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Night Parrot: Australia's Most Elusive Bird

Night Parrot: Australia's Most Elusive Bird

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Night Parrot: Australia's Most Elusive Bird

713 pagine
7 ore
Sep 1, 2018


For well over a century, the Night Parrot lured its seekers into Australia's vast, arid outback. From the beginning it was a mysterious bird. Fewer than 30 specimens were collected before it all but disappeared, offering only fleeting glimpses and the occasional mummified body as proof of its continued existence. Protected by spinifex and darkness, the parrot attained almost mythical status: a challenge to birdwatchers and an inspiration to poets, novelists and artists.

Night Parrot documents the competitiveness and secrecy, the triumphs and adventures of the history of the bird and its followers, culminating in the recent discovery of live birds at a few widely scattered locations. It describes what we are now unravelling about the mysteries of its biology and ecology and what is still left to learn. Complemented by guest essays, illustrations and photographs from a wide variety of sources, this book sheds light on Australia's most elusive bird.

Sep 1, 2018

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Night Parrot - Penny Olsen


Introduction: the call of the Night Parrot

The Holy Grail of world birdwatching. No one has photographed it. No one has looked at it through binoculars. No birdwatcher has shown it to another birdwatcher. Almost nothing is known of its biology and its theoretical range is almost incomprehensible. It is an avian nut that refuses to crack.

Andrew Isles, quoted in Dooley (2012),¹ with apologies to Richard Loyn

The age of the great explorers has passed, so too the period of discovery of Australia’s fauna and flora, leaving anyone with a bent for natural history with few frontiers to breach, few challenges, few ways to achieve the extraordinary: to be the first.

Australia’s avian Holy Grail is the mysterious Night Parrot.² Like the fabled, lost Lasseter’s Reef with its promise of gold, for more than a century it has lured men into the desert.³ How many explorers hoped to happen upon the rare parrot, how many clubs and institutions organised dedicated searches, how many personal odysseys, how many media campaigns, how many birders spent their holidays in pursuit? How many bushmen’s yarns, secret locations, birds that were there yesterday or decades before, and reports gleaned from a friend of a friend who met a drover who was mustering cattle at dusk when …? There are also Lasseters in the parrot’s story: convincing fabulists with stories that ignite the imagination. Who and what to believe?

An almost mythical bird, the parrot is so cryptic and elusive that it has foiled countless questers every decade since Frederick Andrews went in search and returned with specimen skins in the early 1870s. All other encounters have been serendipitous, fleeting and impossible to prove. The bird was so seldom ‘seen’ that its extinction had been mooted many times over the years, then again it had been ‘sighted’ enough that hope reigned and searchers held to their faith that it survived. That is until mid 2013, when John Young found the ‘lost’ bird in south-west Queensland.⁴ Coincidentally, that year was the 140th anniversary of what may have been Andrews’ last successful expedition to the Gawler Ranges.

I first broached the idea of a book on the much sought-after parrot with CSIRO Publishing in 2007. They were keen but, given further thought, I decided that the time was not right: there was only the same old, well-trawled literature to revisit, and a swag of unauthenticated sightings, so I decided to wait. Then, remarkably, Young ‘rediscovered’ the Night Parrot, proving its continued existence, but not ending the search for the bird and clues to its ecology and distribution across its potential range. Initially, the latter was the daunting task of Steve Murphy, who began with the help of Young.

There were indeed stories to be told of the parrot’s pursuers: the followers of the Night Parrot. There are characters aplenty among the many men who have gone in search, and those with a lifetime’s interest in the fugitive bird. They endured hardship, loss, led interesting lives, obsessed, broke rules, invested time and money and, mostly, never found their parrot. Interestingly, women hardly figure among the searchers and sighters.

On close inspection, the well-trawled literature proved not so carefully trawled: there were overlooked hints, and clues that were ambiguous and could be interpreted differently. Andrews’ observation that the parrot comes and goes with the seasons has been understood as some sort of nomadic behaviour, when he may well have meant that they are more numerous or obvious in wet seasons, as seems to be the case. He left other inadvertent red herrings, such as his observation that the parrot comes to waterholes to drink at night. We have made too much of it. Many searchers have held all-night vigils at inland water points in the hope that they might see a Night Parrot. Andrews probably observed the bird doing so, as he wrote, but how many times and under what conditions? He claimed that it drinks two to three times a night, but how could he know that? It is now suspected that the parrot, like many desert animals, can live for some time without free water, provided there is enough water in its food. The prediction is that it must drink when temperatures exceed ∼39°C – how many people would wish to stake out waterholes in such temperatures?

