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Research into breeding habits of rare Australian parrot

By Gilly Lloyd
Painting of a Night Parrot  © Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service

From Australia we hear that a team of researchers studying the breeding habits of the Night Parrot are focussing their efforts on North West Queensland, in an attempt to learn more about this extremely rare bird.

Only 24 specimens of this bird have ever been found, the latest being in 2006, near Cloncurry, but, according to an ABC report, Leo Joseph of the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), and a team of scientists, are embarking on a study of this region to learn more about this species which is endemic to Australia.

“The most we can say,” says Leo Joseph, “is that the bird that was found dead in 2006 appears to have been a very young female bird. So while things didn’t work out so well for that individual obviously, nonetheless there’s evidence that the night parrots were breeding probably around late-2005.”

Dr Walter Boles, Collection Manager, Ornithology, at the Australian Museum writes on the museum’s website that the Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis), is a rather undistinguished looking bird: plump, medium-sized and mottled with yellowish green and dark brown.

“It is one of Australia’s most intriguing birds,” he says, “and, despite being reported from every state on the Australian mainland, is possibly Australia’s least known. Night Parrot biology is poorly known, with most information coming from early observers. It is restricted to remote parts of the arid zone where there is dense, low vegetation, such as porcupine grass Triodia.

“It hides in the vegetation during the day and becomes active at night. Like a quail, the Night Parrot prefers to spend most of its time on the ground, running between shelter when possible or making short, low flights, quickly diving back into the vegetation.”

According to Dr Boles, the first known specimen was collected in 1845, and there were apparently only occasional sightings of the bird until the 1870s. Between 1870 and 1890 there were, however, a number of observations, and a further 20 specimens were collected. Confirmed records became rarer from the mid-1880s, though, and had stopped almost completely by 1900.

The only specimen from the early 20th century was taken in 1912 and the species was subsequently considered extinct by some ornithologists. A number of sightings were reported in the 1960s and early 1970s, but could not be confirmed until 1979, when a South Australian Museum team found several birds in far north western South Australia.

In 1990, Dr Boles was part of a team returning from a field trip, and during a stop in western Queensland to observe a species of bird, he came across the carcass of a Night Parrot on the roadside.  It had been killed by a motor vehicle, but there was no way of knowing whether it had died at that spot, or been transported in the grill of a vehicle from further away.  It was also not possible to determine how long the parrot had been dead.

The population size of the Night Parrot is not known, but estimates range from extinct to not threatened at all. It is currently listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered.

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