John Young responds to Night Parrot critics
Was the Night parrot really found? By John Young? What’s Penny Olsen claiming? How can mere mortals figure out what is going on amid these claims and counter-claims?
John Young has responded to critics of his work on the Night Parrot and other wildlife in the following report by prominent North Queensland naturalist Lloyd Nielsen.
Penny Olsen’s ongoing vendetta against John Young
Having read the paper “A recent investigation highlights the importance of honesty in ornithology and conservation” by Penny Olsen and Peter Menkhorst published on-line, the Emu – Austral Ornithology (2020), the unproven allegations, the inaccuracies, poor research and lack of science contained in this paper are not only staggering but must be challenged! The paper blatantly though not in so many words but quite dishonestly denounces John Young as a fraud as were at least two recent papers singularly authored by Olsen. In reality, it is nothing more than a very shameful, highly defamatory attempt to further attack Young, and another hollow and desperate attempt to convince the greater birding community he is a hoaxer.
One wonders why this paper was ever accepted for publication by the journal (Emu) which must leave not only the authors but also the journal and its editor open to litigation! Young was never contacted concerning this publication nor given the opportunity to reply!
From her previous hateful and malicious writings concerning Young, one can assume Olsen is the lead author of the above paper.Consequently, the whole paper can be and should be dismissed as outright dishonest drivel, something entirely inappropriate for any publication, let alone a leading scientific, ornithological journal!
Ms Olsen, who seems to be very obviously and blatantly spearheading another assault against Young, has over time, shown that she publicly conducts vendettas against targeted people – one notable failed attempt being against J. Olsen concerning the status, etc. of the Little Eagle in the Australian Capital Territory (Olsen & Rae 2017; Olsen 2018) ). She has conducted several against John Young, the reason for which only she knows (Olsen 2007; Olsen 2018a; Olsen 2020a; Olsen & Menkhorst 2020).
It is widely known that she has had a very personal, savage, obsessive and ongoing vendetta against Young for about 20 years and has many times, with scoff and scorn, gone to extreme lengths to try to destroy the substance of his field work, extensive conservation work and reputation with false accusations, e.g. the classic but cowardly attempts in her books “Glimpses of Paradise” (Olsen 2007) and “Night Parrot” (Olsen 2018a) where she knew Young would have no comeback. When Glimpses of Paradise appeared, a prominent ornithologist asked Young if he was going to commence litigation against her for the defamatory statements against him which the book contained (pers. comm. Name withheld on request). To his credit, Young has never replied to her hostility and has always ignored her onslaught.
Her attacks on Young have been denounced by a number of reviewers of her books, even as far away as the United States of America, yet she obsessively carries on (e.g. Olsen & Menkhorst 2020). In a review of Night Parrot in Australian Field Ornithology: “Olsen occasionally makes assertions or implies behavior, regarding John Young in particular, that does not enhance the book. I find this aspect of the book quite unprofessional and it disappoints me considerably. Although there may be some lack of clarity about the contributions of John Young in recent times, and perhaps several unanswered questions raised in the birding community, there are far more reasonable ways and more appropriate places to approach better understanding. A one-sided attack in a book of this nature is not one of them.” (Valentine 2019).
And again – “Penny Olsen’s book attracted censure even before it was fully launched. The criticism is mostly directed at the way she portrayed John Young and his work….. Even his account of the hours and kilometres spent searching for the Night Parrot is questioned….. Unfortunately, all indications are that she relied solely on secondary sources for information about him…..Clearly, more effort should have been made, since he was the one who rediscovered the species and triggered major research and conservation efforts.” (Lenz 2018)
Another example from a well-known museum curator whom Olsen knows well, “I was very disappointed with the Olsen Night Parrot book, mainly due to the fact that we would know very little about this bird had it not been for the efforts of John Young”. (pers. comm., name withheld on request).
Sadly, despicably and disgracefully in the current paper, Olsen and Menkhorst have directly associated Young with noted fraudsters, George Bristow and Richard Meinertzhagen, two infamous British con-artists operating during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Harrop et al. 2012). Not only are their assumptions completely baseless but they have executed extremely poor research, basing their case on conjecture and innuendo. For anyone who uses the appellation of “scientist”, “doctor” or “professor” such action is reprehensible and immensely unprofessional!
Summarising, and sadly, it is very obvious that Olsen and Menkhorst together with Olsen’s very small band of supporters, are attempting to prove Young is a fraud on false “evidence”! Unfortunately, very important ornithological and conservation work is being hampered by such unproductive and hateful action all for the sake of a personal vendetta for which the entire birding community is oblivious of the reason. Young’s persistence and eventual discovery of the Night Parrot, at a great cost to himself in time and income, should be given the ongoing recognition it deserves – but thanks to this craziness it often draws derision and thoughts of fraud.
For the sake of honesty, fairness and continuation of important research, this needless lunacy must cease!
However, despite these attacks, Young’s discovery heralded some important things – not only ongoing knowledge of the parrot which must go a long way to ensuring the bird’s continued survival – but to other spin-offs as well, i.e. “It has been another busy 12 months for the growing Night Parrot research community. There is now systematic search occurring across the continent and more people than ever before are directly involved in the study of Night Parrots, including scientists, land managers and traditional owners.” (Birdlife Australia 2019).
I have personally known John Young for about 30 years and have done numerous field research trips with him, including to the site where the Night Parrot was eventually discovered. I can state with complete confidence and honesty, that he NEVER indulges in fraud and NEVER HAS! Many others who have worked with him, many with substantial credentials, wholeheartedly agree and are highly disappointed at the continued accusations. (See references below).
It is incredible that Olsen and Menkhorst seem to be the only people aware of the “fraud” and “dishonesty” that they attribute to Young. Many others, some with far greater distinguished credentials than either Olsen or Menkhorst, continue to pour high praise on him for his skill in the field ability and honesty (Hollands 2008; Mason & Pfitzner 2020 and many others).
I used much of Young’s data, with credits, in one of my books Birds of Queensland’s Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef” (Nielsen 1996) and that data is still correct today! It was rechecked when I produced an updated version of the book in recent years (Nielsen 2015).
Richard Schodde & Ian Mason relied on some of Young’s extensive experience with owls on the east coast and through the northern tropics of Australia for their monumental work Nocturnal Birds of Australia (Schodde & Mason 1980). Again, that data still stands today. Mason & Pfitzner state “The publications (i.e. Nocturnal Birds of Australia (Schodde & Mason 1980), Owls, Frogmouths and Nightjars of Australia (Hollands 2008) and Eagles Hawks and Falcons of Australia (Hollands 1984)) would not have been a success without John’s climbing abilities and knowledge gained by his past collecting experiences.”
The esteemed senior ornithologist, David Hollands, engaged Young numerous times over many years when producing his two ground-breaking books on owls, Birds of the Night (Hollands 1991) and Owls Frogmouths and Nightjars of Australia (Hollands 2008). Again, that data still stands today. In the latter, Hollands pays tribute to Young, i.e. “Without John, I would have undoubtedly given up and my debt to him is enormous….finder of unfindable nests and builder of impossible hides, he is the most remarkable bushman and naturalist whom I have ever met. His overall knowledge of owls is profound and much of the new information in the Field Guide (section) has come from him.”
Young was at the forefront when Rod Kavanagh worked on a thesis on large forest owls in central western New South Wales. Kavanagh acknowledged Young’s assistance and input with – “Special thanks go to the indefatigable and jocular John Young for teaching me to ‘think like an owl’, and for demonstrating the basic field techniques needed to find and study owls at their nests and roosts.” (Kavanagh 1997). A secondary benefit from Kavanagh’s work with the input from Young resulted in large areas of habitat and forest owl territories being protected.