We will never know how common the Night Parrot was before Europeans arrived. Given that Andrews probably collected nearly two dozen specimens in just 3 years suggests that in places it was reasonably common in good seasons. Certainly, there is evidence that it was once much more widespread, and that its distribution has retreated inland.

In its ecology and reduction in distribution, the Night Parrot resembles many of the dozen or so smaller Central Australian mammal species that are now extinct and others that are Critically Endangered. I argue that Andrews relied on Aboriginal people for at least some of his parrot specimens, just as the success of many early naturalists–explorers in collecting these mammals soared with the assistance of the local Aboriginal people. That opportunity to benefit from Aboriginal knowledge of the parrot was lost with the distancing of Indigenous people from their country.

Then, of course, the bird teased us in 1990 and again in 2006, when, on each occasion, a sun-dried body was stumbled upon on an isolated roadside in desolate country. What were the chances of that? Little wonder that this elusive parrot of Australia’s vast, heat-seared inland has inspired poets and writers of prose, from Dorothy Porter and John Kinsella to Dal Stivens and John Huxley.⁵ The bird is endlessly alluring, but always just out of reach: ‘lost’ deep in the heart of the continent, in the vast, ‘empty’ wilderness of the inland. Its ways are a mystery. To join the search is an adventure: romantic, challenging, foolhardy – to pursue the impossible dream.

Stivens’ best-selling, Miles Franklin Award winning novel, A Horse of Air, was published in 1970.⁶ It purports to relate millionaire ornithologist Harry Craddock’s crazed search for the rare Night Parrot in Central Australia in 1967. Craddock and his messy assortment of colleagues rampaged about all over the Gibson Desert, hanging mist nets, setting up hides at waterholes and interviewing the Pintjinjara people in an effort to track down the ‘Grail-Night Parrot’. As Stivens’ narrator says: ‘The truth about anything must be disputable … which is the reality and which is the dream?’ It must seem so to many who get close to the actual Night Parrot, but Craddock’s search is an allegory of sorts. In interview a year after its publication, Stivens explained that the question is: ‘who is the hero, Harry Craddock? What is he really after when he takes this expedition off to Central Australia in quest of the rare Night Parrot?’⁷

Stivens was well informed: he repeated the entire entry on the parrot from Neville William Cayley’s best-selling What Bird is That? (1931), another successful Angus and Robertson author, as well as extensive passages from Lawson Whitlock’s account of a near encounter in 1922.

Stivens’ title, A Horse of Air, is a phrase that has been said to have been coined by the Aboriginal people, who thought that the flight of the low-flying Night Parrot resembled a galloping horse.⁸ But that is another myth. It is actually from Tom O’Bedlam, a 17th century poem or ballad relating to the feigning of madness, which obsessed Stivens for some time before he wrote the book:⁹

With a burning spear and a horse of air,

To the wilderness I wander.¹⁰

Rising nationalism and environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s, and Indigenous dispossession, were arguably the main threads of Xavier Herbert’s massive novel Poor Fellow My Country (1975), another Miles Franklin award winner who featured the Night Parrot. Herbert spent many years as Protector of the Aboriginal people of the Darwin region in the Northern Territory, which informed his narrative. A passage on Night Parrots demonstrated his central character’s relationship to the land, his belonging to its biodiversity. Herbert’s part-Aboriginal protagonist travels through country, recalling an origin story relating to a waterhole, Gubbindah Winyan (gecko waterhole, according to the dictionary at the end of the book):

Ken Done painted the cover illustration of the 1986 Penguin edition of A Horse of Air by Dal Stivens.

One of the favoured was Bilbilgah, the Night Parrot of the desert country, who kept a look out for Tchamala [the Rainbow Serpent] during the night and always reported to a gubbindah [gecko lizard] before dawn, when the flock went for the one drink they had from dawn till dawn of each day. The easiest way to find a gubbindah hole was to listen for the parrots coming to drink, because they made a lot of noise about it. However, failing that, you could pick out the spot by their goona [excrement] on the rock. Because there was magic in the droppings you could see them in the dark.¹¹

However, the reference to flocks might mean that Herbert’s bird, or its real life inspiration, is actually Bourke’s Parrot, which is known in some quarters as the Night Parrot because of its habit of drinking after sundown. So too, probably, the tree-perching parrots in a northern Aranda ceremonial song relating to the totemic ancestral kangaroos, recorded by Strehlow’s son, in which the watchful night parrots protect the kangaroos as they graze unconcerned around a soak:

The night parrots are speaking, the Night Parrots are speaking merrily; In the tree tops they are speaking, in the tree tops they are speaking merrily.¹²

