How many twists and turns are there to come in the Night parrot story? And is John Young involved in all of them?

There is no doubt that John Young did ornithology a great service with his discovery of the Night parrot in 2013. He appears to have lost the plot since then though.

Night parrot: ‘Questions about the veracity’ of evidence for back-from-the-dead bird appearing in SA

Tegan Taylor
ABC Science

 12 October 2018 

Night parrots were thought to be extinct for 75 years, but repeated sightings in multiple locations have attracted huge interest in recent years. Supplied: Steve Murphy

Proof of a new night parrot population in South Australia is in doubt as the Australian Wildlife Conservancy has removed all information about the rare bird from its website.

The conservation group also confirmed that John Young, a senior ecologist who was instrumental in finding evidence about the bird, last month resigned from the organisation.

“We have received questions about the veracity of some of the content and we are investigating these matters,” a statement released last night by the AWC read.

“The Night Parrot content will not be republished until we receive the results of the independent investigation into the veracity of the work.”

John Young recently resigned from his position as senior field ecologist with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. Supplied/file photo

The statement said Mr Young had resigned from the organisation last month after questions about the research were raised, and that he had indicated he would participate in the investigation.

The night parrot has been described as Australia’s most elusive native bird. They live on the ground in remote areas and are largely nocturnal, which combined with their low numbers makes them extremely difficult to find.

Night parrots have been independently confirmed in other regions, including Pullen Pullen reserve in western Queensland, the Great Sandy Desert and in the East Murchison in Western Australia.

Protecting night parrots in the Kimberley was cited as one of the aims of a recent increase in government support for Indigenous rangers in the region.

But the AWC’s claim of evidence that the birds are also in South Australia is now under a cloud.

Researchers found a zebra finch nest containing a feather they claimed was from a night parrot. Supplied: Australian Wildlife Conservancy 

What is the evidence in question?

The AWC reported that Mr Young and a colleague last year found a feather reputedly from a night parrot on Kalamurina Station, near northern Lake Eyre. It was tucked in the fluff and grass strands of a zebra finch nest.

The feather sent for analysis looked different to the one photographed in the nest, ornithologist Penelope Olsen said. Supplied: Australian Wildlife Conservancy 

The discovery seemed to be proof the bird was living in South Australia, the state where some of the very first night parrot specimens were collected in 1845. Since then, no firm evidence had been published that the bird still lived there.

But questions have been raised about the legitimacy of the feather discovery, including by Australian National University ornithologist Penelope Olsen, author of the book Night Parrot: Australia’s Most Elusive Bird.

Dr Olsen said the feather shown in photos of the zebra finch nest looked markedly different to the feather sent off for analysis.

Concerns have also been expressed about a different photo, now removed from the AWC website, of a purported night parrot nest in the Diamantina region in Queensland’s central west.

This photo, purportedly of a night parrot nest, has since been removed from the AWC website amid questions it has been faked. Australian Wildlife Conservancy: John Young

Dr Olsen said the nest in the photo was missing many of the hallmarks seen in other night parrot nests, and the eggs in the picture looked as if they could be made of plaster.

“Blind Freddy can see that they’re fake eggs,” she said.

Queensland remains the state most closely associated with the night parrot’s survival — including the much-studied population in the Pullen Pullen Reserve, which was established specifically to protect the species.

This photo shows a night parrot nest in keeping with what appears in the historical literature, Dr Olsen said. Supplied: Steve Murphy

AWC is a registered charity, and its work maintaining private conservation sanctuaries around the country and conducting pest control and scientific research is funded primarily by donations.

Dr Olsen said if evidence had been falsified, it would complicate the effort to conserve the few birds that did remain in the environment.

“My worry is — and I know it’s happening already — mining companies are already saying, ‘These parrots are turning up everywhere, why do we have to do any IS [impact studies]? Why do we have to look for them?'”

Night parrots have been independently confirmed at Pullen Pullen Reserve in western Queensland. Supplied: Nicolas Leseberg/file photo