Young has been hired by professional people of high standing – ornithologists, entomologists, lepidopterists, film makers and others – from around the world over many years for his ornithological and lepidoptery expertise, bushman skills, and an exceptional, uncanny understanding of wildlife in the field. He has been engaged by people such as Sir David Attenborough, Dr. Jim Frazier and Densy Clyne, Jack and Lindsay Cupper (Cupper & Cupper 1981) – as well as many professional ornithologists, film makers and others.
One of Olsen’s and Menkhorsts’s major errors is that Young is NOT a scientist, but they attempt to judge him as one. At the same time ignoring the great field and conservation work he has done. He has never set out to be a scientist, nor has he had an interest in publishing material. He is a field naturalist of the highest order, gifted with a rare sixth sense (which he uses to assist others in their research). Whereas, Ms Olsen presents herself as a historian and an author relying on published material and the work of others to produce her books and other writings, often with a nasty overtone as in this paper and some of her books. For many years she has repeatedly demonstrated that she is not a field biologist but is quick to give an opinion whether right or wrong on other’s work.
From her writings and statements, she seems oblivious of what really happens in the field. For example, Young and his brother found 17 nests of Lesser Sooty Owl in the Ingham area in one breeding season (1987) when working with Hollands. He witnessed this amazing feat himself, visiting every nest (Hollands 2008). Up until that point, the nest and breeding habits of Lesser Sooty Owl were virtually unknown (Higgins 1999). Yet, while most lauded the work, Ms Olsen condescendingly scoffs, dismissing this amazing feat without question, research, examination or contact with any of the three men as “unbelievable owl survey numbers” (Olsen 2018a), a case of the ignorant doubting the skilled! It was also a disgusting smear to the credibility of David Hollands.
It has been revealed that Olsen has recently written a comment piece for publication throwing some trivial doubt on data supplied by Young in a paper published 23 years ago (Young & De Lai 1997). This concerned large numbers of owls in the sugar-cane fields in the Ingham district, north Queensland, conducted over a number of years and “Klerat” (Brodifacoum), an anticoagulant toxicant rodenticide used by cane farmers to control the rats. It was found to be responsible for large numbers of owl deaths.
Her questioning concerns owl numbers quoted, claiming that owls (the Tyto group) are “boom-bust birds” and numbers quoted for year after year are “unbelievable”, i.e. “the sheer numbers seem extraordinary” and “nor are the patterns believable, with little variation in breeding between years…”. Here she once again shows great ignorance of the situation which some little research (there are many scientific papers and other reports available (e.g. Geiger 2015)) would have revealed, i.e. rodent numbers in sugar-cane crops where rodents are an annual and perennial problem for growers worldwide. It is generally “boom” for the owls in most years where the main food source of the rodents turns to a vast supply – standing sugar cane stalks as the cane develops, resulting in heavy crop losses.
I have personally counted 72 Eastern Barn Owls and 6 Eastern Grass Owls along about 4 km of roadway in a couple of hours on one night. Further, Young’s figures are based on estimates of numbers over a huge area, not on smaller specific surveys.
Unbelievably, both Olsen and Menkhorst have had virtually no contact with Young at any time or on any subject, yet they castigate him severely. Even when Olsen was working on Night Parrot, her entire contact with Young was two very short emails (copies retained) the first asking if he would help with “some text” or “photos”. Young initially agreed (by email) to help but not before complaining at the way she treated him in Glimpes of Paradise, i.e. “You did not even give me the time of day to converse with me personally to ensure your writings were fact which they sure as hell were not. Instead you wrote what others fed you which shows no scientific value whatever.” Young went on regarding breeding Paradise Parrots he was supposed to have found at Ingham, north Queensland “I found some unusual holes in termite mounds and merely joked to one individual ‘wouldn’t it be funny if these were Paradise Parrots’, nothing more, nothing less. Then you accused me of taking 31 eggs (of Paradise Parrot). What the hell were you thinking – no one in their right mind would do such a despicable thing – LEAST OF ALL ME!”
Her second short email in reply made no reference to, nor apology for Young’s grievances, simply thanking him for his generosity for his offer to help and asking him if she could use some of his “lovely photos” in the forthcoming Night Parrot. However, while asking for photos, a rumour was circulating that she was intending to do a “hatchet job on Young” in Night Parrot. On hearing this, Young decided not to go ahead with his offer of help and made no further contact. Later, Olsen deceptively covered herself, commenting (in Night Parrot) “I invited John Young, a key figure in the Night Parrot story, to contribute – he agreed but nothing happened” (Olsen 2018a).
Any competent journalist, author or scientist would have attempted earnestly to spend as much time as possible interviewing Young face to face. As the finder of a bird that had been “lost” for many decades and thought probably extinct, the finding of which made world headlines, should they be producing a book on the very subject. Instead, Olsen went ahead, with back-stabbing veracity, savagely carrying out the “hatchet job”. She gave almost no credit to Young for his amazing feat after more than a decade of search – all at his own expense. She was true to her word! The rumour proved to be accurate! How to reveal one’s true colours!
She even stooped to a lower level to ridicule such things as the time taken, the kilometres travelled etc. before he eventually met with success. As well as other items, spent over more than a decade in his attempt to locate the Night Parrot (Olsen 2016). Again, in an interview with The Guardian (12.10.18), Olsen states Young “has always claimed that he went out into the bush, called it in (the Night Parrot) and he stood there and took the photos. I questioned that seriously in the book” (Night Parrot). Contrato Olsen’s utterly ridiculous and misleading statement which is nothing more than a blatant LIE in which she ridicules Young’s estimates of time and travel as “embellished”, Young has always honestly stated that he took 15 years of searching and travelled about 320,000 km over those years before he found the bird. Olsen would be very aware of Young’s statement in this regard – he has never wavered from it. Sadly, all it does is display her lack of understanding of the vastness of the Australian inland and how it works, her abuse of the truth and lack of field experience!
However, on the other hand, she used and quoted extensively and in great detail, the field and diary notes and comments of Steve Murphy, who worked as the scientist with Young following the find. Unashamed, she sided with Murphy to attack Young and even stooped lower still to use malicious and personal comments made by Murphy in his field notes against Young. This even included personal details of a hospital visit by Young when he was suffering from heat stroke! Professionalism?
She would be well reminded that the chances are very high that she would never have been able to write a reasonable book without Young’s years of effort! Yet she castigates him at every opportunity which also greatly diminishes the value of her book!
Some of the false statements in the current Olsen & Menkhorst paper need rebuttal. Their statement “Young’s questionable claims relating to birds, mammals and butterflies are scattered through the scientific literature, and eggs of dubious provenance, collected by him are in our museums. Unfortunately, there has been little revision of these records.” (Menkhorst & Olsen 2020).
Firstly, this statement is so far from the truth that it is absolutely ridiculous, unresearched, fabricated out of all proportions, unprofessional and verges on the point of being libellous! Young has NEVER attempted personally to publish his findings and he has NEVER contributed personally to museum collections.
Some eggs collected by Young and exchanged with other collectors in times gone by have reached museums when those collections have been donated to museums and similar institutions. Mason and Pfitzner (2020) found less than 500 clutches collected by Young over 20 years in these institutions, a miniscule number when there are many thousands of clutches probably many more than 100,000 in our museums. Furthermore, Young kept detailed data for every clutch he collected, meticulously entered onto specially printed data cards, one for each clutch (Mason & Pfitzner 2020), (even to the extent of measuring size of nest, diameter of entrance, height (measured) from ground to the nearest foot, detail of material used and so on) which a little research would have revealed (cf. Mason & Pfitzner 2020). “Provenance” in every case was far from “dubious” — another fallacy based entirely on blind conjecture. His personal nest records, along with many other collectors, has been the base information for the breeding information in the volumes of HANZAB, ornithological field guides and conservation management.