Huxley’s contemporary novel, Dead Parrot, is a gently humorous take on the birdwatching community. His parrot is at the heart of a murder mystery, a whodunit, in which the detectives assigned to the case are:

drawn inexplicably into the genteel world of bird-watchers. There they are surprised to find big egos, precious reputations, professional jealousies and passions that can still be aroused by long-ago rows over the existence of elusive birds, such as the mysterious Night Parrot.¹³

Visual artists, too, have felt the parrot’s pull. John Olsen, on the urging of well-known naturalist Vincent Serventy, headed to Lake Eyre in the summer of 1974–1975. The lake was in flood and they were going to search for ‘the frog parrot’, but more than that to gather material for a book on the area – a rare collaboration between science and art.¹⁴ Two other artists travelled with them: Tim Storrier and Frank Hodgkinson. They discovered an explosion of wildlife in the ‘dead heart’ of the continent, but no Night Parrots.¹⁵ All of the artists subsequently produced significant work, but the book did not eventuate. However, in 1982–1983, Olsen explored north-western Australia, which included the Pilbara, Marble Bar, Lake Gregory and other Night Parrot country, with poet Mary Durack, historian Geoffrey Dutton, photographer Alex Bortignon and Serventy. The result was The Land Beyond Time.¹⁶ Other artists who have been captivated by the idea of the Night Parrot include Fiona Hall, John Wolseley, William Thomas Cooper and Emma Lindsay.

Wildlife artist William (Bill) T. Cooper made two finished images of the Night Parrot: in 1971 for Parrots of the World (see figure on p. 17), and in 1980 (see title page), and he was contemplating a third. Image courtesy of Steve Murphy.

Interest in the parrot has waxed and waned according to the times and the means, but among the ornithological community it has remained a prize. From the beginning, the parrot eluded western science. The first specimens of the Night Parrot ever collected, in 1845 on the Sturt expedition and 1854 on the Austin expedition, were sent back to London where they were assumed to be Ground Parrots (then considered to be monospecific). Gould made the first description of the Night Parrot in 1861, based on Austin’s specimen, while Sturt’s specimen languished, overlooked for a century and a half. Once recognised by science, specimens of the parrot immediately became sought-after for museums and private collections, increasingly so as its rarity became obvious.

In the 1910s and 1920s, concerns were raised for the Night Parrot’s continued existence and several gentlemen naturalists went in pursuit of the phantom-like bird.¹⁷ Beginning with ‘Mallee Bird’ in 1908, the finger was pointed at cats and foxes as the cause of its supposed demise.¹⁸ A lull in search activity accompanied the First World War, but throughout the 20th century there was a scattering of sightings. Effort to find evidence of the parrot increased again in the 1930s, perhaps following the publication of What Bird is That?, Australia’s first comprehensive guide, which opened up the field to all Australians concerned to know more about their birds and brought attention to the status of several vanishingly rare birds. As the 1930s progressed, there was a peak in searches with the extension of the rail network, which made access to Night Parrot country easier. Another lull followed with the Second World War and subsequent recovery. In the 1960s and 1970s, the road network and the affordability of vehicles meant another peak in activity as more Australians discovered the outback.

The 1960s also shepherded in the conservation era. In that decade, two British expeditions had the parrot high among the species in their sights, and stirred up issues of nationalism as well as conservation. Why was Australia allowing rare species to be collected and taken out of the country? Throughout the 1960s, the Harold Hall Expeditions, organised by the British Museum, collected birds in various parts of Australia, in mid-decade targeting Frederick Andrews’ old collecting area around Nonning, South Australia, and other Night Parrot locations in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.¹⁹ The Hall expedition gathered a representative collection of Australian birds, nearly 5000 specimen skins, and discovered a new species (Hall’s Babbler), but saw no sign of the Night Parrot.

Then, in October 1966, a British services expedition was announced.²⁰ The 10 men from each of the three military services planned to conduct survival experiments and test equipment. They were anticipating ‘big discoveries’ in the ‘Dead Heart’ and were ‘taking survey equipment and apparatus to catch wild life, including the rare night parrot’. In February, they set off westwards from Alice Springs, striking unexpected wet weather, losing two men for a couple of days and returning after 11 weeks with some 1000 vertebrate specimens – not a Night Parrot among them.

