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The night parrot: A mystery as old as our country

ABC Science

By Ann Jones for The Chase

PHOTO: The moon hangs above the Birriliburu protected area in remote Western Australia.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

In the middle of the Little Sandy Desert, an old man sits with a strong cup of tea and a story to tell.

Here, he’s called Ullala Boss; in the English-speaking parts of Australia he’s known as Geoffrey Stewart.

He’s one of very few people in the world who has seen a night parrot alive — he flushed one burning a patch of spinifex.

But this story is much older. He is telling the night parrot Dreaming story.

PHOTO: Geoffrey Stewart is an elder, traditional owner and Birriliburu Indigenous ranger in remote Western Australia.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

Two ancestral beings, he says, were gathering the animals together and naming them.

“You gotta go right back to that Dreamtime — they wanted to get him, have a look at him, name him, so he could be among the rest of the birds,” elder and traditional owner Rita Cutter translates from Manyjilyjarra.

“But this little bird seen them and just disappeared, never to be mentioned or looked at.” A hand movement off into the bushes.

“And they really wanted to get a hold him.

“They woulda had a little talk together — and that two beings, they woulda put him in amongst all the rest of the birds.

PHOTO: Geoffrey Stewart is one of the only Martu who knows the Dreaming story of the bird now known as the night parrot.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

“‘You can join in, mix in, have fun and do whatever you want, as long as you’re with your families, in the right surroundings,'” Ms Cutter translates, slipping into the voice of those elder beings.

“But as soon as he seen them two — he just disappeared. They looked, looked, lifted

[the grasses]

and nothing.

“They tried to get him out of that big jumpy [spinifex].

“Flooding it, hail stones, caused all that big rain to come to try to get him out.

“No. He didn’t move.”

The parrot remained aloof from the family of birds, mysterious and unseen.

Even in the Dreaming, the night parrot was a loner, and the ancestors of humans were chasing him.

PHOTO: Birriliburu in remote Western Australia is thought to be one of the night parrot’s last strongholds.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

Colonial collectors and a death in a waterhole

The night parrot has been described as Australia’s most elusive bird.

It lives on the ground amid inhospitable spinifex in some of our harshest climates and is largely nocturnal. This, combined with the species’ low numbers, makes them extremely difficult to find.

PHOTO: A 1971 painting of a night parrot by William Cooper.(Supplied: National Library of Australia)

The European scientific “discovery” of the night parrot was haphazard and connected with favoured colonial activities of the time: collecting things and finding new resources to exploit.

A specimen was taken in South Australia by Charles Sturt’s expedition in 1845, and after travelling around the world to England, through the hands of John Gould to a benefactor’s collection, it was misidentified and ultimately went unnoticed.

Twenty years later, a specimen from Western Australia caught the eye of Gould and he named it the Western Ground-Parakeet in 1861.

Around the country it had many different common names: the Australian owl parrot, the porcupine parrot, the midnight cuckoo and solitaire, each of these giving a tantalising hint at local knowledge of the bird’s habits.

In the Victorian era, it was fashionable to collect animal materials. Sometimes live animals, and other times the bits of animals: eggs, furs, feathers or skeletons.

“Fairly soon after Gould gave it a name, it became a desirable,” says Penny Olsen from the Australian National University.

“Almost straight away, the South Australian Museum sent their collector, Frederick Andrews, out searching.”

Andrews showed a ruthless tenacity for collecting, not just parrots, but all birds, mammals and even fish.

The specimens that he collected — mostly shot — now sit in museums and private collections around the world.

PHOTO: Old preserved specimens of night parrot (on left) are still used to study the bird’s physiology.(Supplied: Michael Kearney)

Andrews was the most prolific of all night parrot collectors.

“We think something like 28 specimens that are now in museums were collected by him, and there is only 30-odd, all told,” Dr Olsen says.

“He seemed like an interesting character, quite solitary and rather too fond of the drink.”

Andrews was found in 1884 floating face down in a waterhole near a place poetically named Dismal Gully.

The most successful pursuer of night parrots had come to an end.

“It was all fairly mysterious, just like the bird itself,” says Dr Olsen.

After Andrews in the 1870s, hardly anybody else found night parrots.

“It got more and more sought after; more and more mythical.”

