly feathers the only diagnostic? Can some of these sightings be misidentified ground parrots?

  10. #10 Jerzy
    October 6, 2009

    @Fortescue Bulltrout

    Unless this is ‘friend of a friend’ kind of a story, any serious ornithologist or wildlife authority would be greatly interested in this news.

    Aside of all: I wonder why some creatures are somehow forgotten? Night parrot is living in a country with not too few birdwatchers and enormous interest in wildlife, but nobody seriously searches for it, on the way ‘let’s go and find the parrot’.

    In the West Palearctic there are also such forgotten birds. Despite enormous interest in bird conservation, nobody seroiusly searched eg. for madeiran petrels. Or seroiusly tries to conserve Raso lark (population 90).

  11. #11 Fortescue Bullrout
    October 6, 2009

    Not a friend of a friend at all, his name is Ian F. and we are family friends since 1956.
    My feeling from talking to bush people in Australia is the night parrot is obviously very rare, but still extant in Australia’s vast spinifex country. It just about hits the difficulty jackpot- nocturnal, cryptic (resting in Spinifex clumps through the day), and very small populations, possibly highly mobile like most of the Outback parrots, in some of the most unpopulated areas of the planet.
    I just remembered- Brian P. told me he flushed a pair of night parrots on horseback on Partacoona Station, in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. Many years ago now, maybe the 1970′s. Followed them for a good while, positive about the ID. Very experienced observer.
    The point is, most reports have been from Queensland, but I am sure they are widespread in South Australia as well.

  12. #12 Christopher Taylor
    October 6, 2009

    How similar is it to the ground parrot? Are the yellow belly feathers the only diagnostic?

    Bloody good question. Probably because it’s so little known, there seems to be little consistency in the illustrations I’ve seen of the night parrot. They vary from “miniature kakapo” (like the one Darren has at the top of this post) to oversized budgerigar (in which case there’s little to distinguish it from the ground parrot other than the coloration).

    The ground parrot is also very uncommon. As far as I know, there’s little overlap in the ranges of ground and night parrots – ground parrots are found in the wetter southern part of Australia (south-west Western Australia, Victoria, Tasmania).

  13. #13 Christopher Taylor
    October 6, 2009

    I should probably note as well that the night parrot reconstruction in the Storr & Johnstone (1985) field guide to Western Australian birds is even more slender than the one I linked to above, so the difference between reconstructions is not simply a matter of posture.

  14. #14 Jerzy
    October 6, 2009

    @Fortescue Bullrout

    After reading this blog you must know that it is one of a two: either a major scientific discovery, or a tall story.

    So please, put local wildlife authorities or serious birdwatchers and your friend Ian F. in touch with each other. Or don’t be surprised that nobody takes you seriously.

  15. #15 Darren Garrison
    October 7, 2009

    The lesson in all this? Don’t fuck with Stephen Fry!

    http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=009_1254329808

  16. #16 anomalocaris
    October 7, 2009

    The most important question is this: can the video above finally settle the identity of the infamous “New Zealand head-raping parrot”?

  17. #17 Dartian
    October 7, 2009

    Here is a map of Australia with the locations of night parrot observations made since 1950. The 2006 observation is included but there also seems to be another recent observation (2005) from Western Australia. Does anybody know any details about that one?

    Fortescue: You said that Ian F. has had ‘many’ sightings of night parrots; how many are ‘many’, and how frequently has he had them? Once a year? Less frequently than that? Or more frequently than that? And has he seen more than one individual at the same time?

    Finally, regarding the habits of the ground parrot, which seems to be the most likely species that the night parrot can be confused with: are ground parrots ever active at night? How certain can you be, if you catch a glimpse of a greenish night-flying psittacid in the Australian outback, that what you saw could only have been the night parrot?

  18. #18 Christopher Taylor
    October 7, 2009

    How certain can you be, if you catch a glimpse of a greenish night-flying psittacid in the Australian outback, that what you saw could only have been the night parrot?

    I don’t think that ground parrots would be likely – as I said before, they’re not likely to be found in the same habitat, and they’re rare enough that a sighting of a ground parrot would be cause for interest in itself (it’s only very recently, for instance, that the western ground parrot was even photographed for the first time). I suspect that a likely candidate for confusion would possibly be owlet-nightjars. Owlet-nightjars have a predilection (sp?) for sitting on roads at night, and they’re not dissimilar in overall shape to a parakeet. They’re not green, of course, but at night, with poor colour vision…

    Which is not at all to say that that’s what the birds Ian is seeing are (the reference to them flying about is surprising, considering that as Darren mentioned at the top of the post night parrots are supposedly not much in the way of fliers, but I dare say that the sight of a road-train bearing down on them might inspire any bird to discover abilities it never even knew it had). It’s a very valid point that the Australian Outback is more than large enough to hide any number of nocturnal avians, especially when you consider that pretty much all Outback birds are extremely mobile in their ranges (in those uncertain conditions, they have to be). Also, boom and bust abundance cycles are well-known for many Outback birds (such as spinifex pigeons, IIRC) – something may appear to be gone for good one year, then swarming in vast numbers the next.

