June 23, 2007
“There’s no doubt the bird is out there” … Leo Joseph, of the Australian National Wildlife Collection in Canberra.
Photo: Glen Mccurtayne
THE park ranger Robert “Shorty” Cupitt was repairing a section of track in a remote part of Diamantina National Park, Queensland, when the blade of his grader exposed the headless corpse of a bird he could not immediately identify.
The yellow-bellied bird, which appeared to have flown into a nearby barbed-wire fence and had been decapitated, was eventually passed to experts at Queensland Museum. They identified it as a juvenile night parrot. The ultimate, real-life dead parrot.
Dubbed the Tasmanian tiger of the skies, this small, drab, budgerigar-like bird has fascinated scientists, frustrated twitchers and inspired artists, poets and novelists for more than a century. Elusive and enigmatic, the night parrot appears to have been relatively common in central Australia in the 19th century. But numbers mysteriously declined, and it was declared extinct by some experts as long ago as 1915.
Such is the scientific significance of Shorty Cupitt’s find last September – only the second of its kind in more than a century (see panel) – that it should have been a cause for international celebration, immediate investigation and a concerted search for live birds.
Walter Boles, of the Australian Museum in Sydney, who has found only one dead bird in 20 years of searching, says of the find: “It’s an extraordinary event, which should have been followed up immediately.”
The birds may have flown. But at least now, after months of apparent inactivity and acrimony, a nationwide coalition of experts and enthusiasts has been set up to look for more birds – live ones.
The founders of the National Night Parrot Network, which includes the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, described it as part research sharing group, part rapid response team, ready to climb into a four-wheel-drive or an aircraft and head into the desert on reports of a sighting.
Several frustrated birding experts blame the initial delay in chasing the “lead of a lifetime” on a decision by the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the parks, to suppress news of the find. Steve Wilson, a co-founder of the network who works for Desert Channels Queensland, describes the agency’s behaviour in not sharing details as paranoid.
Mike Weston, research and conservation manager at Birds Australia, says the “incredible secrecy” prevented a concerted inquiry that might have yielded clues to the birds’ habits.
“The way it was handled was most disappointing.”
In an article in Wingspan, Birds Australia’s magazine, Andrew Stafford suggests authorities feared an unsupervised influx of excited birders from all over the world, into the wild, unmanned Diamantina.
Even park staff there complain that after handing over the find they were “left out of the loop”.
But this week an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman rejected allegations of secrecy, describing the ensuing controversy as a media beat-up. Staff, she said, had surveyed the area where the bird was found without success.
They had also moved to protect the bird’s possible habitat by upgrading boundary fences to reduce cattle incursions, and improving pest animal controls.
On one thing, all interested parties agree: recriminations about the handling of the dead parrot have to stop.
“The important thing now is to be better informed, better prepared to react when this happens again, or when sightings are reported,” said Dr Leo Joseph, of the Australian National Wildlife Collection in Canberra.
“There’s no doubt the bird is out there. The challenge is how to crack the code; to work out not just where, but when and how we should be looking for it.”
In the past decade there have been several unverified reports of night parrots – described as the holy grail of birdwatching – being spotted across the vast, desert area of inland Australia.
Several searches, some prompted by a reward offered by the businessman and adventurer Dick Smith, and two broad, “wanted dead or alive” publicity campaigns have failed to produce any evidence of a population. Yet continued occasional sightings suggest birds still exist in arid and semi-arid areas, Dr Joseph said. “In fact they may be managing quite nicely. But how and where?
“We still don’t know enough about their ecology. How they interact with the land, with other wildlife, with rainfall. Ideally, the network can develop predictive tools which will point us in the right direction.”
– 1845 European “discovery” of night parrot near Cooper Creek, SA, by John McDouall Stuart. Named by John Gould 16 years later.
– 1870s Several birds, now in museums, collected by Frederick Andrews for Museum of South Australia around Gawler Ranges and Lake Eyre.
– 1912 Last living specimen collected. Lack of subsequent sightings led to bird being declared extinct three years later.
– 1979 Parrot sighting reported by bird expert on camel trip with the Alice Springs tour operator Rex Ellis.
– 1988 The entrepreneur Dick Smith offers $50,000 reward for proof of continued existence.
– 1990 Dead parrot found on roadside, near Boulia, Qld, by Walter Boles of Australian Museum.
– 1996 Pair of birds seen by trained observers on water trough at Camel Bore, Newhaven Station, NT.
– 2005 Unsubstantiated report of night parrots in Pilbara, WA, delays planned $2 billion iron ore mine.
– 2006 Headless corpse of bird found by ranger in Diamantina National Park, Qld. Discovery kept secret until February this year.