If Night parrots are to survive, we need data, resources and goodwill. To lose a species that has only recently been rediscovered would be a calamity. Greg Roberts delves into the plight of the parrot.

Greg Roberts is a prolific blogger and his sunshine coast birds blog is always worth a look. He also branches out into the mainstream media (if we can call Murdoch’s The Australian mainstream, that is, instead of a niche publication catering to the conservative end of the political spectrum). See his article from the Weekend Australian of February 10/11 elsewhere on this page.



Thursday 15 February 2024


Night Parrot: Death by Barbed Wire

The Night Parrot found by Shorty Cupitt


Robert (“Shorty”) Cupitt remembers well the warm September day in 2006 when he was doing maintenance work around stock routes and fences in the vicinity of Diamantina National Park in western Queensland. He found a small dead parrot on the ground that looked unfamiliar. It turned out to be a Night Parrot – just the second confirmed record of this enigmatic species recorded over the previous century. The parrot was below a barbed wire fence. “There were feathers from the bird stuck on the top strand of barbed wire,” Cupitt tells me. “It was decapitated, killed by flying and hitting the fence.”


Night Parrot


In a 2008 paper in Australian Field Ornithology that published the historic finding, Cupitt issued a clear warning: “It highlights the danger posed to birds, including rare or threatened species, by the many kilometres of barbed wire traversing the landscape.” Cupitt’s find led to the bird being photographed for the first time by John Young in 2013, and the creation of the 56,000ha Pullen Pullen Reserve encompassing critical Night Parrot habitat by Bush Heritage Australia in 2016. 


Pullen Pullen


As I noted in an article in the latest edition of The Weekend Australian, another Night Parrot was killed after striking a barbed wire boundary fence on Pullen Pullen in 2019. With the region’s parrot population estimated at a total of 10-20 birds, that is a significant loss. Says Cupitt: “It’s barbed wire all the way along some of those boundary fences, including the top strand.” A barbed wire fence separates the 3-4 known roosting Night Parrot sites of the Pullen Pullen parrot population from each other and from feeding grounds they fly to each night. Until this week, BHA had little to say about the fatality (more on that later).


Pullen Pullen boundary fence


Outside Pullen Pullen, small numbers of parrots have been located in Western Australia. Last year, a Night Parrot was retrieved by traditional owners after being found injured, hanging by its wing from a barbed wire fence; it died soon after. The Night Parrot is critically endangered: we now know of three individuals killed by barbed wire fences, and the death toll is certain to be higher. 


Prepared specimen of recently killed Night Parrot in WA: WA Museum


In 2016, then Night Parrot Recovery Team Allan Burbidge head warned of the consequences of a plan by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to build a predator-proof fenced enclosure in Diamantina National Park, more than 20km from Pullen Pullen. Said Burbidge: “It seems likely that a predator-proof fence within night parrot habitat might pose a threat to a bird that flies 15 km or so each night. For a population with perilously low numbers, the effect could be highly significant.” The plan was scuttled. Yet the recovery team has had nothing to say about the Pullen Pullen fencing.


Diamantina National Park


BHA has run white electric tape along the top of some fences in a bid to deter parrots from striking them. In a statement published on the BHA website this week – following The Weekend Australian story – Pullen Pullen ecologist Nick Leseberg offers further details about the 2019 victim. Says Leseberg: “This section of the fence hadn’t been flagged, as we didn’t think it was an area where the Night Parrots would be traversing. By this time we’d removed tens of kilometres of unnecessary fence, including the entire southern boundary with Diamantina National Park, but this really brought home the risk these fences pose. We’d love to remove all of them, but the reality is this is pastoral country and we need fences to keep cattle out of Pullen Pullen.” 


Leseberg and his colleagues have done some fine research work on Pullen Pullen. They are not helped by the peculiar perspective that BHA has of public relations. The organisation has taken a leaf out of the Donald Trump playbook by ignoring journalists it doesn’t fancy – like me. BHA told me bluntly it would not be responding to anything I put to them. BHA’s silence becoming part of the story in the national broadsheet newspaper speaks volumes.


Nick Leseberg


It also speaks to a cultural problem that has been evident since BHA’s acquisition of Pullen Pullen. The wider birding community is often regarded with a degree of contempt. Twitchers are collectively considered a potential threat to the species. Those outside BHA’s inner sanctum of scientists are unwelcome. BHA said this in a revealing statement last October: “In 2013, in the remote corners of western Queensland on Maiawali Country where spinifex grows in abundance – the perfect habitat for the bird – the Night Parrot was rediscovered by scientists.” It was in fact rediscovered in 2006 by Shorty Cupitt, and photographed in 2013 by John Young; neither are scientists. 


Feral cat

BHA refused to respond to questions I put to them about current population estimates; the consequences for the population of successive years of good summer rains; and the impacts of population booms of feral cats and long-haired rats in the area. Those issues are to some extent now belatedly addressed in this week’s statement. Leseberg confirms that the bountiful years of wet weather were a plus: “The floodplains were really benefiting from the exclusion of cattle and there were as many Night Parrots on Pullen Pullen and (neighbouring property) Mt Windsor as I had ever seen. There were four known sites with birds, and potentially two others where we heard birds on a couple of occasions. I think there could have been as many as twelve or fourteen birds across the two properties.” 


The good times led to a big increase in cat numbers. BHA tripled the number of planned cat control trips. Trips would typically be for two weeks, with each trip removing 50 cats by mid-2023. Says Leseberg: “It wasn’t all bad news though. The stomachs of the cats were examined to determine what they were eating, and we were only finding rats, nothing else.” By the end of 2023, rat numbers were dwindling and although cat numbers remained high, there was evidence they were losing condition with fewer pregnant females. Referring to the bird’s present status, he adds: “We’re still detecting them across three to four sites, but at some of those sites the detections are not as regular. We don’t know if these mean there are fewer birds, or if they are moving around more.”


Long-haired Rat


It would be interesting to know if the long-haired rat plague had its own impacts, although that issue is not addressed in this week’s statement. Rats are voracious predators of eggs and nesting birds. Might that be a factor in the latest population shift that Leseberg refers to? Instead of regarding questions like that as threatening or inappropriate or whatever, BHA could be doing the bird a service with a little more inclusiveness and dialogue.


Pullen Pullen