  19. #19 Darren Naish
    October 7, 2009

    Thanks to all for comments. Is the Night parrot close to the Kakapo or is it convergence? (comment 4). Leeton et al. (1994) examined phylogenetic relationships of Night parrots and Ground parrots using cytochrome-b data and found both to be close, and to be most closely associated with Neophema and Melopsittacus, and hence to be platycercines (in the broad sense of the term). A strong superficial similarity with the Kakapo was deemed convergent, and Strigops was more basal in their phylogeny. This matches more recent analyses (Wright et al. 2008) where kakapos, keas and kakas (or should it be kakapo, kea and kaka?) are the most basal crown-parrots, while Australian ‘long-tailed parrots’ (including lorikeets, rosellas, ringnecks, golden-shouldered parrots, neophemas, budgies and so on) are part of a major clade that is well separated from the kakapo-kea clade by cockatoos, vasas, vulturine parrots, African and S. American parrots.

    Boulia is indeed in western Queensland (comment 8), my bad. How similar is the Night parrot to the Ground parrot? (comment 9). The latter has a far longer tail, longer claws, a red region above the cere, and more obvious barring on the underside. The short tail and plainer belly of the Night parrot make it more ‘quail-like’: a nocturnal ‘overweight budgie’ sounds more like a Ground parrot. However, there are a few possible Night parrot sightings on record now (e.g., Garnett et al. 1993, Cupitt & Cupitt 2008, Davis & Metcalf 2008), so by no means are sightings such as those mentioned above (comments 6 and 11) implausible in my opinion. The officially accepted sightings come from Western Australia and South Australia as well as Queensland. The 2005 sighting is from Western Australia and was published by Davis & Metcalf (2008). Apparently this sighting was suppressed for a while, but I don’t know what the full story is there – let me know if you do.

    Refs – -

    Cupitt, R. & Cupitt, S. 2008. Another recent specimen of the Night parrot Pezoporus occidentalis from western Queensland. Australian Field Ornithology 25, 69-75.

    Davis, R. A. & Metcalf, B. M. 2008. The Night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) in northern Western Australia: a recent sighting from the Pilbara region. Emu 108, 233-236.

    Garnett, S., Crowley., G., Duncan, R., Baker, N. & Doherty, P. 1993. Notes on live Night parrot sightings in north-western Queensland. Emu 93, 292-296.

    Leeton, P., Christidis, L., Westerman, M. & Boles, W. 1994. Molecular phylogenetic affinities of the Night parrot (Geopsittacus occidentalis) and Ground parrot (Pezoporus wallicus). Auk 111, 833-843.

    Wright, T. F., Schirtzinger, E. E., Matsumoto, T., Eberhard, J. R., Graves, G. R., Sanchez, J. J., Capelli, S., Muller, H., Scharpegge, J., Chambers, G. K., Fleischer, R. C. 2008. A multilocus molecular phylogeny of the parrots (Psittaciformes): support for a Gondwanan origin during the Cretaceous. Molecular Biology and Evolution 25, 2141-2156.

  20. #20 Andrew T
    October 7, 2009

    The Boulia specimen was supressed for ~6 months which created some resentment – and rightly so in my view. It missed the opportunity to have skilled amateurs search the area – not to mention that if the Qld EPA wants observational data from amateurs it should reciprocate.

    The eastern Ground Parrot subspecies isn’t rare within its very limited distribution but due to habitat there is no prospect of overlap.

    Various inland parrots could be confused in flight in poor light if absent their tail. An inexperienced observer with an atypical or difficult view might also confuse other species like button-quail or owlet-nightjars.

    An experienced observer with views of sitting birds like the 1996 Newhaven sighting is unlikely to be mistaken.

    I believe the reward was $50,000 but it might have been split between Qld & Australian museums. I’d be surprised if Walter Boles hadn’t heard of the reward beforehand – it was well publicized.

  21. #21 William Miller
    October 8, 2009

    It’s nice to see the story all put together. I’d heard bits and pieces about rediscoveries of the Night Parrot.

    And a potential breeding population, awesome news!