In 2012, the coy parrot topped the list of Australia’s most wanted birds plucked from a survey of prominent birders.²¹ Andrew Isles, natural history bookseller, captured the essence of the challenge in his quote at the beginning of this chapter, which describes the parrot as ‘an avian nut that refuses to crack’.²² So too Margaret Cameron, well-respected birdwatcher, with her comment: ‘I’d LOVE to see a Night Parrot – in fact I’m going out to the Diamantina later this year … but I wouldn’t believe my own eyes and no-one would believe me!’²³

That same year, in a probably not unrelated article in Smithsonian magazine (published by the prestigious Smithsonian Institute in the USA), the Night Parrot headed a list of the world’s five most mysterious birds.²⁴

As Stivens, Cameron and Huxley allude, each in their own way, involvement with the Night Parrot can be dangerous. To write about the parrot in the current climate is risky: so many in the bird world have an interest, even feel an ownership, having made a not insignificant emotional and physical investment in the species. Passions run high over who to believe, who should have access to the bird and its recorded calls, what should be done to secure its future and who is responsible. At a time when we all should be pulling together to do our best for the bird, human nature just might be its worst enemy.

In this book I have attempted to gather everything that is known about the Night Parrot, even repeating verbatim some of the important texts that may not be readily accessible. I have tried to trace the bird’s history in light of the changing issues and interests, from European discovery to the present. I have included cautionary tales, and many, but not all, searches and sightings are scattered through: enough, I hope, to give a flavour of the times and the continuing intensity of the interest.

The book is structured mainly by State, according to the historical events and major players in the parrot’s story, which, as it happens, corresponds to a rough chronology of the focus on the parrot from South Australia, through Western Australia, Victoria, the Northern Territory to Queensland. The final two sections cover the contemporary period, starting with the parrot’s ‘rediscovery’ in 2013, and the research into its distribution, ecology and conservation needs. Readers with an interest only in the bird be warned: the Night Parrot literature has been so picked over already that, to bring some freshness, the historical narratives often focus on the people involved; they were also written before much was known of the parrot’s biology, habits and locations, which ballooned towards the end of the writing process.

A mock book cover designed to illustrate a slightly tongue-in-cheek article on some of the many unfortunate men who, over the years, have gone in search of the elusive Night Parrot. The piece ran in the March 2013 edition of Australian Birdlife, just months before John Young rediscovered the parrot. Image courtesy of Sean Dooley; parrot illustration by Peter Marsack.

Contributors Dick Kimber, Glen Holmes and Stephen Garnett tell typical stories of searches frustrated, repeated over the decades by many with a fascination for the bird. Leo Joseph explains where the Night Parrot fits within the parrot family, Peter Curry puts forward his views on the destruction of the Night Parrot’s fragile habitat in the Murchison-Gascoyne region of Western Australia and its potential for recovery. John Kinsella, Brett Dionysius, Ian Warden and Stephen Garnett make more literary contributions. Emma Lindsay explains her influences in painting the parrot. Bruce Greatwich writes of the recent unearthing of a population in the heart of Western Australia and Robert Nugent captures a Martu legend. I invited John Young, a key figure in the Night Parrot story, to contribute – he agreed but nothing eventuated. I would have liked him to explain, in his own words, how he got the 2013 photographs of the parrot.

Tony Pridham adds the finishing touches to the cover illustration, February 2017. Photo by Tony Pridham.

Please note that the endnotes (references) are placed at the end of each major section, that is, the sections dealing with each State and the preliminary section.

As I neared the end of the manuscript in March 2017, knowledge began to snowball. The discovery of a population in Western Australia, then possibly another in the Northern Territory, suddenly widened the parrot’s potential country back to something of its former extensive range, stretching patchily across the vastness of arid Australia. These finds eased pressure on the Queensland population and its minders. With the release of the parrot’s calls and an understanding of its habitat, we had the key to finding the bird that had been there all along. As most bird people believed, the parrot never quite disappeared. It has hung on, it seems, in the harshest of areas: rugged and otherwise fairly uninhabitable for most other animals and even for fire, but near rich feeding flats.

I have tracked the history of the Night Parrot from the first specimen collected by a European in 1845 to its ‘rediscovery’ in Queensland in 2013 and Western Australia and the Northern Territory in 2017. Along the way, I have tried to capture something of the characters of the people as well as of the parrot itself. The result is an eclectic mix that I hope shows something of the wide fascination with the Night Parrot, or at least that of the idea of the parrot. I did my best to sift the ‘alternative facts’ from the facts. Nor did I wish to shy away from reporting on the obsessiveness, competitiveness, dishonesty and downright nastiness of contemporary Night Parrot politics – no wonder the bird hid from view for so long. In more ways than one, the battle for the parrot has only just begun. What is certain is that there will be further chapters to add to the story of the elusive, enigmatic and endlessly alluring parrot of the night.