Missing, presumed extinct

PHOTO: The longer it took for a night parrot sighting to be confirmed, the more mythical the bird became.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

In the hundred or so years since Andrews’ death, birdwatchers have taken holidays to the interior, documentary makers have scoured the continent and ornithologists and scientists have searched for clues.

But little to no evidence emerged of the night parrot’s persistence.

Still, stories circulated, and rare encounters were driven by serendipity rather than science.

Those who spotted what they thought might be night parrots were those who lived close to the bird’s habitat — traditional owners, ringers — who happened upon a bird as they moved cattle, or heard a sound while they lit the campfire.

There were no photos, no recorded sounds or films.

PHOTO: Workers moving cattle would often report hearing the night parrot, but evidence was scant.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

The only place the parrot appeared was in poetry, novels and artworks. Dick Smith and Australian Geographic added to the mystique by offering a $50,000 reward for proof of the parrot’s existence; it became a treasure hunt.

As more time elapsed without a confirmed sighting, the bar climbed higher for acceptable “proof”, says Nick Leseberg, who is writing a PhD about the ecology of the night parrot.

“We got to the point where the only thing that would’ve proven that the night parrot existed was a dead one by the side of the road.”

And that was eventually what happened.

In 1990, Walter Boles from the Australian Museum came across a desiccated bird on the side of a road in western Queensland.

But the dead bird didn’t give away any secrets of the living; no-one could yet unpick the final stitch that was keeping the night parrot’s story sewn into its cloak of silence.

The final tug of the thread would eventually arrive from an eccentric source.

The find of a lifetime

PHOTO: Veteran birdwatcher John Young captured the first photograph of a night parrot.(Supplied, file photo)

John Young is a self-taught naturalist. He has worked as a guide and a natural history TV producer.

Mr Young says he spent decades searching the arid regions of Australia for the parrot. He searched through caves for roosts (fruitless) and waited by water troughs for a bird to fly in and drink (again, fruitless).

It wasn’t until 2007 that the bush telegraph came alive with a report that a grader driver called Shorty had found a decapitated bird in western Queensland.

Another dead parrot.

The bird had flown into a fence and its head had been sliced off. But Mr Young thought it could be a juvenile, which would mean that there were other birds — its parents — still alive in the area.

He set out to search.

An old-style yarn-spinning bushie, Mr Young knows how to build the incredulity of the situation into his narrative.

It was 10 past 12, and I said, ‘Can you hear that?’ The hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

“And I thought, if this is the holy grail, we’re so close it’s not funny.

“We recorded this four-note call.”

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

But even though Mr Young and his searching companion at the time, James Hardie, recorded the sound, neither actually saw the bird.

“The only way that anyone would believe this was to get a photograph of it,” Mr Young says.

This was a “boy who cried wolf” scenario.

Previously, Mr Young had made claims of finding rare, extinct or new species — other parrots — which were unsubstantiated scientifically. One of those claims was in 2006, the year before he took the sound recording.

Even if it was the biggest ornithological news since the extinction of the dodo, Mr Young kept the news mostly to himself, he says, and continued to search.

“I was like a terrier dog — I couldn’t leave it alone.”

Seven years later, on a 2013 trip in western Queensland with birdwatcher John Stewart, Mr Young was losing faith that he’d ever lay eyes the night parrot.

But one night, apparently at the end of his tether, Mr Young heard a parrot in the distance and lured it closer by playing back the recorded calls.

“All of a sudden there was this buzzing, there was a lot of funny noises. So I tipped my camera very slowly — nervous as hell — and fired the flash off,” he says. “I looked at the back of the camera and there was nothing but a blurred bit of grass.

“Eventually, I got the shot.

I thought, this is the best that my birding world is ever going to get.

PHOTO: John Young’s photo of a night parrot in western Queensland in 2013 has come under scrutiny for the methods employed to capture it.(Supplied: John Young)

Some of Mr Young’s practices, including the methods by which he captured that historic photo, have recently been publicly called into question.

Sounds, feathers and new nest sites reported during Mr Young’s now-severed employment with Australian Wildlife Conservancy are, at the time of writing, the subject of an independent review.

For now, Mr Young has chosen not comment on the allegations.

Whatever the outcome of the inquiry, almost all the scientific knowledge we have of the night parrot has followed from Mr Young’s find.