    Are there estimates of how many there could be and still have this low of a level of sightings/specimens? 20 birds? 100? 1,000? 10,000? (OK, the last is just wishful thinking, but Queensland is a big place and not very densely populated…)

  22. #22 Jerzy
    October 8, 2009

    Hmm, parrot flying at night may be just a Budgerigar. Many daybirds fly at night, especially if you just flushed them yourself.

    The nomadic lifestyle of the Night Parrot is just a hypothesis, put forward to explain the lack of sightings. In this case it would be interesting to correlate the sightings with the particular weather/rain patterns, or maybe occurences of other nomadic birds. This could be the basis for searches in the neighboring areas where the rain fell.

    I wonder if there are follow-up visits of birdwatchers in the places it was seen some years ago?

  23. #23 John Scanlon FCD
    October 8, 2009

    I’m no birder, but since moving to north-west Qld one of my motives for spending quite a bit of time driving the Mount Isa-Boulia road at night has been to increase the minuscule chance of seeing one of these parrots. I have occasionally seen parrots flying across the road after nightfall, but some were Corellas and I’m pretty sure the others were red-wings, too big and long-tailed to confuse with Geopsittacus/Pezoporus. Owlet-nightjars are common in the Wet, either sitting on the road or in flight, and they have a disconcerting habit of making tight turns in the headlights and occasionally diving straight into the windscreen. Against red sand, almost any bird can look green.

  24. #24 Christopher Taylor
    October 8, 2009

    Owlet-nightjars are common in the Wet, either sitting on the road or in flight, and they have a disconcerting habit of making tight turns in the headlights and occasionally diving straight into the windscreen.

    Erk, yes, worse than roos (with the minor difference that at least they don’t cause as much damage if you’re unfortunate enough to hit one).

    The only saving grace is that they have a small reflective white patch on the wing – if you keep a really careful eye out and are not travelling too fast*, you can see a little white spot of light like a star sitting on the road that’ll tell you if a nightjar’s taken up residence.

    *And only an idiot would be driving fast through the Outback at night, because of the aforementioned roo problem. Seriously, the bastards throw themselves at you, and if one of them hits then your car may end up totalled.

  25. #25 Brian
    October 9, 2009

    Regarding the relationships of *Geopsittacus* (Yes, I don’t like placing it in *Pezoporus*), it’s interesting to note that the budgerigar, probably quite close to these elusives, is according to recent studies part of a ‘lovebird-hanging parrot-guiabero-fig parrot-lorikeet-lory’-clade, while *Neophema* is indeed a platycercine.
    This might mean that the ground and night parrot also belong to this clade of mostly small parrots and are not platycercines. The position of *Micropsitta* is unclear, but it too might belong there.
    You can read the results one of those studies *somewhere* at Grrl Scientists blog. Search the archives.

  26. #26 Darren Naish
    October 9, 2009

    GrrlScientist was discussing Wright et al. (2008): see comment 19.

  27. #27 Paul W.
    October 9, 2009

    Posts 15 and 16, along with lowering the tone of a science blog (sorry) are literally giving me an extreme case of déjà vu – strange.

  28. #28 Peter Mihaldatron
    October 12, 2009

    Obviously the night parrot forms a clade with the kakapo and both are basal relics that resemble the last common ancestor between birds and ceratopsians, which was an aetosaur from Europa! YOU CANNOT HIDE THE TRUTH ANYMORE DARREN NAISH!!!!!!!!!!

  29. #29 arachnophile
    October 15, 2009

    The Kakapo look of this lil fella makes me want to share this vid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5Faae5MZzU

    I’ll have to send this over to the mad-boys at Zooillogix. This is right up their ally.

    I can’t compete with the smart comments on this site so enjoy the funny. ;)

  30. #30 ali
    June 10, 2010

    WE REALLY SHOULD TAKE ACTION TO HELP NIGHT PARROTS

  31. #31 Belinda
    May 28, 2011

    I found one book called Boom and Bust (2009) there is a chapter in it covering the historical discoveries on the Night Parrot.

    Penny Olsen who is the author of this chapter mentions a naturalist called John Andrews who worked for the Director of the South Australian Museum. Andrews wrote a letter to the director with this comment ‘next moon is the time at which I have always obtained night parrots there’. Olsen said he was talking about the New Moon.
    I read else where that it is common for nocturnal mammals to avoid full moon due to a higher risk of predation. I can’t see why the Night Parrot would not avoid the full moon either. I am only new to this information and its my first year studying science. So I don’t know if the relation of the moon and nocturnal animals is common knowledge or not. Yet I cannot find anyone else mentioning the effect of a ‘New Moon’ and the Night Parrot. Personally,I would be looking for the Night Parrot during the new moon.

  32. #32 Belinda
    May 30, 2011

    Yeah, so that would be THE Frederick Andrews not John… I have no idea where I got that name from.