New recordings of critically endangered night parrots music to ears of Kimberley rangers, scientists
27 May 2021
This photograph of a night parrot was captured in 2015. Supplied: Steve Murphy
It could be Australia’s rarest bird and was only photographed for the first time within the past ten years, but new evidence collected by Indigenous rangers has uncovered the country’s largest known night parrot population.
Ngururrpa and Kiwirrkurra rangers have been making recordings of night parrot calls for the past six months, from sites across 100 kilometres of the Great Sandy Desert in the southern Kimberley.
The recordings are music to the ears of University of Queensland night parrot researcher, Nick Leseberg.
“It’s probably the largest population that we know of at the moment,” he said.
Much of Mr Leseberg’s research has been conducted on another population in western Queensland where no more than 15 animals have been detected over a 500,000 hectare area.
The sparseness of these animals contrasts with the new recordings from the desert, which capture two or more night parrots calling at a time along a string of sites.
“It could be up to 50 or 60 birds in that sort of stretch,” Mr Leseberg said.
“Getting those five or six detections over that long area tells us there are probably more birds there that we don’t know about.”
Night parrots spend daylight hours buried deep in spiky spinifex grass. Supplied: Ngururrpa Rangers
Lost and found
The night parrot is an almost mythical bird species, known to older generations of Indigenous traditional land owners and early European explorers, but only seen by modern science as a few dead specimens until 2005.
It may look like an overgrown budgie, but the night parrot is extremely hard to find as it spends daylight hours buried deep in spiky spinifex grass in Australia’s remote deserts.
Efforts to locate, track and photograph the bird have been fraught with controversy, with a 2013 discovery and subsequent research later discredited by independent experts.
The nocturnal parrot is so elusive that Ngururrpa ranger Clifford Sunfly, who grew up in the desert around the remote Balgo community, only learnt about the species through his work.
“It was a new breed of bird that I didn’t know that lived around here,” he said.
The breakthrough came when bird scientists finally connected the call of the bird with the rarely-seen animal.
“Ten years ago, nobody knew what a night parrot sounded like — we could have put out these recorders and been recording night parrots all night long, but no one would have known what that sound was,” Mr Leseberg said.
“Now we can listen to recordings and go, “Oh! That’s a night parrot, we know that’s a night parrot.”
The elders of the Balgo community remember seeing night parrots many decades ago, but Mr Sunfly said they had not connected the nocturnal call with the bird due to cultural reasons.
“All the old people are telling me about them, they are saying they heard the noises and didn’t know what it was until us rangers found them,” he said.
“The noise they make is similar to an evil spirit noise, so they couldn’t get closer.”
Rangers Clifford Sunfly (left) and Samuel Galova install an automatic audio recording device. Supplied: Ngururrpa Rangers
With the establishment of Indigenous ranger groups managing their traditional country over the past decade, combined with the latest scientific knowledge and equipment, there has been a flourish of night parrot discoveries.
But Mr Leseberg said the species remained exceptionally rare and critically endangered.
“I think we’re only up to eight places right across Western Australia and most of those places are just a couple of birds here, and a couple of birds there,” he said.
“The key has been transferring the technical knowledge of how to find them to the people who know their country and can get out on country and look for them.”
A night parrot flushed from spinifex by bird researchers. Supplied: Bruce Greatwich
As well as finding new night parrot populations, Indigenous rangers are key to protecting and even increasing their numbers.
Ranger groups have been hunting cats, which are the most worrying predator of these largely ground-dwelling birds.
The other essential element night parrots need is old grass hummocks, and this means preventing incredibly flammable spinifex grass from burning for many decades.
“You’re talking 30 or 40 years for it to get from nothing to the sort of structure and density that it needs to support night parrot populations,” Mr Leseberg said.
“They need this really old spinifex near these more productive run on areas that get a little bit more water when it rains … that creates the grass seeds the birds feed on.”
For any chance of avoiding being eaten by large lizards, snakes and feral cats, night parrots need to roost during the day and nest deep within large spiky spinifex hummocks.
It seems counterintuitive, but the way to ensure some spinifex can grow to old age without burning is to ensure plenty of strategic fires are being lit at the right time of year.
Many Indigenous ranger groups are now conducting conservation burning across Northern Australia, which produces many small cool fires that prevent large hot fires crossing the landscape and destroying potential night parrot habitat.
Ngururrpa rangers will be using the latest information to better inform their burning program to protect, and even increase, night parrot habitat.
The work is showing that the mythical night parrot has a future as a living Australian species.
“The night parrot is absolutely a story of hope,” Mr Leseberg said.
“These things are incredibly rare, but we’ve managed to work out how to find them and we’re finding out there are still a few populations still persisting.”
Ngururrpa ranger Gary Njamme training to use prescribed burning. Supplied: Ngururrpa Rangers