Night Parrot in a nutshell

Wing 135–153 mm Bill 11.5–13 mm Tail 100–106 mm Wt ∼90–105 g

An incredibly cryptic, low density, nocturnal denizen of the arid interior; has achieved almost mythical status among birders … Stocky, legs rather long and sturdy, tail short with central tail feathers shorter than laterals. Ad mostly bright green above with blackish and yellow feather centres; faint blue cast to cheeks; primaries grey-brown, fringed pale yellow; uppertail dark grey, notched and partially barred dull yellow. Throat and breast green with blackish and yellow arrowheads; belly and vent clear, bright yellow; flanks finely barred grey. Broad yellow wing-stripe in all plumages. Juv considerably duller: upperparts dull brown, heavily streaked blackish over crown and cheeks; wing feathers, including primaries, fringed pale grey-green with broad dark centres; rump and uppertail-coverts dull yellow with thick grey bars, uppertail grey-brown with partial yellow bars. Underparts yellow, heavily streaked blackish on throat with broad grey barring on breast and flanks, but clear yellow belly. Undertail with broad and regular yellow and grey bars. Legs, feet and cere flesh coloured to slightly greyish. Flight poorly known; wings rather long, broad and pointed, suggesting strong flight capabilities. When flushed, may fly low and usually only a short distance before pitching or gliding to cover. Bright white eye-shine. Voice: Usual contact call a double whistle ding ding recalling Bell Miner, sometimes 3 or 4 syllables. Mostly calls in first hour after sunset and hour before dawn but can be heard throughout the night after rainfall. Also a slightly buzzy creck, somewhat frog-like. Notes: Terrestrial, nocturnal, may visit surface water to drink after dark, but not reliant on this. Current distribution centred on the e Lake Eyre Basin (sw Qld, ne SA) and east Murchison, WA; possibly also e Pilbara (WA), just south of Alice Springs (NT) and Mount Isa Uplands (nw Qld). Roosts by day in a short tunnel in side of long-unburnt Triodia hummock, on stony or sandy substrate. Possibly also roosts in dense, low chenopods. Readily flies long distance to food source, including chenopods growing in runoff areas and floodplain grasses.²⁵

The Night Parrot is listed as threatened or extinct in all appropriate jurisdictions. The main reasons are its rarity and its reduced population size and distribution since the 1870s. The parrot feeds, roosts and nests on the ground and, with a suite of desert-dwelling mammals (many of which are already extinct), it is suspected to be threatened by habitat loss due to overgrazing and changed fire regimes, and predation by cats and foxes.²⁶

Night Parrots (from the left): juvenile and adult standing, adults in flight showing the wing stripe that is present in all ages and sexes. Illustration by Jeff Davies from The Australian Bird Guide (2017).

The Night Parrot (at right) has a significantly shorter tail and claws than ground parrots (left). Source: Walter Boles, courtesy of the Australian Museum.

The Night Parrot (outer wing silhouettes) has longer and more pointed wings than the Ground Parrot (inner silhouettes). Source: Sally Elmer.

An adult Night Parrot in the spotlight in south-west Queensland, demonstrating its white eye-shine. Photo courtesy Nick Leseberg.

The Night Parrot is listed under various State and Commonwealth legislation:

Endangered (and Migratory) under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Commonwealth)

Critically Endangered under the Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 2000 (Northern Territory)

Endangered under the Nature Conservation Act 1992 (Queensland)

Endangered under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 (South Australia)

Rare or Likely to Become Extinct under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 (Western Australia)

Presumed Extinct under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (NSW)

Regionally Extinct under the Advisory List of Threatened Vertebrate Fauna in Victoria 2003 (Victoria)

A tangled nest of Night Parrot names

Since John Gould named the Western Ground-Parrakeet (aka Night Parrot) in 1861,²⁷ the bird has had an abundance of vernacular English names, some quite evocative. These include Australian Owl Parrot, Western Ground Parrot, Short-toed Ground Parrakeet, Nocturnal Ground Parakeet, Porcupine Parrot, Spinifex Parrot, Midnight Cockatoo and Solitaire.²⁸ The colourful descriptors ‘fat budgie’, ‘budgie on steroids’ and its 1930s predecessor, ‘an exaggerated shell parrot’, even ‘Frog Parrot’ and ‘Croaking Parrot’, could be added to that list.²⁹ It should also be noted that the subject of this book shares a name with the nocturnal Kakapo of New Zealand. In fact, ‘Kakapo’ is derived from the Maori language, combining night () and parrot (kākā). As if that’s not enough, the Night Parrot also shares, or once shared, an alternative moniker, the Spinifex Parrot, with the Princess Parrot.

Perhaps the most frustrating for researchers is the very common use in inland areas of the term ‘Night Parrot’ for Bourke’s Parrot during the 20th century. Quite a lot of the older records of Night Parrot are dogged by this confusion of names. Added to this is the likelihood of confusing the two species in the field, because Bourke’s Parrot frequently comes in to waterholes in the fading evening light to drink: something it has been assumed that Night Parrots also do. This failure to carefully distinguish between the two parrot species has also muddied the European recording of their names in various Aboriginal languages.

