Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

John Young and the Night Parrot

Night Parrot
It bounces among spinifex clumps in the desert like a wound-up toy, puffs itself up to look like a green-and-gold echidna, and bangs its head on the ground when excited. The night parrot, one of the world’s rarest and most enigmatic animals, has not disappointed.

Bushman and naturalist John Young has generated enormous interest with his discovery of the night parrot at an undisclosed location in south-west Queensland. A conference hall at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane this week was packed as Young revealed to the public the first photographs and video footage ever taken of a bird that has confounded experts for more than a century.

Where to now for this remarkable creature? Amid the excitement surrounding Young’s extraordinary find - which involved him driving 325,000 km and spending 17,000 hours in the desert over several years – debate is emerging about what should be done to seize an opportunity to protect a critically endangered species.

Young is not notifying state or federal authorities of the identity of the private grazing property where he found the birds. He insists that the conservation of the night parrot is his primary concern and he intends to raise at least $2 million so the property can be managed privately. Rights to his photographs and video footage are up for sale. However, bird experts are urging Young to back down and co-operate with government agencies.

Road-killed night parrot found near Boulia
Young photographed the bird in the general region where two dead night parrots were found 16 years apart – one near Boulia in 1990, the other in the Diamantina National Park, 200 km away, in 2006.  Other than those birds, the last confirmed report was a century ago when a night parrot was collected at Nichol Spring, Western Australia, in 1912.

A handful of sightings are the only other reports. Brisbane naturalist David Stewart saw a night parrot along the Canning Stock Route, Western Australia, in 1967. Scientist Shane Parker and tour operator Rex Ellis flushed four birds from camels in 1979 at Lake Perigundi, South Australia. Environmental consultants Rob Davies and Brenden Metcalf saw three birds at Minga Well, Western Australia, in 2005. Some authorities question one or more of these reports.

John Young - Picture ABC News
The spread of feral cats is a major factor in the demise of the species. It was once common around Alice Springs, for instance; in 1892, it was reported that “numerous” night parrots were killed by cats at the town’s Old Telegraph Station.

Young was able to throw some light this week on how the bird has evaded attention for so long. It calls sporadically and softly. The parrots do not emerge from spinifex clumps in which they hide during the day to forage until well after sunset. They appear to have no need of water, defying expectations that they fly to watering holes at dusk. They do not flush from daytime roosts if disturbed and generally are as cryptic as it is possible to imagine.

Six weeks ago, Young lured a male night parrot into view with a tape recording of its distinctive whistle and captured his magical images. In 2008, he first heard the bird calling on the property near the Queensland-Northern Territory border where he was to later photograph it. Although he knew then that he had cornered the Holy Grail of the birding world, it was five long years before the proof was in the bag. Said Young this week:  “I understand why nobody ever found one because it is so secretive. We were over the top of it most nights and it would not call.” His recording of the call is the only one in existence. He does not intend to release the recording, although some in the birding community argue that its use across the parrot’s once vast inland Australian distribution would help locate more parrots.

Young located a parrot’s roosting site as well as a nest; he said he could hear the nestlings calling – proof of successful breeding. He sent parrot feathers he collected for DNA analysis to the Western Australian Museum. Nests are generally full of feathers but Young insists he did not disturb the nest. Young said in one interview this week that the feathers were collected from the roosting site, but in another interview he said they were “at the road side”.  Young says on his Facebook page that a female bird was sitting on the nest but he does not explain how he became aware of her presence; historical records show that night parrots build nests deep within large spinifex clumps that are not easily visible or accessible.

Spinifex of inland Australia - Night Parrot habitat
WA Museum senior vertebrates curator Ron Johnstone tells Inquirer: “John indicated there were feathers everywhere at the site. He says he’s got a heap of feathers.” Australia’s leading authority on parrots, Joseph Forshaw, says he is puzzled at how Young was able to collect a substantial quantity of feathers from either a road verge or a roosting site.

Young is a controversial figure. He has admitted to colleagues that he collected clutches of eggs from the nests of rare birds over many years but insists that he stopped doing so long ago. In 1980, Young reported a discovery even more exciting than a night parrot. He claimed to have rediscovered the paradise parrot, the only bird believed to have become extinct on the Australian mainland, but visits by ornithologists failed to find any birds.

In the mid-1990s, Young claimed to have photographed a Coxen’s fig-parrot, a tiny parrot on the verge of extinction, but no conclusive evidence emerged. In 2007, Young claimed another spectacular discovery when he said he had photographed a previously unknown species, the blue-browed fig-parrot. The claim was challenged by revelations in The Australian about doubts by experts concerning a photograph of Young’s parrot published in The Courier Mail.