The secrets of a hostile landscape

PHOTO: Nick Leseberg is dwarfed by the scale of Pullen Pullen reserve.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

The place where Mr Young took that first photo is Pullen Pullen, which has since been converted from a grazing property to a conservation reserve by Bush Heritage Australia.

It has become the focal point of night parrot research.

For the first time, scientists are getting a picture of how night parrots really live.

PHOTO: Night parrot researcher Nick Leseberg and Bush Heritage reserve manager Shelley Inglis in the field.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

Situated on the traditional lands of the Maiawala people in western Queensland, the whole reserve is full of mesas — flat-top hills with weathered sides.

The dry flats between the pimple-like hills support huge, ancient spinifex. Grassy plains are dotted with gibber, which is like desert pavement.

“The gibber plains — I guess you could describe them as a moonscape,” says Shelley Inglis, Bush Heritage reserve manager.

“When you’re there, you often think, ‘How does anything survive in this place?’

“There are some large waterways that come across here … when it floods, but it’s really slow-moving water.

“After rain, those plains can support a huge range of different grasses and forbs [flowering plants] and herbs that are critical feeding for the night parrot.”

In parts, the spinifex is so old it looks like a set of sea anemones with their tentacles sucked in: circles of spiny bush with dead material in the middle.

It is here, beneath the most inhospitable of plants, that the parrots like to roost and nest.

PHOTO: A night parrot roost in spinifex at Pullen Pullen reserve.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

In fact, this place is the ideal night parrot hideout. Because hills perforate the landscape and the old spinifex is interspersed with the rocky pavements, if a fire burns, it doesn’t take out the whole habitat.

And the area’s remoteness, plus its baking gibber plains, have also protected it from grazing-related degradation.

From looking to listening

Ecologist Steve Murphy spent years chasing the parrots in and around Pullen Pullen. He hardly ever saw any, even though he knew they were there.

He placed song meters — sound recorders that turn on to record all by themselves — around the property and amassed years’ worth of nocturnal desert sounds.

In doing so, Dr Murphy established a critical night parrot fact: though the night parrots are almost impossible to see, if you’re lucky, you might be able to hear them.

After sleeping all day in a tunnel they’ve snipped through the spinifex, the parrots will emerge just after dusk and communicate with each other before flying into the darkness.

That soft burst of sound enables scientists to say whether or not the parrots are present.

How to speak night parrot

After taking over the night parrot project from Dr Murphy and conducting years of his own nightly recordings, Mr Leseberg is starting to understand the different call types of the night parrot — the birds’ vocabulary.

There are whistles such as a “toot” …

Check the URL at the end of the article to play the sounds.

… and the “two-note whistle”….… and there’s a long, hollow whistle that sounds like an umpire’s signal, with multiple tones buzzing at once in a sustained chord.

The parrots chime like delicate glockenspiels, with a whole raft of bell-like calls, including a multi-note “ding-di-ding.

And then there is a croaking call, which sounds like a frog or insect.

“That’s like a contact call. They use that a lot, it seems, when the birds are close to each other — like ‘inside voice’ or something,” Mr Leseberg says.

It’s the quietest chorus in the desert.

“It happens every night, and what that provides is a completely repeatable and very efficient method of detecting them.”

And now that recording units are regularly capturing these recognisable sounds, there is a surge of researchers studying the bird — without necessarily ever seeing them.

PHOTO: Nick Leseberg at Pullen Pullen reserve.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

Meet Pedro

After the initial calls of the evening, and the birds’ departure into the night, no one knew what they ate or where they went.

Until Pedro.

Pedro was a bird that was netted one evening by Steve Murphy and Rachel Barr at Pullen Pullen, and a tiny radio transmitter was attached. It would emit little blips and enable the scientists to track where Pedro went.

What it told the scientists was that she (DNA testing eventually revealed that Pedro was a female) was visiting very specific points in the wide, expansive landscape.

PHOTO: Plants thrive and flower with the smallest trace of moisture.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

She would go straight to tiny indentations in the earth, barely perceptible to the untrained eye, but with enough depth for water to pool for just a little bit longer than everywhere else.

Long enough for grasses to flower and seed, providing food for night parrots.