Night Parrots are sometimes referred to as fat budgies, but the similarity is superficial. From left: three Night Parrots from the Gawler Ranges (a male and female in H.L. White Collection, HLW 54 HLW 55, and a specimen from Lake Eyre, NMV 36256, collected on the Lewis expedition and donated to the museum by John Leadbeater), probably collected by Frederick Andrews in the early 1870s (see p. 49 and Black AB Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 132, 277–282), and three Budgerigars, all from the collections of Museums Victoria. Photo by Michael Kearney.

Well before European arrival in Australia, the people of Night Parrot country knew and named the bird. Sadly, any deep knowledge they had – beyond a few lines in the literature mostly relating to its nocturnality and habit of nesting under a spinifex clump – has generally been lost. For example, during a decade-long biological survey of the Anangu Pitjantjara lands of north-west South Australia, carried out with considerable assistance from the local Anangu, no-one could be found who could identify the museum specimen of a Night Parrot and only one person had any knowledge of the bird:

One informant remembered seeing a green parrot that lived on the ground in spinifex country. He was able to repeat its call, which was a distinctive call at night, similar to the Mulga Parrot. It used to dig a burrow for nesting and ate on the ground. During the winter they were found around claypans where the soil was soft.³⁰

Sorting through the regional Indigenous names, especially those recorded by early European contacts, is not without problems, not least the confusion with Bourke’s Parrot. Frederick Andrews’ famous Myrrlumbing, claimed to be onomatopoeic – a bird that says its own name – is hard to fully reconcile with known calls of the parrot.³¹ Herbert Thomas Condon, curator of birds at the South Australian Museum, considered that the name was referable to the Parnkala (Barngarla) tribe from the Gawler Ranges.³² Linguists, however, find the word atypical and cannot place it, although the somewhat similar Mooroombaridi means ‘to live on the ground’.³³ Following Andrews’ expedition with John Lewis to Lake Eyre, on which at least one Night Parrot was collected, Andrews wrote on the manners, customs and languages of the Aboriginal people, so it is possible that the name came from that area.³⁴ However, that still leaves the same issue, now that various calls of the bird have been recorded: ‘the bird that says its own name’ apparently does not.

After visiting the Northern Territory, Frederick Lawson Whitlock published the name Tnokkapaltara, which he discovered written beside ‘Nacht-lichter papagei’ in the margins of missionary Carl Strehlow’s book on the Aranda (Arrernte) of the Alice Springs region (see p. 201).³⁵ Whitlock’s diary for 1923 contains the variations Tnokka-tool-pata and Trrukutulbara beside his notes on the Night Parrot.³⁶ Strehlow’s unpublished (c. 1900) dictionary apparently contains further variants, Tnukutulbara and Tnaljurbura.³⁷ A letter from anthropologist Norman Tindale to John Burton Cleland contains yet another rendering:

With the aid of the photograph kindly supplied by ‘Vox’ of the Advertiser, I was able to ascertain that the Aranda natives living at Haast Bluff call the bird ‘nokodulbara’.³⁸

Strehlow’s son, Theodor Strehlow, transcribed the name as Ynaltjirpela or Tnaltjirperala in a northern Aranda song containing the following lines, which referred to a bird that had never been seen by anyone but was known from its tracks and the sound of it wings as it went into hiding before daybreak:

Let the night parrots cover [the edge of the pool] with their footprints!

Let the night parrots depart with a rush of wings!³⁹

Also, according to Strehlow’s dictionary, Analtjirbiri and Anukutulbari are words for Night Parrot in the neighbouring Luritja (now Kukatja) language of the western MacDonnell Ranges.⁴⁰

However, linguists such as David Nash agree that Tnokkapaltara and its various renditions are actually garbled versions of the Aranda word for Bourke’s Parrot, Tjultalpa, with the ‘t’ and ‘p’ interchanged. This also casts doubt on the phonetically similar Kukatja words. It seems likely that the Strehlows accepted the old outback name for Bourke’s Parrot – Night Parrot – just as the name confused some searchers for the bird known as the Night Parrot today. As a final twist, Alan Burbidge suggests that Andrews’ Myrrlumbing might be an onomatopoeic rendering of the call of Bourke’s Parrot, which ranges through Central Australia and as far south as the Gawler Ranges, where Andrews collected.⁴¹

According to Tindale, the Pintubi people who live in the Kintore Range–Lake Mackay area, straddling the Northern Territory–Western Australian border, call the Night Parrot Tjerawiljawilja.⁴² More recent linguists believe that this word refers to the Splendid Fairy-wren.⁴³ The Night Parrot’s Pintupi or Luritja name actually appears to be Jurlurrjurlurr.⁴⁴