Paradise Parrot
In her acclaimed book, Glimpses of Paradise- The Quest for the Beautiful Parakeet, zoologist and parrot expert Penny Olsen said Young had on several occasions “claimed a sensational find, shrouded in secrecy, which divided the birding community and ultimately came to nothing”.

This time the evidence is incontestable, but divisions in the birding community have resurfaced. Melbourne photographer Geoff Jones suggested on wildlife online forum birding-aus that Young’s critics would “grovel and eat humble pie”; Tasmanian birder Ian May said doubts about Young had been generated by “slurs” published by The Australian.  Others countered that the night parrot find and Young’s previous claimed discoveries should be regarded as unrelated.

When revealing his find exclusively to The Weekend Australian last week, Young addressed his critics publicly for the first time. He said he had lost the negative of the blue-browed fig-parrot photograph. However, the image was digital and one of a series. Young offered a different explanation about the photographs in a later interview: “I lightened them, darkened them, did my own sort of stuff and I was criticised and probably rightly so.” 

Young has locked government authorities out of his night parrot discovery, declaring this week:  “I’d rather go to jail than tell anyone where I found it... The site is going to stay protected. I want to look after this thing at all cost.”  Young believes government agencies would mismanage the property and that its whereabouts cannot be disclosed because it would be invaded by intrusive bird-watchers, threatening the survival of what is probably a tiny remnant population. Another concern may be egg-collectors; avicultural industry sources say a clutch of wild night parrot eggs could fetch as much as $1 million on overseas black markets.

Joe Forshaw says it is essential that Young co-operate with government authorities:  “You need a cat reduction program, you’ve maybe got land acquisition, all manner of management issues. John won’t have the resources. What happens if he gets run over by a bus? It all goes down the gurgler.”

This article was published in The Weekend Australian of 6-7 July, 2013

26 comments:

  1. enjoyed your post and it was only in recent days I'd been sent a link on this find via a BBC article. I then looked it up online here and read into it again. I was somewhat amused by the finale statement on your post, the statement by Joe Forshaw. I hadn't even thought of that and it is a predictable consideration by many no doubt.

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  2. Carole, yes there is a good deal of debate out there in the birding community about where to now with this discovery.

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  3. A very interesting and well written piece, Greg. It is a wonderful, yet stressful discovery. Let's hope both John and the parrots can stay well clear of any buses.

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  4. Good article Greg. Something for everyone.

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  5. Must admit this article raises more questions. Was not aware that John had located a nest and given his history and quantity of feathers recovered am even less comfortable with the prospect that he is now the sole custodian of the species.

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  6. Thanks Russell and Ken.
    Scott,I will leave it for people to draw their own conclusions.

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  7. Good article Greg. Lets hope all goes well for this now famous bird.
    Jude

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  8. Is it just me, or are others also offended by your thinly veiled accusation that John rifled a night parrot nest to obtain feathers? Where is your evidence for such a hurtful suggestion?
    Ron Guthrie
    Sydney

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  9. I make no such accusation Ron - I have no proof that anything of the kind occurred. I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions.

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    1. The fact Mr Young contradicted where he'd found a large number of feathers and, that as suggested, doing so in either situation is highly unlikely, and that he claims to have found a female sitting on a nest (an incredibly difficult thing to do considering its nesting habits) its no surprise that people are questioning the veracity of many of Mr Young's claims. I think John Young's behaviour in the past and contradictions and not seeming to care to take responsibility for his past mis-truths is more than enough to cause doubt among many people.

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    2. Robert, I believe you are spot-on

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  10. Good article, Greg. As you rightly point out, John's history of courting publicity for dubious discoveries goes against him even though this time he has finally proved one of his "finds". He is to be congratulated for the dedication it took to collect evidence of the Night Parrot, including the great photographs and video imagery. However it seems he wants to keep the site secret mainly so he can control access to the parrot probably for commercial reasons (claims of conservation to the contrary). And to some extent, fair enough - he is entitled to reap some rewards for his efforts. I think it is fairly safe to say that John will keep his secrets for as long as possible to extract maximum benefit from the find. The main positive I can see is that with the confirmation of the parrot's continued existence, more people will be searching in more targeted areas with more knowledge of the bird's habits. So I expect there will be more Night Parrot discoveries coming in the near future from both amateur and professional ornithologists. After that, John's monopoly on the discovery will be over and he might be encouraged to share all of his observations and evidence with the broader scientific / birding community so that conservation of the remaining population of Night Parrots can be achieved. Another positive from this is that from what John has said about the bird's habits, they are probably not as critically endangered as we think - there could well be a sizable population so long as the habitat they need to survive is widespread in the outback regions. Is there any source that shows the distribution of the specific spinifex habitat throughout the interior?