There is no single living person in Australia who has the knowledge of eggs, nests and breeding of Australia’s birds than Young, having amassed a massive collection of nearly all of Australia’s birds’ eggs between 60 and 40 years ago – every clutch with substantial data attached (Mason & Pfitzner 2020). During that time, he found the nests of over 600 species of Australian birds! This experience is the very reason he has been hired countless times by credible researchers and others. (Young gave up egg collecting in 1979 to concentrate on locating endangered species such as the Night Parrot as well as conserving some of our most precious bird and other species, and their habitat). WHY can’t Olsen give him credit for his achievements and honesty as many, many others have done instead of producing such fallacious, unscientific nonsense?
In regard to Young’s work on the Night Parrot in Diamantina National Park, Olsen and Menkhorst make a completely weak, desperate and illogical accusation, i.e. “There are extremely damaging consequences of Young’s behaviour. His claims give the false impression that Night Parrots were being found at a rapidly increasing number of locations. Consequently in 2017 certain mining companies began lobbying to have the parrot dropped from environmental assessments of potential mine sites, on the grounds that it was widespread.” (Olsen 2020).
This statement, not only being unbelievable, is again, nothing more than sheer nonsense! Young found the parrot at only three areas in western Queensland, i.e. Brighton Downs Station (now Pullen Pullen Reserve), Diamantina National Park where a headless bird was found years earlier in September 2006 under a fence on the boundary of Diamantina National Park (Cupitt & Cupitt 2008), and at Goneaway National Park – all within a relatively small area about 150 km. With access to a helicopter, a drone and song metres, he located the Night Parrot in the Diamantina National Park at seven locations over months of survey work and searching for suitable habitat, often working in extreme heat and other oppressive conditions.
There is no large scale mining conducted here, even over the much greater area of mid-western and south-western Queensland. Young’s Night Parrot records would have had absolutely no bearing on conveying a false impression of the bird’s wider status. Finding Night Parrots far away in Western Australia (the mining state) by others would have been a far greater instigator to the mining companies to try to claim the Night Parrot should be dropped from environmental assessments of potential mine sites. The most probable result from such poorly researched papers and wild innuendo would be to drive some of our better field naturalists into silence when their work is so heavily and dishonestly criticised.
It is interesting to note that while AWC has removed all of Young’s Night Parrot records from their database, Queensland National Parks has retained them! (Wildnet, Internal publication, Queensland National Parks)
The authenticity of a Night Parrot feather found in a Zebra Finch nest by Young at Kalamurina Sanctuary (AWC property) bordering Lake Eyre, South Australia close to where Night Parrots were collected in the late 1800s (Andrews 1883) has been questioned. The feather was deposited in the South Australian Museum much later. It’s authenticity was also questioned by the Independent Review Panel, i.e. whether the feather deposited was the original feather taken from the Zebra Finch nest. The assertion was that the original feather was not the feather which reached the South Australian Museum, the blame being immediately directed at Young, accusing him of substitution.
Olsen typically took her suspicious and negative position ignoring facts and what eventuated but immediately laying blame entirely on Young, i.e. “Young…. visited Kalamurina Sanctuary …. where he claimed he found a Night Parrot feather in a finch nest in samphire habitat. An unconvincing photograph showed a fresh-looking Night Parrot feather perched atop the soiled, matted nest contents. On the basis of the feather and the extremely blurry image, AWC published a statement that Young had discovered a ‘population’ and that the parrot had been found in similar habitat in the area in 1883.” See illustrations of the feathers below.
This site is in the same region where Andrews collected specimens in the vicinity of Coopers Creek in 1874 (Andrews 1883). The Parker expedition of 1979 (Parker 1980) flushed several birds roosting in samphire (which those from the party who saw them were convinced were Night Parrots, including Parker), both probably only kilometres from where Young and Keith Bellchambers, an ecologist with AWC were working, all from similar samphire habitat.
At the time, Young and Bellchambers, were actively examining disused Zebra Finch nests searching for Night Parrot feathers, a time worn method of confirming the presence of some rare species. When Young found the feather, he called Bellchambers over who confirmed the presence of the feather and they photographed it in the old nest lining. The photo shows a faded, weathered feather embedded in the lining and excreta of the nest (not “fresh-looking and perched atop the matted soiled nest contents” as Olsen writes. (A feather used as nest lining is far from “fresh-looking” once the young have departed, as was the feather Young had found).
How Olsen could call it “fresh-looking” is again distorting the truth (Olsen 2018a). Later, in an interview with The Guardian, she contradicts herself, referring to it as a “rather clean looking rather light parrot feather” (Henriques-Gomes 2018).
However, nothing is mentioned of the procedure that followed which gave others many opportunities to substitute the feather! Young was directed to post the feather to AWC’s head office (Perth, WA) from where it was taken to the Western Australian Museum for confirmation. Then apparently back to AWC head office where it was held for considerable time before it was finally sent to the South Australian Museum. Young posted the feather in August 2017 but it was not received at the South Australian Museum until September 2018 – a period of 13 months! (Australian Wildlife Conservancy 2018).
In the meantime, many people had the opportunity to handle and inspect the feather. After it reached the SA Museum, it was declared by some to be different from the original feather photographed in the Zebra Finch nest – which it was! Naturally, Young was never given the benefit of the doubt but immediately received the blame for substituting it with another feather before posting. What the detractors failed to mention is that there was more than ample opportunity for an unknown person to substitute the feather while it lay for 13 months. Much better to take the opportunity and blame Young!
There was a strong rumour at the time that one of the protagonists from the scientific team, who was a friend of Olsen’s surreptitiously retained a number of Night Parrot feathers. The rumour goes that he was known to have inspected the Kalamurina feather before it was sent to the South Australian Museum.
Interestingly, Ron Johnstone then Curator of Ornithology at the Western Australian Museum who with little doubt would have been one of the first to verify the feather was that of a Night Parrot and was apparently satisfied that the feather he initially examined was the same from the Zebra Finch nest. Many months later when shown the photo of the feather which was received at the South Australian Museum, he agreed it was a different feather from the one originally taken from the nest. (Australian Wildlife Conservancy 2018). One would assume on these grounds that the feather from the finch nest got to AWC head office satisfactorily. So who substituted it? Not Young!
Thinking outside of the square, one must ask – what advantage would it have been to Young to deliberately switch the feather. Answer: Absolutely NONE! Further, Young is far too experienced with feathers used for nest lining to do something as daft as that.
Young’s knowledge of butterflies and their food plants is equally as immense as his knowledge of birds and is supported by many entomologists, lepidopterists and others. As an example, he worked frequently with highly acclaimed people such as Dr Jim Frazier and Densey Clyne on their international film, produced by Oxford Scientific Films, “To Be A Butterfly” which featured his work on the carnivorous Moth Butterfly, Liphyra brassolis. He is highly regarded by many, e.g. Dr. Jim Frazier OAM, ACS (pers. comm., reference retained. See below).
Contrary to what Olsen and Menkhorst imply, Young’s interest in mammals has been towards saving critical habitat, e.g. the nationally endangered Mahogany Glider, and cinematography, (Giandomenico & Clark 2020) gaining scientifically valuable data and footage. Not only of the glider but also of Lumholtz’s and Bennett’s Tree Kangaroos and others, some of which has been used extensively worldwide. His filming of the Mahogany Glider was used in the acclaimed documentary “Race Against Extinction” aired nationally and internationally.
The very few ornithological papers published with Young as co-author have been authored by others and have incorporated some of Young’s field work, hence him being quoted as co-author. An example criticised by Olsen (Olsen 2020) recently concerns field work done almost 20 years ago on birds using mistletoe for nest base, support, etc. (Cooney et al. 2006). Young was asked to assist with his field experience. Olsen recently and once again threw doubt on the number of species quoted as using mistletoe, again demonstrating her lack of field experience and knowledge but was quick to criticise the work done. To an experienced field biologist, the paper was accurate. I personally collected eggs in my youthful days during the late 1950s and early 1960s and found many nests of many species. Having recently reread the paper and based on my field experience, I consider the data is very much in order. (Young collected eggs diligently for 20 years, finding the nests of over 600 species for goodness sake!)
