Night parrot: In search of one of the world's most elusive birds

Ecologist Steve Murphy among the spinifex, searching for the elusive night parrot's call. Photo: Justin McManus
Ecologist Steve Murphy among the spinifex, searching for the elusive night parrot's call. Photo: Justin McManus
A night parrot spotted among the spinifex.  Photo: Steve Murphy

A night parrot spotted among the spinifex. Photo: Steve Murphy

Bush Heritage's vast Pullen Pullen Reserve in Queensland. Photo: Justin McManus

Bush Heritage's vast Pullen Pullen Reserve in Queensland. Photo: Justin McManus

John Gould's 1867 illustration of the night parrot.  Photo: Australian Museum

John Gould's 1867 illustration of the night parrot. Photo: Australian Museum

Dr Steve Murphy holds a rare night parrot. Photo: Rachel Barr

Dr Steve Murphy holds a rare night parrot. Photo: Rachel Barr

A night parrot from the collection of the Australian Museum in Sydney. Photo: Australian Museum

A night parrot from the collection of the Australian Museum in Sydney. Photo: Australian Museum

Dr Steve Murphy examines a night parrot.  Photo: Rachel Barr

Dr Steve Murphy examines a night parrot. Photo: Rachel Barr

John Read with the "grooming trap" he designed to control feral cats. Photo: Justin McManus

John Read with the "grooming trap" he designed to control feral cats. Photo: Justin McManus

The sun is setting in a remote corner of outback Queensland. As light fades, the drone of determined flies will soon be replaced by the hum of mosquitoes.

Ecologist Steve Murphy is standing among the spinifex clumps, sage-green blobs so healthy that they are reminiscent of oversized beanbags. Wearing headphones and carrying a sound recorder and a microphone encased in grey fluff, his high-tech equipment makes him look out of place in the ancient lands of the Maiawali people.

He is listening. Concentrating hard on the sounds emanating from the dusk-lit landscape.

The microphone is so sensitive, he says he can sometimes hear mosquitoes or his pulse when he listens to the recordings, a collection which runs more than 60,000 hours.

There is just one sound he is searching for however: the clear, two-note bell-like whistle of the elusive night parrot.

"It's like a bell miner bird call," he says. "When you hear it, your heart stops."

This is peak-parrot time. The first hour after the sun sets is when the nocturnal bird, which is reminiscent of a well-fed green and yellow budgie, emerges from its spinifex sanctuary.

Dr Murphy remains the only person in more than a century to have held a live night parrot. That occurred in 2015 at the newly created Pullen Pullen Reserve managed by Bush Heritage Australia, just two years after the bird was rediscovered by naturalist John Young on a farmer's cattle property in western Queensland.

"It was a funny mix of ultra excitement, a huge sense of responsibility and then this time pressure to release the bird as soon as we could," Dr Murphy says.

Before releasing the night parrot into the darkness, the research team weighed the bird, took a feather for DNA sampling and attached a .42 gram radio tracker with a lifespan of 21 days to its tail.

What researchers learnt was at odds with what was understood about the bird, based on the observations of naturalists in the 1880s. Far from being nomadic, it appears the night parrot is sedentary. But mystery still surrounds the bird's biology and behaviour. Researchers have never seen a nest and aren't even sure if the bird drinks water.

From this weekend, Dr Murphy will again lead a field research team attempting to try to better understand the mysterious bird – a medium-sized ground-dwelling parrot so rare that the Smithsonian Institution has described it as one of the world's most elusive birds.

This time Dr Murphy's team will be armed with a more advanced tracking unit, a two-gram device which can be programmed to record the bird's location at set time intervals over five nights. During the coming two months, the goal is to catch two birds, known to the Maiawali people as Pullen Pullen.

"The information we are going to get from this is going to be gold," Dr Murphy says. "And it's vital to know as much as we can about the night parrot because without knowledge, you can't manage them effectively."

In particular, researchers are interested in learning about the night parrot's range, behaviour, preferred habitat and diet.

Insights gained will not only aid the management of the bird, but the management of some of its most serious threats: fire and feral cats.

Quite simply, if researchers know where the parrot roams and feral cats are seen in the area, then a novel cat trap being trialled at the reserve for the first time can be deployed.

"This will allow Bush Heritage to tailor their land management to be more effective," Dr Murphy says.

Known as a grooming trap, the device has been developed over seven years by ecologist John Read. As its name suggests, a lethal dose is delivered to a feral cat as it grooms itself, ingesting the poison gel fired at the animal's body when it walks past the trap. The sophisticated device is sparked into action when a cat breaks the sensors, placed at "cat height" to ensure other wildlife is not targeted. A camera is also activated each time the sensors are broken, giving researchers a photo of the animal and data on the time, date and location of the interaction.

Feral cats are one of the most significant threats to Australia's wildlife, believed to be responsible for killing up to 75 million native animals a day. But they are far from the only threat to the rare bird, which numbers in the tens on the reserve and in the hundreds in western Queensland.

Fire sparked by lightning and fuelled by the oils in the spiky spinifex plants means the land's fuel load will also need to be managed if the parrot's precarious position is to be stabilised.

And then there's people. The exact location of the 56,000 hectare reserve west of Longreach is a closely guarded secret to protect the prized parrot population. As Dr Murphy says, people have always desired rare and beautiful things. And the night parrot is no exception. Be it overeager birdwatchers searching for the holy grail or poachers looking for eggs or birds to trade on the black market for prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But Dr Murphy believes Australians have a duty to protect the shy bird, which once foraged throughout the arid lands of central Australia.

"The night parrot represents what happened in central Australia and the losses that we incurred when Europeans came here," he says. "But this is our second chance. Saving the night parrot from extinction makes the losses just a little more bearable. It gives us a chance to redeem ourselves."

Fairfax Media travelled to south-west Queensland with Bush Heritage Australia.

This story Night parrot: In search of one of the world's most elusive birds first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.