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  11. John, I agree that one of the most interesting things to come out of this is some explanation of how difficult these birds are to find. I don't know about spinifex mapping but certainly there is an abundance of suitable habitat. Fingers crossed that indeed there are more substantiated sightings.

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  12. Great post - this was more informative than any of the news articles I've read, so thank you! I think Young is a champ for locating the Night Parrot, but I understand why some people are concerned at there being a sole caretaker for the population. Then again, State Governments have been making a mockery of the National Parks and State Forests lately, so perhaps they are best left out of the loop?

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  13. Thanks Christian. Governments have much to answer for, but in my view they need to be included in situations such as this

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  14. Fat congrats to John Young for putting so much time into the search for the Night Parrot, then unearthing one and filming it. I'm gobsmacked, thrilled. As a keen birder since the late 80s, I know how patient one needs to be when in pursuit of certain species. I appreciate your informative report, Greg. Bravo. John's sighting really shows that elusive birds are out there. At the end of the day, very, very, very few people in Australia are out searching for our native creatures. There may be many more rare species around than we think! There could be more than 200 or so NPs out there! Suitable habitat for them is everywhere outback. More people need to be like John and look for this glorious needle in the proverbial haystack! Lorne Johnson, NSW.

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  15. I have checked out anatomical data, and it suggests the species (despite its terrestrial reputation) is an excellent flier even by parrot standards. The sternum is almost twice as big as expected for a parrot its size.

    Furthermore, I suspect that "samphire" (Amaranthaceae = Chenopodiaceae) are the main source of dietary protein. These plants are known for the high protein content of their seeds.

    And last, how did it evolve? All points to it being a remnant of the Lake Eyre basin fauna, originally inhabiting the floodplain grass/shrubland of the then-permanent rivers. That would mean it is now restricted to the network of seasonal watercourses, moving from patch to patch as they bear seed, never in any one place for long except to breed, and fairly solitary. This is in line with historical observations. The total *possible* extent of occurrence is about the size of Europe, however! Though it is safe to say it inhabits only a tiny fraction of that range.

    So, the extent of vagrancy needs to be determined urgently. Because if it moves around a lot (from one seeding spinifex/samphire patch to the next), conservation will become a national matter automatically, because it requires a network of protected sites that (though each single one need not be large) would be too extensive to fall into State jurisdiction, let alone private responsibility.

    It is good that the discovery falls right into the (conjectured, as most things about the NP) breeding season. There might be two broods, or rather an early and a late breeding season - about May, and late July/August - depending on food availability.

    Specimens could be sampled for microsatellites or RFLP markers to determine the loss of genetic diversity (ie, extent of decline). This has already been done for the Echo Parakeet.


    Kind regards,

    Eike Wulfmeyer
    MSci (Bio)

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  16. Greg, interesting and informative post, thanks.

    People like Ian May and Geoff Jones anger me. They do not understand the ramifications of some of John's past actions.

    Clearly, it has been known for a long time that Young is an expert bushman and can find rare birds, and he has obviously done so in this case - full credit to him. But he can still be an expert bush detective and a liar. I personally know members of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service - staff of great integrity, skill and honesty - who were burned by John's failure to produce the goods on the fig-parrot episode. The stress and career damage caused to these fine people have been forgotten about, it would seem. It is not enough for this man to make ludicrous statements about losing negatives and editing his images to extinction in Photoshop, he needs to come clean and apologise to those whose reputations were damaged by his inability to come up with what he'd claimed on that occasion. His subsequent anger at Government authorities smacked at dismay over being caught out. John was supported by people he subsequently left to hang out to dry.

    Conserving this species is bigger than one man's ego, as options to be considered should include getting large private conservation groups with a proven history of sound land management(Bush Heritage and Birdlife, for example) to work with the relevant State authorities and these land owners (if indeed this is on private land), as well as individual bird experts, to manage this habitat. People talk about State governments' inability to manage national parks, but without data on what is in reserves, they are more likely to allow (in Queensland anyway) cattle grazing or other ill-informed practices to occur, possibly to the detriment of rare fauna. The only way forward is a joint-effort. That, or failure. Finding a rare bird does not mean you are an expert in managing its future survival.

    Cheers and thanks again for the great article (and excellent blog).