We were also informed by reliable informants within AWC that Olsen carried her vendetta against Young directly to Australian Wildlife Conservancy when she discovered that Young had been given a job as a Senior Field Ecologist with that organization. This started a malicious ball rolling, eventually ending in a call for his resignation. Had that not happened I (and many people) believe Young would still be employed by AWC – and still doing great work! It was revealed to us that there were phone calls and emails (by Olsen) to AWC board members and senior personnel, one to a very senior member, suggesting that if we were “going to get John Young, we need more evidence” (a copy of the email ended up in my inbox!). We were also informed that there was another phone call from one of her small band of supporters to the AWC board demanding that Young be fired, giving fabricated reasons and falsehoods.
With all the evidence that came our way, it was blatantly obvious that Olsen had a devious and despicable plan to discredit John Young at all cost — and have him fired.
Eventually Young was asked to resign from his position with AWC (by email). He did not resign on his own accord as Olsen and Menkhorst intimate. Consequently, the loss of extremely important work Young was undertaking on AWC properties with such species as the (critically ?) endangered Buff-breasted Button-quail at Brooklyn Station (Sanctuary) (Wildlife Matters 2016), Red Goshawk, Sarus Crane and Buff-breasted Button-quail at Piccaninny Plains in northern Cape York Peninsula – to name a few, (in some of which I was assisting) – was lost. In addition, follow-up work is also lost forever. Blame for this must be put squarely on Olsen’s shoulders where it belongs!
Olsen and Menkhorst make no mention of the extensive very important environmental work and the long list of successes Young has achieved in conservation management over many years. He successfully campaigned almost solely, to save thousands of hectares of habitat, which was to be cleared for exotic pine plantations, for animals as diverse as the Mahogany Glider and Rufous and Masked Owls in Queensland’s Wet Tropics. He saved habitat of Sooty and Masked Owls in central New South Wales which was earmarked for urban development. He and David Hollands campaigned heavily to have the rodenticide “Klerat” removed from the market, saving thousands of owls of several species.
Another example of John’s conservation achievements was the Tyto Wetlands at Ingham in north Queensland. It was once a large disused area (100 ha) of public land. Local pressure was building to convert it to sugar-cane growing. Following Young’s intervention, overcoming much hostility from some residents but with eventual support from the Hinchinbrook Shire Council, Tyto Wetlands came into existence. The bird list now stands at more than 260 species (previously 160 species as per an EIS by Queensland National Parks and Wildlife) – supporting species such as Eastern Grass and Masked Owl, Australian Painted Snipe and other equally rare species. A northern population of Australian Little Bittern has also established itself at the Wetlands. It is now not only the most important wetlands in Queensland’s Wet Tropics but a huge tourism success employing many local people, as well as increasing visitors’ interest in and support for birdlife. (Giandomenico & Clark 2020).
Young worked with the Canegrowers Organisation for many years advising and encouraging sugar-cane farmers to bring birds and other beneficial wildlife to their properties. He encouraged them to erect owl nesting boxes to help to reduce the use of highly toxic rodenticides. For seven years he wrote a regular column, entitled “Wildlife on Your Farm” for the Australian Cane Grower. He saved widespread clearing of the magnificent Darwin Stringybark forests on Cape York Peninsula, vitally important for the last extant Queensland population of Red Goshawk. To smaller things such as saving the nesting trees and breeding territory of Square-tailed Kites at Mount Molloy, the saving of a patch of old-growth eucalypts at a sporting ground at Julatten where 17 species of birds nested including Lesser Sooty Owl – all of which were to be cut down for a swimming pool and facilities.
Olsen and Menkhorst touch on the endangered Buff-breasted Button-quail on Brooklyn Station, knowing absolutely nothing about the bird or its current status and again use it in an attempt to further discredit Young. Brooklyn Station (Sanctuary) is a known site for the Button-quail and probably one of the best in the southern part of the bird’s range (Wildlife Matters 2016; our own field work). I first found the species on Brooklyn Station in the early 1990s and followed it up intensively through following years!
In 2016, having found nests of Buff-breasted Button-quail previously, I was able to confirm that at least five of the six nests that Young found on Brooklyn Station were genuine nests (and eggs) of this species after doubt was placed on the authenticity of the records. I was also able to confirm the photo Young took of a male in flight was of that species (request from AWC after doubt was placed on it by acquaintances of Olsen, email retained).
But thanks to Olsen’s interference, this important data is now lost (removed from AWC’s database). Unfortunately all the continuing work we had planned to do on the property on the Button-quail (which seems to be teetering on the brink of extinction) and may have helped its survival has now been cancelled.
Finally, Ms Olsen would be well advised to set her own house in order before tearing down the work of others, for example —
Little Eagle status in the ACT: Olsen’s attempt to discredit Jerry Olsen’s work (numerous papers published in journals, Canberra Bird Notes and as reports over many years) regarding Little Eagle status, etc. in the Australian Capital Territory (Olsen & Rae 2017). Jerry Olsen completely crushed their argument (Olsen, J., 2018). His summary and conclusions were rightly savage and severe, i.e. “The Olsen and Rae article contains false, unreferenced claims, inaccuries, and no science….”
Doubt from Western Australia:
Olsen was criticised by one of her colleagues, a scientist for not including all the records of Night Parrot from Western Australia in her book, i.e. “Little of our Night Parrot data from the West was used or discussed in the book” (pers. comm. name withheld on request). The question remains – WHY – when she wrote pages demonising John Young in the Queensland section.
There was another concerning rumour about at that time, i.e. a murky incident occurred where something went wrong with a Night Parrot find. The rumour was that Olsen knew about it but failed to include all the data from WA, and that the leading scientist, a close associate of Olsen’s got his assistants to swear to secrecy explaining that their careers and reputations would be lost forever if the event became public knowledge. All placed their right hand, one on top of each other and swore to secrecy.
Attempts to discredit John Young: On one of several attempts to discredit Young, this time from a photo he had taken of a Night Parrot nest with two eggs in Diamantina National Park, western Queensland, Olsen made the ludicrous claim that the nest was fake and the eggs were made of plaster (with absolutely no scientific backup). (Taylor 2018).
Some of her colleagues described her claim as “utter insanity” and “loopy” at the time (emails retained). Others asked where was the science to prove her assertions! (There was none!). Her contribution was also published in the Canberra Times and on ABC Science website (12.10.18), without a skerrick of proof entitled “Blind Freddy could see that they are fake”, (Taylor 2018). Unbelievably, she determined the eggs were fake from the photograph of the nest and eggs partly hidden by spinifex foliage. The photograph was taken from three metres away. No experienced oologist could honestly determine if the eggs were fake from that photograph, no matter how much it was blown up on a computer monitor. One would need the eggs in hand to properly determine whether they were fake or genuine. Also, one can vaguely see small bumbles or nodes on the surface of the eggs which is typical of calcification (Alltech 2018), and which probably fooled Olsen into claiming them as fake.
Calcification or calcium deposits is common in some birds’ eggs such as cormorants and grebes and it occasionally occurs in many other species. Egg collectors of old would often discard calcified eggs, other than cormorants and grebes, because of their unattractive surface. There is much information available concerning egg deformities and irregularities etc. e.g. “Calcium deposits are irregular shaped spots on the external surface of the shell. They have only a visual effect on the shell. These calcium spots may be caused by a defective shell gland, disturbances during calcification, retention of the egg within the shell gland and poor nutrition” (Roberts 2019). Olsen, as any scientist would have done, should have considered this probability before her foolish rush to assert they were either made of plaster, fake or were dummies!