Then, when dry, these little indentations in the landscape act like a catcher’s mitt for windborne seeds, capturing a little bowl of night parrot muesli.

Current research on Pullen Pullen by Al Healy, a PhD student at the University of Queensland, shows that some vegetation, such as Uranthoecium truncatum (a grass that the night parrots eat), responds incredibly rapidly to rain.

It grows, blooms and sets seed in huge quantities, drawing even herons and water fowl to the middle of arid Australia.

Cattle are excluded from the reserve and the scientists are watching to see how the landscape works, remotely observing parrot nests and fledglings, predation by snakes and the problem of feral cats.

The search continues, in partnership

PHOTO: Birriliburu elder and ranger Caroline Long.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

Now that there is a protocol for detecting the night parrot, the search effort has multiplied. Birdwatchers, ecological consultants and land managers are all eavesdropping on the spinifex at night.

Across the open sandy deserts of Australia’s interior, in the wild north-west of Australia, the Paraku Indigenous Rangers in the Kimberley have found night parrots on their country using sound and camera traps.

Within the Paraku Indigenous Protected Area, the rangers are leading efforts to understand the bird’s WA populations.

Ranger coordinator and Walmajarri-Jaru man Jamie Brown has heard stories of the elusive birds in his community.

“My grandmother used to walk the country when they were children,” he says.

“And they used to hear the whistle of the parrot when they were children.”

PHOTO: The night parrot was previously thought to be extinct in WA.(Supplied: Bruce Greatwich)

In 2017, four birdwatchers in WA snapped a lucky photo of the south-pointing end of a northbound night parrot, their excitement and disbelief palpable as they rushed to get proof of their find.

And further south from there, across scorching sandy deserts — and thousands of dusty kilometres from Pullen Pullen in Queensland — in the Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area, the Indigenous Rangers are also searching.

PHOTO: Birriliburu elder Rita Cutter.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

Rita Cutter was born in the desert and lived there until she was five years old, when she walked in with her mother to a mission.

Now, many decades later, she’s returning to her country as an elder to listen for the bird.

“I am keen to find the night parrot,” she says.

“I want to be one of them first person to find it; if I do find it.

“And be very proud of it. It’s in my country.”

PHOTO: Rita Cutter searches the sand between spinifex for animal footprints.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

Dr Vanessa Westcott from Bush Heritage Australia offers scientific support to the rangers’ activities on country.

“The Birriliburu Rangers knew the kind of habitat, the kind of country that the parrot likes — the big old spinifex,” she says.

“The rangers went out onto this special country, they went to an amazing waterhole that had this incredible story — tjukurrpa — a Dreamtime story about the night parrot.

PHOTO: Dr Vanessa Westcott from Bush Heritage Australia is working with Birriliburu Indigenous rangers in Western Australia to find the night parrot.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)

“Then they drove to absolutely incredible country where the night parrot would like to live and they put the sound recorders out.

“And Rita that night,” says Dr Westcott, “she was lying in her swag, and she touched her heart and she said ,’Yes. I can feel them.’

The rangers’ sound recorders on Birriliburu are listening right now.

They hear pigeons flying, and camels grunting. They hear insects, rain and wind.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

 And one quiet night last year, they recorded a long discordant whistle.

While they still need more evidence to confirm the finding, the Birriliburu Indigenous Rangers are almost certain they’ve found the night parrot.

It’s deep within the sealed borders of the Indigenous Protected Area, where it is forbidden to enter without a permit. And it’s being kept secret.

“Groups like the Birriliburu Indigenous Rangers are critical to the future of the night parrot. When you look at the sort of country that the night parrot likes to live in across the continent, so much of it is under the control and management of Indigenous rangers and traditional owners,” Dr Westcott says.

“And when it comes to knowledge on their country, no-one comes close. They are the best people to look after that country. It’s linked who they are.”

The night parrot story has come full circle.

Its future protection returns to where it began — with the people who own the Dreaming stories, and who are still listening for the soft ding-di-dings of one of the world’s most rare and secretive birds.

PHOTO: Birriliburu Indigenous ranger Geoffrey Stewart in night parrot country.(ABC Science: Ann Jones)


Words and images: Ann Jones

Sounds: John Young, Nick Leseberg, Birriliburu Indigenous Rangers

Producer: Tegan Taylor