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  17. It is great to hear of Pezoporus sightings, perhaps a fund such as Birds Australia could start an appeal to purchase land in the area.
    If it is a nesting site then it might need fencing and rangers. The species worst risk is obviously feral cats and dogs along with Dingos and even Eagles and Hawks. Goannas and Snakes also hunt for any birds eggs and nests. Owls are out and about at night and would prey on the Night Parrot. Even Rats or Bandicoots and Possums all eat bird eggs. This species is very old world akin to the salubrious Kakapo and deserves the same conservation efforts and elevation in priority.

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  18. Well what can I say, but well done on finding this species...but I tend to agree with "Anonymous" I support the fact that finding a rare bird is one thing but are you able to conserve this and protect this species on your own? If I were in John`s position I would certainly make the sound recordings available to keen birders and researches alike. It is understood that these sound recordings were captured about five years back but have only surfaced now? If these calls were available five years back I am sure that further NP populations would have been discovered by adventurous birders and sound conservation practises and research would have been well established by now! Now five years down the line and no research? The more birders armed with calls exploring the outback will surely benefit and aid researches. I don't believe for one moment that hundreds of tape playing birders will descend on one particular locality a thousand miles out in the outback! We can surely learn by previous examples. Just look at the White-winged Flufftail of Africa,this species is critically endangered and extremely localised probably more so than the Night Parrot due to it`s choice of favourable habitat being slashed ,burnt and drained to sustain cattle and crops. It was virtually unknown in South Africa but with in recent years of this species calls being made available, many birders and researches were able to further explore wetlands at various localities both in South Africa and Ethiopia and as a result local populations of this rare flufftail were found and to date these localities are being protected, managed and monitored correctly and as a result the species is steadily making a come back from the brink of extinction!

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  19. Hi Greg,

    You write that "This time the evidence is incontestable" presumably accepting John Young's claim that photographs and the video have been studied by "several independent forensic photographic experts.."

    We know the name of one person referred to in this regard, a Mr David Sproule who apparently is "an experienced photographer and computer and film-editing expert" although it is unclear what his experience in forensic image analysis actually is. Do you perhaps know who the other independent forensic photographic experts that apparently have examined the pictures and video are?

    Please trust that I ask this not out of any desire to discredit John but simply because expecting to be able to verify a claim that qualified experts have examined evidence is a perfectly normal procedure in most forms of reasonable enquiry

    Regards
    Clive

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    1. Clive, I was accepting the general consensus that the evidence is incontestable. Not only the opinion of David Sproule (somebody I know and have a great deal of respect for) but others who rightly raised issues about the blue-browed fig-parrot fiasco but had no hesitation in accepting this one as authentic. Also, remember there was a video. I have spoken to several people who have seen the video and a number of pics and they are in no doubt. Greg

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  21. Thanks for the reply Greg.
    While I accept that many people who have seen the pictures and the video are in no doubt, I'm sure you'll appreciate logical fallacies of relevance and in particular those that appeal to authority.

    In complex cases like this it's important to isolate the most significant claims. That the pictures and video have been examined by "several independent forensic photographic experts" would I believe be top of that list. Advances in imaging technology are however developing at such an astonishing rate that most people's appreciation of what forensic analysis of images and video involves lags somewhat behind current practice.

    I repeatedly read of the evidence in this case being described as "beyond question" or "beyond doubt", "incontestable" and "irrefutable" but despite my best efforts I simply cannot determine what supports such absolute conviction.

    I hope that I will in time, but until then I must remain sceptical.

    Kindest Regards
    Clive

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  22. I just learned of this discovery and am thrilled to imagine that it is as advertised. Photos and videos can be convincing...but can also lead "qualified experts" to conclusions they wish to be true. In all this discussion, I am surprised that no one has brought up the case of the "rediscovered Ivory-billed Woodpecker" that I think has now been generally accepted to have been wishful thinking unsupported by the post-reporting fieldwork. In short, many were caught up in the emotional tide of rediscovering a marquis North American bird; the very poster child of what extinction means. The idea that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker persisted in a remote locality was simply too attractive and caused some very well-regarded and accredited ornithologists to set aside what should have more rigorous scrutiny of the "proof" that was presented. I can't help but notice an interesting (read: troubling) set of parallel circumstances in this alleged rediscovery of the Night Parrot. Of course I hope it's true. But until a broader audience has had the opportunity to review the evidence, I urge caution and a reminder to revisit the Ivory-billed Woodpecker saga.

    Jeff Chemnick
    Santa Barbara, CA

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