Another well-known scientist, again whom Olsen knows very well commented “For her as a supposed scientist, to suggest that the eggs in the photographs were artificial is utter madness. She has clearly lost all sense of perspective in her mad rush to destroy John Young. What on earth could she have been thinking when she made this crazy assertion?” (pers. comm., name withheld on request, email retained).
In response to her Blind Freddy comment and fake assertions, the media lapped it up wholesale. The word “fake” was manna to nearly every news source. Even many small-time country newspapers across the continent made front page headlines of it mostly describing Young’s actions as “fake” and that he was a “fraudster”. And did Olsen pause long enough in her headlong rush to try to prove Young a fraudster to realise what she had done was highly defamatory and open to legal action (which Young is still considering)? Undoubtedly NO! And in turn a strong case for litigation.
The Independent Review Panel called on experts to pass opinions of the authenticity of the eggs. In a more recent paper (Menkhorst et al. 2020), the Panel discussed the three nests and eggs which Young had found in Diamantina National Park including the nest and two eggs where Olsen had declared the eggs to be “dummies”. The panel sought the opinion of more than a dozen people SUPPOSEDLY experts in oology, including a retired poultry farmer and two bird veterinarians. (Serious oologists have all but disappeared from the ornithological world in this modern era, egg collecting without a permit being very much illegal and attracting heavy fines).
Opinions from the “experts” were so varied, one could conclude that not one was an expert! (See photographs of nests and eggs below including the nest and eggs in question). The opinions ranged from slightly positive to downright silly, e.g. “thought he would have done a better job” (of making them);“look like plaster and finished off with sandpaper – had seen similar on Ostrich eggs”; “absence of an air-cell” (so not authentic); “absence of surface spores” (so not authentic). And the best of all from one “respected expert, curator of birds eggs to one of the world’s largest egg collections at the British Museum” — “They are not birds eggs. The chance of them being parrot eggs is vanishingly remote”! And the two which were slightly more positive – “consistent with eggs of a parrot”; “if they are fake, they are very realistic”.
Can you believe it? All from a photo taken from three metres! All from unquestionably non-experts, most (probably all) of whom know nothing about birds’ eggs! Why did the panel not get an opinion from the very few elderly oologists still living?
Overall, the general consensus by the panel was that not enough was known about Night Parrot nests and eggs to be certain. Calcification appeared not to be considered by the panel. (Australian Wildlife Conservancy 2018). The Panel did concede that the eggs in nests 2 and 3 were birds eggs, (not dummies) and “probably of a small parrot”. Important data on three genuine Night Parrots nests and eggs is now lost forever for which Olsen must once again shoulder the blame!
But again, Olsen displayed her poor research. Her reason for claiming the nest and eggs were fake in the first instance was that the “nest in the photo was missing many of the hallmarks seen in other Night Parrot nests”, and the eggs in the photograph initially “looked” as if they were made of plaster” and later “were fake” and “were dummy eggs”. Through her previous researching for Night Parrot, she would have known that there had never been authentic nests nor eggs of the Night Parrot described in detail prior to 2016. J. Forshaw (Forshaw and Cooper 2002) states “ There are no authenticated nesting records and the scant information on breeding comes from unconfirmed reports”. P. Higgins (Higgins 1999) accepted three breeding records as authentic (in the 1930s), two concerning fledged young (four and six) from Cootanoorina Station in South Australia, the other a nest and four eggs but with no description from Lake Disappointment in Western Australia. Apart from those in Diamantina National Park which Young found in 2016, only after the recent finding of the species on Pullen Pullen Reserve have a very small number of contemporary nests been found, the first on 24 April 2016 and reported as “……. an active Night Parrot nest, the first recorded for over 100 years” (Murphy et al. 2017).
Yet, unbelievably, Olsen managed to jumble her facts when commenting on the three nests that Young located in Diamantina National Park (Australian Wildlife Conservancy 2018). She states that “All three are unlike any confirmed nests that have been found in both WA and Qld and described historically – this applies variously to the situation, the structure of the tunnel and the nest cup, and the nest material”. Again, a photograph of a nest and two eggs appears in an ABC Science report (Taylor 2018) with a caption “This photo shows a night parrot nest in keeping with what appears in the historical literature, Dr Olsen said”.
The fact is that NOTHING other than a few general notes appear in the historical literature! NO nests prior to 2016 were described in detail and NO photographs were ever taken which showed the actual nest and eggs or young. (Forshaw & Cooper 2002; Higgins 1999; Murphy et al. 2017; Olsen 2018a). Murphy et al. (2017) state “Before 2013 most information about Night Parrots, including their breeding biology, was either based on anecdotes or inference, or was non-existent.” Once again, she fails in her research and in turn ignores the truth.
The extremely meagre descriptions of probable occupied nests (possibly three historically) lack all detail so much so that they are useless for comparison with the nests found from 2016. Further, people in those times were not interested in detailed descriptions of nests – they were mostly there to collect specimens (skins and eggs) as the historical literature and the collectors of the time indicated!
N. Leserberg quoted after finding a nest on Pullen Pullen Reserve “We found one nest that had a well-developed nestling……. and an infertile egg still in the nest chamber. We left it alone, returning a couple of weeks later to find the chick gone. We collected the abandoned egg which is now lodged at the Queensland Museum and is the only complete Night Parrot egg in a museum anywhere in the world.”
The Independent Review Panel should have asked some basic questions such as what other bird of the arid inland builds a nest under spinifex and lays small rounded white eggs. There is no indication that this question was posed. Only two Australian Parrots actually construct a nest, the Ground Parrot of coastal heaths and the Night Parrot. Only one builds a nest under spinifex or samphire in extreme arid conditions – the Night Parrot. (Forshaw & Cooper 2002; Beruldsen 2003; Higgins 1999)
At this time, it is also very clear that Olsen was
doing her utmost to influence the Independent Review Panel’s decision before it
reported to AWC. On 9 October 2018, she emailed Dr John Kanowski, Chief Science
Officer with AWC but not a panellist, i.e.
“Further to my previous email, raising concerns about whether the Night Parrot actually nests on DNP (Diamantina National Park), I am attaching these purported photos of Night Parrot nests (John Young’s) from your website: …… Apart from the strange too open nests and the grass lining, if you zoom in on the upper clutch of two, it is clear that they are dummy eggs. I suggest that this is another urgent matter for investigation. Regards, Penny” (Australian Wildlife Conservancy (2018). (She did not explain what her “it is clear” meant! Note also that Ms Olsen is NOT considered an authority on the Night Parrot.)
But Olsen slipped. Her “grass” lining was identified for the panel as leaves of a wattle tree Acacia shirleyi (Lancewood) which grew commonly in the area, by Dr Jennifer Silcock, Threatened Species Recovery Hub, University of Queensland (Australian Wildlife Conservancy 2018). Another error! She mistook the Acacia leaves as “grass” but could see the eggs were dummies from a distance!
The very small number of Night Parrot nests and eggs which have been found in more recent years (most after Olsen was going about her devious ways) indicate that it is impossible to determine what is “normal” for nests of this species. Even the Independent Review Panel agreed on this point, i.e. “The panel concluded that the nests (Young’s) were inconsistent in structure and placement, and one nest was substantially different to the few confirmed Night Parrot nests and should be regarded as “unconfirmed” until a larger number of Night Parrot nests are found, and a greater understanding achieved of the variability in nest structure and positioning.” (Australian Wildlife Conservancy 2018; Menkhorst et. al. 2020).
Further, Young had a very reliable assistant with him when each of the three nests were found, including the disputed nest and eggs. The finding of this nest was by chance, as were the other two. Young had stopped the ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) they were using to watch a disturbed Black Honeyeater feeding chicks. Thinking there was a feral cat present, he walked towards it when a Night Parrot flew from the nest beside him. His accomplice later photographed the Night Parrot nest and eggs from three metres away, before they quickly moved off on their ATV.