To the Alyawarra people of the Jervois Ranges, north-eastern Northern Territory, the parrot may have been Atutra (see p. 210).⁴⁵ A variant, Attrutra, is also claimed (unreliably) to have been used by the Mithaka people of south-west Queensland (see pp. 234–235).⁴⁶ However, in the Arrernte language, which has a kinship with Alywarr, Atetherr, which is probably the same word, refers to the Budgerigar.⁴⁷

Possibly, more certainty can be attached to the Eastern Warlpiri (Tanami Desert, Northern Territory) name for the bird, Yurruputputpa, which corresponds to Yurrupudpudpa, the former documented by David Gibson.⁴⁸ The linguist Steve Swartz recorded this as Yurrupurrpurrpa.⁴⁹ The Walpiri language doesn’t allow consonant-final words, so the ‘pa’ is an augment that allows a word to end in a vowel. On a 1980 visit to the area, Nash recorded Yurruputputpa as one of two Dreamings, but did not note the meaning of the word.⁵⁰ Across the border in Western Australia, in the Balgo area on the north-western side of the Tanami Desert, Kulkurru is thought to refer the Night Parrot in the Kukatja language from around Gregory Lake.⁵¹

The Martu people of the Great Sandy Desert area, where the Night Parrot was recently found and photographed (see pp. 312–314), regard the ancestral Night Parrot from the Dreaming as a being that avoids all others and can never be found – its presence is its absence. They have a story that tells of the other beings sending fire and storms to flush out the parrot, to no avail (see pp. 146–147).

Lastly, to Pullen Pullen: the name adopted for that part of Brighton Downs Station secured by Bush Heritage Australia as a reserve. Pullen Pullen was said to be the name given to the Night Parrot by the Maiawali people of the area, as recalled by the few surviving members of the clan.⁵² However, it seems to be yet another erroneous moniker for the poor parrot. Leading linguists Luise Hercus and Gavan Breen were consulted and vetoed the name on the grounds that they could find no evidence for it in the literature and that the languages in the area do not have final consonants, yet their advice was ignored.⁵³ To add to the confusion and doubt, the very similar name Bullen Bullen and variants are said to refer to the Mallee Ringneck in the Yuwaalaraay language of nearby north-western New South Wales, to the Superb Lyrebird in Wuywurrung (Central Victoria) and to a swallow in Biri (Whitsunday region, Queensland).⁵⁴ Elsewhere in Queensland, Pullen Pullen can mean a get-together for ceremonial fighting: hardly an apt name for the place where Australians reconnected with their most elusive bird and must pull together to conserve it, but possibly reflecting the politics around the startled parrot.⁵⁵

Getting to know the family: the molecular story

Leo Joseph

In ornithology, as this book will show, there are few birds more mysterious than the Night Parrot. Learning anything about its natural history and biology, let alone its evolutionary relationships, have been enduring challenges. A close relationship between the Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis and the Eastern and Western Ground Parrots P. wallicus and P. flaviventris, an obviously reasonable supposition, invites the question of to which species they in turn are most closely related? How might answering that question inform us about the evolution of the Night Parrot more generally? Are there evolutionary underpinnings to the bird’s nocturnality? Is there just one species of Night Parrot? This chapter deals with what we do and don’t know about these questions.


When John Gould described the Night Parrot in 1861, with some hesitation he erected the genus Geopsittacus for it, leaving the Ground Parrot in Pezoporus.⁵⁶ Gould’s recognition of Geopsittacus reflects less of biology than the taxonomic practice of his day. Nevertheless, the notion has had its defenders.⁵⁷

The finding of two dead Night Parrots, in 1990 and 2006, coincided with the development of methods to extract degraded DNA such as is found in museum specimens. DNA so obtained, and analysed phylogenetically, has affirmed what has always been reasonably and plainly apparent from plumage: the Night Parrot and the Ground Parrot (then considered to be monospecific, but in 2011 split into two species: the Eastern and Western Ground Parrots; see later) are each other’s closest relatives.⁵⁸

Accordingly, there seems little point in separating Night and ground parrots in two genera, Geopsittacus and Pezoporus, respectively, given their very close relationship, and that they have further similarities in plumage and in their habitat and behaviour. Just as ground parrots are birds of low, often swampy heathlands and grasslands, Night Parrots are associated with what are ecologically very broadly comparable habitats in the arid zone. For example, they have been recorded in flats of low succulent vegetation on the floodplains of inland rivers, and are frequently associated with Triodia hummock grasslands.⁵⁹ It is therefore clear that Night and ground parrots are inland and coastal representatives of each other.

