Penny Olsen on the enigmatic Night Parrot and the people who chase it

Penny Olsen on the enigmatic Night Parrot and the people who chase it

When images of a live Night Parrot were taken back in 2013, the ensuing excitement was like nothing seen before in the annals of Australian natural history. It spread like wildfire among nature enthusiasts as the public waited with fervour for more details about the sighting. This was a monumental discovery, one that ended continued debate about a near-mythical bird. For almost a century the Night Parrot, a resident of Australia’s sparsely populated interior, had near-totally evaded human eyes. Between 1912 (when a specimen was collected in Western Australia) and the 2013 discovery, infrequent and unconfirmed sightings trickled in. Two dead specimens found in outback Queensland in 1990 and 2006 along with a confirmed sighting in 1979 were the only definitive indications that this species was still hanging on in the vastness of Australia’s arid country.

As the name suggests, Night Parrots are nocturnal. So finding this bird is not only like finding a needle in an immensely large haystack, but it’s like doing so blind-folded. Even today, following a considerable amount of research at the site of the 2013 discovery, the number of people who have seen a live Night Parrot remains astonishingly small. And so, with seemingly few sources of information at her disposal, Honorary Professor Penny Olsen decided to write a book about the enigmatic Night Parrot. Night Parrot: Australia’s Most Elusive Bird covers everything from ecology to history, conservation to controversy.

The number of people who have seen a live Night Parrot remains astonishingly small. Image: Rachel Barr

Olsen was confident that the appeal of the Night Parrot and its captivating history would make for a compelling read. ‘It’s a great story, with lots of layers, so I wasn’t concerned about content. However, I knew it would stir up a hornet’s nest, which made it difficult because I had to be careful what I wrote,’ she says. For a species that holds such fascination and evokes such passion, it is little wonder that opinions have been divided over certain matters such as which sightings are genuine and what information should be withheld from the public to avoid too much disturbance to a species that could be on the brink of extinction.

Olsen explains, ‘I approached the book as a scientific researcher. It was important for the conservation of the parrot to try to sort fact from fiction. I did not attempt to make a judgement about the many unconfirmed sightings over the decades, although I questioned those that said the bird made the call “myrrlumbing”, as recorded by Frederick Andrews in the 1880s, because it’s pretty hard to reconcile that with any of the known calls.’ The book brings together information from published research articles, newspaper reports, journals of early explorers and anecdotes from those who have been involved with recent expeditions and research. Together, these sources paint a comprehensive picture of our current understanding of the ecology of this species.

Image: CSIRO Publishing

As well as shedding light on a wealth of ecological information, Olsen’s book also reveals much about the people to have laid claim to roles in the Night Parrot story. In fact, her book could equally be described as a chronicle of all those who have led us to our current state of Night Parrot knowledge. From early explorers to dingo trappers, museum collectors to present day naturalists, the pages of the book are laced with tales about no end of idiosyncratic people, such as Captain Samuel Albert White who was motivated by the allure of finding a Night Parrot to join a 1922 expedition driving three motor vehicles cross country from Adelaide to Darwin and back again. When asked what it is about the Night Parrot that has drawn such colourful characters to its story Olsen muses, ‘You could throw in its harsh, remote habitat. Fame and fortune await its finders. Even now it remains a mystery bird and stirs up passions.’

In the book Olsen pieces together a timeline of our scientific understanding of the bird – from the early days following the scientific discovery of the species when specimens were collected with somewhat modest frequency, through the intervening years where sightings were few and far between and always unconfirmed, to today’s rapid up-surge in knowledge and population discoveries across the country.

Knowing what she does now about the life and history of the Night Parrot, is she optimistic for the future of this enigmatic species? Olsen affirms, ‘I am hopeful that there are enough birds in scattered locations to ensure its survival into the future, but we can’t be sure just yet.’ With new populations being found, many birdwatchers are hoping that they too may one day be lucky enough to see this “holy grail” bird for themselves. Olsen is among them, but remains pragmatic about the chances of that happening. ‘I’d love to see one, but I won’t be out there searching for more populations, others are far more suited to that task. Even though we have more tools available, such as call playback and remote listening devices, it’s still like looking for a needle in a haystack,’ she says.

With new populations being found, many birdwatchers are hoping that they too may one day be lucky enough to see the Night Parrot (or its nest) for themselves. Image: Steve Murphy

Considering how scarce information about this species has been, Olsen’s ability to add depth to the Night Parrot tale is impressive. The book is sure to make an entertaining read for anyone who longs to see a Night Parrot, has followed the story of its rediscovery, or simply has an interest in nature or Australian history. I for one am glad that she took on the task and wasn’t afraid of ‘stirring up a hornet’s nest’.

Purchase your copy of Night Parrot: Australia’s Most Elusive Bird from CSIRO Publishing.

Banner image courtesy of Steve Murphy.

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