Concerning Young’s nest being fake and eggs made of plaster, a comparison of Young’s photo with the Pullen Pullen nest where the eggs were later supposedly taken by a King Brown Snake (Pseudechis australis) (Murphy et al. 2017) is interesting! (See illustrations below). Both nests are very similar except the eggs lie on a platform in Young’s nest (on top of a small broken-off termite mound) under spinifex, but on the ground with some dry vegetative material in the Pullen Pullen nest! Does Young’s nest and eggs look as authentic as the Pullen Pullen nest? I think so!
The Emu journals from the early to mid twentieth century when egg collecting and nest finding was widespread contain many photographs of unusual and strange nests and sites of many species, very different from what has been regarded as “normal”. Surely this can occur with the Night Parrot as well. Some quick research would have shown that nests of many species, including that of Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae can vary considerably (Maisey et al. 2016; Crossman et al. 2011; Powell & Brown 2000).
Knowledge of eggs and breeding: A complete lack of knowledge of eggs was well demonstrated when Olsen was unable to identify a Brown Quail’s egg that had been held in the CSIRO collections for many years, collected as an addled, discarded egg from the Tanami Desert, central Australia and thought to be a possible Night Parrot egg. (Olsen et al. 2016). Her obvious lack of field experience is further demonstrated in a joint paper, “Cracked it! A 30-year cold case involving an egg and the mysterious Night Parrot” when DNA evidence proved the Tanami Desert egg to be that of a Brown Quail. (Joseph et al. 2016; Olsen 2016). The differences between quail and parrot eggs is considerable and very obvious. Those of Brown Quail are ovate with a pale bluish, greyish-white to yellowish-white or greenish-yellow ground colour and often fairly thickly freckled with tiny spots of brown over the surface. (Marchant & Higgins 1993; Beruldsen 2003). These features combined, are diagnostic charactistics of Brown Quail eggs as aviculturists familiar with quail eggs would agree – or if they had an experienced oologist on the panel. A few freckles can still be seen around the larger end of the egg in the photograph which immediately rules it out as an egg of a parrot. However, mere ground colour and shape should have indicated it was not a parrot’s egg which are spherical, rounded, and always pure white, never marked with speckling.
Ironically, Olsen was unable to discern the difference between a Brown Quail’s egg in the hand from a Night Parrot’s egg, but she was able to see from a photograph taken from a distance that Young’s Night Parrot eggs were “dummies”!
Repeat Offender: Olsen also denigrated Young’s work in Glimpses of Paradise (Olsen 2007) where she described him (on her own assumption) as a “repeat offender….. of sensational finds”. Here she accused him of recording the endangered Red Goshawk (breeding) at Narran Lake in north western New South Wales (in the early 1960’s), far out of its known range and with “an unbelievably large clutch of three eggs (one egg is the norm)”. Again it was fallacious. In a study of the Red Goshawk where 61 clutches were examined, eight were of one egg, 52 of two eggs and one of three! (Marchant 1993). Wikpedia states “She is internationally recognized as an expert on raptors”.
However, Young’s mention to Jack Cupper (Cupper & Cupper 1981) of the Narran Lake (North-western NSW) nest with three eggs was hearsay some years later (pers. comm. Young), but Cupper wrote it as if Young had found the nest himself. Olsen dashed in with her suspicion “More worryingly, Young was a repeat offender…..”. However, she overlooked one small detail as did Cupper which some quick research would have revealed: Young was a schoolboy of about nine or ten years of age and living many hundreds of kilometres away close to the New South Wales central coast with his parents on their farm when the nest and eggs were supposedly found!
In the same publication, she accused Young of collecting six clutches of eggs (31 eggs altogether) of the extinct Paradise Parrot near Ingham in north Queensland in the late 1970s, far out of the bird’s known range and later accusing Young of writing a letter of his supposed collecting to another “collector”. She did not include a copy of the letter in Glimpses of Paradise but quoted from it in length. Young denied that he had ever sent such a letter to anyone so it was suspected that there was something suspicious and consequently we asked for a copy of the letter. When it arrived (through AWC), it was merely a copy of a typed letter. (John never owned a typewriter, knew nothing about typing and always hand wrote everything, including data of each clutch onto his data cards). Much more suspect was the body of the letter written in flowing English with the wording far from John’s manner of speaking and writing. (As with most people, Young’s writing and grammar are easily recognizable). It was certainly not his writing and deliverance.
However, a further surprise awaited! Incredibly, the letter was addressed to the late John Izzard a no-nonsense conservationist who deplored collecting, especially egg collecting. I knew John Izzard well and if Young had sent such a letter to Izzard, claiming to have collected six clutches of Paradise Parrot eggs, the latter would have reported it to the authorities post haste as would most people. Further, Young had only met Izzard on one occasion (at Iron Range, Cape York Peninsula), barely saying much more than “hello”. The origin of that letter still needs close examination.
Personal experience: As a personal example of poor research, Olsen mentioned me several times in “Glimpses of Paradise” and twice in “Night Parrot”. I gave her information verbally by way of a telephone call (from her) for Glimpses of Paradise but I was not contacted for the information she used in “Night Parrot”. Altogether four items concerning myself appeared in Glimpses of Paradise and two in Night Parrot. Two in each book were completely false. In one (Glimpses of Paradise) she had me visiting a property near Ingham (“Cattle Creek”) in 1982 with my wife and daughter looking for the Paradise Parrot where Young had supposedly found breeding birds several years earlier. (I do have a son as well and we always travelled as a family together). She had me revisiting the property for a second time some time later with my wife. The property owners told us that we were welcome to stay in the “shearers quarters” but we were not to venture into the “back blocks” of the property, with no reason given. The owners were also supposed to have told me that “they were weary of visits by National Parks staff, conservationists and birders, one of whom had recently spent three weeks on an unproductive search!”
The facts are firstly, that the nearest shearers quarters and sheep are more than 300 km to the south – tropical areas such as Ingham on the high rainfall coastal plain are far too hot and wet for sheep farming. Secondly, I was busy managing my own wholesale plant nursery with 20 employees on Tamborine Mountain in southeast Queensland, south of Brisbane, 1200km away at the time. And at that stage knew nothing of the supposed northern Paradise Parrot sightings nor its alleged breeding. Further, we could not afford far off birding trips at that time when running a business not long established. And I met John Young for the first time some years later (about 1990) at an O’Reilly’s Bird Week. I first heard of the supposed Ingham Paradise Parrot breeding records several years after my supposed visits to the area from an indirect source, probably about 1986.
In conclusion, Ms Olsen’s seeming appetite for innuendo, wild assumption and downright falsehoods in her writings as displayed in these instances and several of her papers and books should be in question rather than the work of John Young. It is certainly not John Young who is the “repeat offender”! To continually denigrate someone from hearsay rather than from fact and lack of good research is nothing short of gutter tactics and should never be tolerated.
Finally, Olsen must be held accountable for turning an ongoing normal situation into a debacle to the detriment of ornithology. Every piece of evidence points to her meddling, attempting to influence the Independent Review Panel’s decision and to influence the AWC board to sack Young as well as feeding her long standing nasty and foolish vendetta against Young. The evidence strongly points towards the fact that immediately she heard that Young was given a job by AWC, she commenced her destructive and malicious work. She succeeded in putting doubting thoughts into people’s heads and from there it gained momentum. As one of her colleagues put it, “Olsen has turned it into a bitchy business. Some very good people have had their reputations destroyed”. So true! (pers. comm. Name withheld on request but email retained).