The next question that can be asked is ‘to which other parrots are the Pezoporus group most closely related?’ Long ago, mainly because of similarities in plumage, close relationships were suggested between the Pezoporus parrots and the Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus of the Australian arid zone, and the nocturnal Kakapo Strigops habroptilus of New Zealand. In the case of the Budgerigar, similarities in nestling food-begging calls were also claimed.⁶⁰ Today, the Night Parrot is no longer considered closely related to either. The Budgerigar is firmly understood from morphology and molecules to be most closely related to the lorikeets and fig-parrots, and the Kakapo is even more distantly related to Pezoporus parrots.⁶¹ The earliest divergence in the evolutionary tree of all living parrots was between the branch that led to the Kakapo and the Nestor parrots (the Kea and Kakas also in New Zealand and on Norfolk Island) and the branch leading to all other extant parrots.⁶² Any similarities in plumage and food-begging calls almost certainly arose for reasons other than having a particularly close relationship.

The arid country Night Parrot (at top) and its closest relative and ecological equivalent in temperate Australia, the Eastern Ground Parrot (below). Watercolour by William T. Cooper, 1971, courtesy of National Library of Australia.

So, which species, aside from the ground parrots, are the Night Parrot’s closest relatives? The answer to date is the neophema group: that is, Bourke’s Parrot Neopsephotus bourkii and the Neophema parrots (Blue-winged, Elegant, Rock, Orange-bellied, Turquoise and Scarlet-chested). This link to the neophemas immediately makes evolutionary sense of the Night Parrot’s nocturnality. Several of the neophema group are known for their crepuscular habits (activity at dawn and dusk), and Bourke’s Parrot is sometimes active well after dark. Some of the group are also migratory, which can involve nocturnality. Hence, either nocturnality or a tendency towards nocturnality arose early in the evolutionary history of the entire group. This presumably assisted the lineage that evolved into the Night Parrot to adapt to the Australian arid zone. It also raises the questions whether, and to what extent, these parrots as a group share adaptations with other birds that fall at various points on the spectrum of nocturnality and near-nocturnality, such as the elanid kites (e.g. Black-shouldered Kite Elanus axillaris and Letter-winged Kite Elanus scriptus).⁶³

How many species?

The Night Parrot is such a widespread bird that it almost certainly has geographically distinct populations. Based on current knowledge, genetic differentiation among them is as possible as that found between the ground parrots.⁶⁴ Accordingly, the several lines of argument leading to recent elevation of the Western Ground Parrot to species rank as P. flaviventris are worth summarising. First, it was critical that multiple individuals of all populations of what was formerly considered to be one species, the Ground Parrot P. wallicus, were sampled for mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) diversity. The mtDNA diversity fell into two clusters exactly paralleling eastern and western populations and reflecting a long history of genetic isolation. Notably, the Tasmanian populations and mainland eastern Australian birds, though isolated from each other, still share genetic diversity. So, geographic isolation per se of western birds was not part of the argument for P. flaviventris as a species. Second, there was no evidence of gene flow between the eastern and western populations. Third, the marked plumage similarity between Eastern and Western Ground Parrots was suggested to be due to natural selection maintaining plumage that renders the birds cryptic in their grassy and heathy habitats. The conclusion, then, was that the data were consistent with recognition of two species. Given appropriate evidence, very similar arguments could arise in future for recognising two species of Night Parrot if its surviving populations are as isolated from each other, as our limited knowledge suggests.

What is known of geographical variation in the Night Parrot? Not much, of course, but in 1915, when the specimens were much fresher in colour than they are today, Gregory M. Mathews proposed that the Gawler Ranges, South Australia, birds were a subspecies, P. o. whiteae, which differed from P. o. occidentalis, from Western Australia, in ‘being darker green above and in having the abdomen not so yellow’.⁶⁵ He repeated this proposition in The Birds of Australia, but then contradicted himself in the final paragraph and accompanying illustration, positing exactly the opposite.⁶⁶ To add to the confusion, Mathews claimed that he had examined three specimens from Western Australia, two of which are now considered to actually be from South Australia.⁶⁷ If there is any substance to Mathews’ muddled views on plumage differences, another geographical structure we might consider (in addition to east–west) is a north–south pattern. That is, the Western Australian, Queensland and northern South Australian populations may be differentiated from the southern Gawler Ranges population. The latter is quite likely extinct, as is the other southernmost population, in the Victorian mallee, so we may already have lost such diversity.⁶⁸

Although the idea of this loss is a melancholic note on which to finish, one still looks forward to refinement of techniques that will allow careful genetic assessment of population structure and diversity in the Night Parrot based on data extracted from museum specimens and,

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