The knock-on effect has been enormous, resulting in loss of important records, loss of critical ongoing scientific work such as that of the endangered (near extinct?) Buff-breasted Button-quail and others. Research programmes have been upset, useless tedious papers have been written (mostly by Olsen) and published, innuendo has been turned into “fact” (mostly by Olsen), lies told (mostly by Olsen), Young unfairly and dishonestly accused of fraud (mostly by Olsen) and a livelihood destroyed.
Amazingly, the authors of the current paper, but especially Olsen seem oblivious of Australian law in regard to defamation. Much of what she has written about Young over time reeks of defamation. There seems to be a very strong case for litigation as the legal fraternity has already advised and encouraged Young to commence.
Indeed, one could rightly twist a quote from Steve Murphy, i.e. “If the AWC is guilty of anything, it’s trusting John Young” (Jones et al. 2019). It would be far more accurate to say that “If the AWC is guilty of anything, it’s allowing itself to be duped by Ms Olsen!” And perhaps with errors as easily exposed as in these few publications, her previous publications need scrutiny?
Lloyd Nielsen OAM
Recipient: John Hobbs Medal for 2014 (Awarded for outstanding amateur contributions to Australasian ornithology
Author: – Birds of the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef (2016)
– Birds of Queensland’s Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef (1996)
– Daintree – Jewel of Tropical North Queensland (1997)
– Birding Australia – A Directory for Birders (1999)
– Birding Australia – Site Guide – The South-east (2000)
– Birds of Lamington National Par and Environs (1991)
– Identification Guide – small difficult bird of Australia (2020) in press
Author: – various papers and notes on ornithology (journals)
Honorary Life Member: – Birdlife Australia from 2007
Honorary Life Member: – Birds Queensland from 2010
Alltech (2018) Information sheet, 20 common egg shell quality problems https://store.alltech.com/blogs/poultry/20-common-egg-shell-quality-problems-and-causes
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Australian Wildlife Conservancy, (2018). A report to Australian Wildlife Conservancy by Peter Menkhorst, James Fitzsimons, Richard Loyn and John Woinarski, pp. 1–36 .
Beruldsen, G. (2003). Australian Birds their nests and eggs. Self-published, Kenmore Hills, Qld.
Birdlife Australia (2019). On the night watch 27/03/19. https://birdlife.org.au/Australian-birdlife/detail/on-the-night-watch
Cooney, S.J.N., Watson, D.M. and Young, J. (2006). Mistletoe nesting in Australian birds: a review. Emu 106, 1–12.
Crossman, C. A., Rohwer, V. G. and Martin, P. R. (2011). Variation in the structure of bird nests between northern Manitoba and southeastern Ontario. PLoS ONE 6(4): e 19806.
Cupitt, R. and Cupitt, S. (2008). Another Recent Specimen of the Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis from Western Queensland. Australian Field Ornithology 25. 69–75.
Cupper, J. and Cupper, L., (1981). Hawks in Focus – A study of Australia’s birds of prey. Jacklin Enterprises, Mildura, Vic.
Forshaw, J.M. and Cooper, W.T., (2002) Australian Parrots, (Third revised) edition. Alexander Editions, Robina, Qld.
Geiger, D., (2015). Rodents running rampant in Far North Queensland sugarcane fields. The Cairns Post, 13 November 2015. p.3.
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Harrop, A. H. J., Collinson, J. M., and Melling, T. (2012). What the eye doesn’t see: The prevalence of fraud in ornithology. British Birds 105: 236–257.
Henriques-Gomes, L. (2018). Wildlife Group investigates claim Night Parrot photos were staged. The Guardian Fri 12 October 14, p.49 AEDT.
Higgins, P.J., (Ed.) 1999. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic Birds, Vol.4 Parrots to Dollarbird. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Hinchinbrook Shire Council 2020 – reference (attached below).
Hollands, D. (1984). Eagles Hawks and Falcon of Australia. Thomas Nelson Australia, Melbourne.
Hollands, D. (1991). Birds of the Night – owls, frogmouths and nightjars of Australia. Reed Books, Balgowlah, NSW.
Hollands, D. (2008). – Owls, Frogmouths and Nightjars of Australia – Bloomings Books, Melbourne, Vic.
Jones, A., Sveen, B. and Lewis, D. (2019). Night Parrot Research labelled ‘fake news’ by experts after release of damning report. Background Briefing, ABC RN radio 22 March 2019.
Kavanagh, R. P. (1997). Ecology and Management of large forest owls in southeastern Australia PhD Thesis, University of Sydney, Sydney.
Lenz, M. 2018. Book Review Night Parrot. Australia’s most elusive bird. Canberra Bird Notes 43(3): 318-319.
Leseberg, N.P., Murphy, S.A. and Watson, J.E.M. (2019). Automated acoustic surveys for the Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis)on Diamantina National Park. Report to Australian Conservency. Adaptive NRM, Malanda.
Maisey, A. C., Carter, N. T., Incoll, J. M. and Bennet, A. F. (2016). Environmental influences on variation in nest-characteristics in a ling-term study population of the Superb Lyrebird, Menura novaehollandiae, Emu 116 (4): 445- 451.
Marchant, S., and Higgins, P.J. Eds. (1993). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctica Birds, Vol 2, Raptors to Lapwings. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Menkhorst, P., Fitzsimons, J., Loyn, R. & Woinarski, J. 2020. Assessing the strength of evidence for records of Night Parrots at Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary (South Australia) and Diamantina National Park (Queensland, 2016- 018. Emu-Austral Ornithology, DOI: 10.1080/01584197.2020.1774394.
Murphy, S.A., Austin, J.J., Murphy, R.K., Silcocks, J., Joseph, L., Garnett, S.T., Leseberg, N.P., Watson, J.E.M. and Burbidge. A.H. (2017). Observations’ on breeding Night Parrots (Pezoporus occidentalis) in western Queensland. Emu-Austral Ornithology, 117: 107–113.
Mason, I. J. and Pfitzner, G. H. (2020). Passions in Ornithology: A Century of Australian Egg Collectors. Self-published, Fyshwick, ACT.
Nielsen, L. (1996). Birds of Queensland’s Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef and where to find them. Gerard Industries, Bowden, SA.
Nielsen, L. (2015). Birds of The Wet Tropics of Queensland & Great Barrier Reef & Where to Find Them. Self- published. Mount Molloy, Qld.
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Olsen, J. (2018). – Eleven historic breeding territories of ACT Little Eagles is an underestimate – a reply to Olsen and Rae (2017). Canberra Bird Notes 43 (2): 120-131.
Olsen, P. (2018a). Night Parrot – Australia’s most elusive bird. CSIRO Publishing, Clayton South, Vic.
Olsen, P. (2018b). “Cracked it! A 30-year cold case involving an egg and the mysterious Night Parrot“. CSIROscope. https://blog.csiro.au/night-parrot-egg/
Olsen, P. (2020a) Extraordinary numbers of breeding raptors impacted by brodifacoum: comments on Young and De Lai (1997) Unpublished.
Olsen, P. Austin, J., Murphy, S., & Dally, G. (2016). The only known egg of the Night Parrot? A molecular and morphometric assessment of an alleged egg from the Tanami Desert. Australian Field Ornithology 33: 211-214.
Olsen, P., and Rae, S. (2017). Invalid evidence for purported ‘collapse’ in the number of breeding Little Eagles in the Australian Capital Territory. Canberra Bird Notes 42 (3): 245-249.
Olsen, P. (2020b). A question of reliability, Emu–Austral Ornithology. https://doi.org/10.1080/01584197.2020.1738220
Olsen, P. and Menkhorst, P. (2020). A recent investigation highlights the importance of honesty in ornithology and conservation. Emu – Austral Ornithology. https://doi.org/10.1080/01584197.2020.1758570
Parker, S.A. (1980). Birds and Conservation Parks in the north-east of South Australia. South Australian Parks and Conservation 3 (1): 11–18.
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Taylor, T. (2018) ABC News. Science Night Parrot: Questions about the veracity’ of evidence for back-from-the-dead bird appearing in SAhttp://.abc.net.au/news/science/2018-10-12/night-parrot-australia
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Wildlife matters: Winter 2016, 11. Newsletter of Australian Wildlife Conservancy. Brooklyn: a stronghold for the Buff-breasted Button-quail, one of Australia’s rarest birds.
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The report followed the online publication in Emu of the following article:
A recent investigation highlights the importance of honesty in ornithology and conservation
Penny Olsen and Peter Menkhorst
Society trusts that scientific research results are an honest and accurate reflection of a researcher’s work. Researchers equally trust that their colleagues have gathered data carefully … [and] have reported their results accurately. (National Academy of Sciences 2009)
In this era of ‘fake news’, science remains a search for truth. Ornithological research is underpinned by the careful documentation of findings by a great many honest ornithologists, both amateur and professional. The outcome of dishonesty can be costly: it wastes time, resources and funding, divides the community, damages reputations and produces poor environmental and conservation outcomes.
In any scientific field, there is likely to be some mis- conduct, ranging from carelessness to falsification and fabrication of data (e.g. Harrop et al. 2012). Most serious scientific misconduct is identified, although sometimes it takes decades. In Britain, a famous ornithological case is known as the ‘Hastings Rarities’: a slew of sightings and specimens of rare birds supposedly collected in Sussex and Kent from 1894 to 1924 that was much later exposed as fraudulent, in part by demonstration that the sightings were statistically at odds with those from the rest of Britain (Harrop et al. 2012). George Bristow, the alleged culprit, added about 30 species or subspecies of birds to the British List and defrauded his clients of £7000 for specimens on the basis that they were British, when they were most likely collected else- where. Even more infamous is the extensive fraud by Richard Meinertzhagen, a member of British high society, who fabricated the provenance of many of the 20,000 bird specimens in his collection (Harrop et al. 2012). Meinertzhagen stole specimens from museums and faked data to accompany them. He also published many scientific papers with dubious data. His misconduct has ongoing ramifications for ornithological research, not only in Britain.
In Australia, as elsewhere, the falsification of bird sightings is recognised to occur periodically among the competitive world of birdwatchers. There are instances of exaggeration and hubris, suggestibility, and deliberate mislabelling of a few museum specimens (Olsen 2018). These small-scale cases are often insignificant, but can be important, especially in the case of environmental impact assessments and the designation of threatened status. Attempts to seriously mislead or deceive by fabrication or falsification of scientific evidence seem to be rare or, at least, to have gone undocumented.
The recent investigation into the publicly released results of fieldwork by John Henry Young on the endangered Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis has formally exposed an exception. The inquiry was instigated by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), Australia’s largest non-government conservation land manager. It followed complaints from several scientists about the veracity of some of the results of Young’s fieldwork while employed by the organisation as a senior ecologist (AWC 2019). Young was alleged to have fabricated evidence in three separate cases: i) three nests, each with eggs, that he claimed to have photographed in Diamantina National Park (DNP), southwest Queensland in 2016; ii) a vocalisation recorded on remote sound monitors at Kalamurina Sanctuary, northeast South Australia, in 2017; and iii) the discovery of a single Night Parrot feather in a finch nest, also at Kalamurina in 2017. In October 2018, an independent panel of four professional ornithologists (including P.M.) was engaged by AWC to assess the veracity of Young’s evidence using the National Health and Medical Research Council’s guidelines for investigating potential research misconduct (AWC 2019). As part of the process, Young was invited to respond, but he chose not to participate and declined a request from AWC to provide high-resolution images (J. Kanowski, AWC, pers. comm. to P.O.).
The investigation panel found that in each of the three allegations Young’s evidence was inadequate to support his claims (AWC 2019). Firstly, the consensus was that the three purported nests were unlike known Night Parrot nests and that one held fake eggs. Secondly, the vocalisation recorded at Kalamurina was the broadcast of a publicly available recording of a Western Australian Night Parrot. Thirdly, the feather supposedly found at Kalamurina, later submitted to the South Australian Museum, differed from that photo- graphed in the finch nest at the time.
This left no convincing evidence of a resident, breeding Night Parrot population on DNP or of the presence of Night Parrots on Kalamurina Sanctuary. The findings also had implications for Young’s reported observations of Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii and their nests at the AWC property, Brooklyn, in northeast Queensland, the legitimacy of which had also
been queried, but which AWC chose not to include in the investigation. AWC retracted all of Young’s purported ‘discoveries’ made while he was an employee, including those relating to the button-quail (AWC 2019). His Night Parrot observations made independently during the same period in Goneaway National Park, ~100 km east of DNP, must also be discounted. On recommendation of the panel, AWC committed to ensuring that appropriate scientific standards and oversight are implemented in future. However, the organisation has declined to release the panel’s report.
Young resigned in late September 2018, soon after the release of P.O.’s book (Olsen 2018), which challenges a number of his claims regarding the parrot, and following questions from the South Australian Museum regarding the Kalamurina feather. In addition, AWC had been alerted to one of Young’s published photographs that casts doubt on his account of the manner of his 2013 rediscovery of the species (the first confirmed sighting of a living bird in 80 years) and supported the contention that the bird appeared to have been handled, injured and constrained, which would have been illegal (Borrell 2018; Olsen 2018).
There are extremely damaging consequences of Young’s behaviour. His claims gave the false impression that Night Parrots were being found at a rapidly increasing number of locations. Consequently, in 2017 certain mining companies began lobbying to have the parrot dropped from environmental assessments of potential mine sites, on the grounds that it was widespread (Olsen 2018). In fact, the rejection of Young’s evidence leaves the number of locations where Night Parrot breeding has been confirmed at a mere two – an area centred on Pullen Pullen Reserve, in southwest Queensland (which may well include parts of DNP) and in the East Murchison district, Western Australia (Olsen 2018).
The panel’s findings also mean that there has been significant waste and misuse of conservation funding, much of it originating from private donors to AWC, and the associated erosion of public trust. Young’s salary
and expenses during his employment, amounting to several hundred thousand dollars, could have been diverted to valuable conservation work such as pest control or fire management. His Night Parrot surveys on DNP were intended to inform a 3 AUS million investment plan developed by AWC for Bilbies Macrotis lagotis and Night Parrots at DNP and nearby Astrebla Downs National Park, for which the Federal Government pledged 1.2 AUD million (Olsen 2018). This included a proposed predator exclusion fence, which has not been built.
Young’s questionable claims relating to birds, mammals and butterflies are scattered through the Australian scientific literature, and eggs of dubious provenance, collected by him, are in our museums. Unfortunately, there has been little revision of these records.
Dishonest reporting and its costly and divisive consequences are rarely publicly documented, or even investigated. An unrelated exception, with similar repercussions to the Night Parrot case, is a recent inquiry conducted in Tasmania, which has been mercifully free of the invasive Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). The Fox Free Taskforce, later renamed the Fox Eradication Programme, was set up in 2002 to investigate reports of fox presence and prevent the establishment of a population in the state, which would have been devastating for wildlife conservation and live- stock. Following several allegations, which included that employees staged evidence of fox presence, the state government undertook an investigation (Integrity Commission 2017). No evidence was found of misconduct by employees, but several instances were detailed of evidence of fox presence, such as cadavers or scats, definitely or likely to have been planted by unknown members of the public. Issues of poor oversight and poor operational procedures were also identified. The program was abandoned in 2014, two years early, after 40 AUD million had been expended, and with no definite evidence that living foxes had ever been introduced to Tasmania, making this yet another example of misspent, valuable conservation resources resulting from unreliable data.
In this era of ever-increasing
environmental threats and species’ declines, it is imperative that
conservation effort and scarce funding are reliably informed and directed, and that the
public have faith in scientists and their institutions and processes.