Australia is one of the most remarkable places on Earth. A vast, beautiful land, replete with glorious beaches, a fascinating culture, and some of the most unique animals on the planet. The iconic duck-billed platypus is just the beginning of things: Australia is also home to such marvelous creatures as the laughing kookaburra, the kangaroo, and the koala bear, among so many others.
When it comes to parrots, 56 different species live in Australia. However, there may be 57. The mysterious — and potentially fictional — Australian night parrot is said to live in this wonderful land, though despite several reported sightings and studies, some aren’t sure if it really still exists. Here’s the intriguing story of this enigmatic animal.
The Legend of the Australian Night Parrot
As a general rule, parrots tend to be bright, bold, very noticeable birds. The curious thing about the Australian night parrot in particular is that, as its name implies, it’s elusive. Very elusive.
The species’ story reportedly began in 1845. This was the first year that a sighting of the night parrot was made, and 1912 marked the recording of the supposed last survivor. What happened to the bird in between, and where has it been in more than a century since? Its story is punctuated by questionable sightings, rumors, and scientific scandals!
It seems that the species did not become extinct at the death of the 1912 specimen. These birds, which live close to the ground in Australia’s wild grass, emerge at night and dwell in the Australian outback, seem biologically presupposed to evade detection. Everything about their habitats and behaviours seems to declare that, if they don’t want to be found, it’ll be darn difficult to do so. This has certainly proven to be the case, and that’s the key to the mystique of the species.
The night parrot, known scientifically as Pezoporus occidentalis, was described by John Gould in 1865, in an article in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Gould wrote of its appearance and biology with the meticulous detail required of such a piece. He noted, among other things, “all the upper surface grass-green, each feather crossed by irregular bands of black and greenish yellow; feathers of the crown and nape with a streak of black down the center; throat and breast yellowish-green, passing into sulphur-yellow on the abdomen.”
New research: Special cranial adaptations may give the critically endangered ground-dwelling Night Parrot the edge it needs to make its way around the Australian outback in the dark — even with limited eyesight and a big “bluffy” head. https://t.co/NUHK8S6yVK pic.twitter.com/NQ1Jzhom2H
— BirdWatchingMagazine (@BirdWatchDaily) March 27, 2023
It’s clear, then, that the parrot, while not as garishly colored as some others, had a distinct identity. It was, according to Gould, very similar to another parrot species (“at a first glance, this bird has the appearance of a Pezoporus formosus”), but other aspects of its biology on closer inspection seemed to leave little room for confusion between the two. It has its similarities with other Australian ground parrot species, but remains a distinct entity. However, it has been seen (verified sightings, that is) so rarely since Gould’s description of it that a chance sighting of the body of one that had been struck by a car was considered a miraculous sight!
What Happened to the Bird?
According to the Australian Museum, the late 19th century was a peak time for sightings of the night parrot, with the two decades up to 1890 seeing twenty more specimens of the curious bird being discovered and studied. Just a decade or so later the bird seemed to all but vanish. This ties in with the earlier claim that the last surviving specimen was documented in 1912. Since then, attempts to prove its continued existence have been frequent, but largely inconclusive.
Shy as it may be, as low-key as its behaviors and as easily missed as its habits might make it, it would still be expected to be encountered by professional scientific surveys. How has that gone for science? According to scientist Peter R.J. Leeton, it wasn’t since 1912 that the night parrot had last been “reliably documented.” Until the 1990s, it seemed, the enigmatic bird had been “represented in museum collections by only 22 skins (excluding the 1990 specimen) and some bones.”
The 1990 specimen was only found by tragic chance, just another remarkable chapter in the story of this most unusual bird. So elusive had the bird proven that Dick Smith, aviator and businessman, reportedly offered a bounty of 50,000 Australian dollars to anybody who could prove that it wasn’t just a myth!
Smith surely hoped that, if proof was found, it would be a live specimen, but that sadly wasn’t the case. Researchers of the Australian Museum ventured into distant reaches of Queensland in 1990. Despite the experts’ efforts, living night parrots were nowhere to be found. What they did find was an unfortunate decapitated night parrot, which had been killed on a road in the region. It wasn’t the first unfortunate headless parrot found, either!
Is It Still Out There?
Scientist Andrew McDougall’s article, “Another piece in an Australian ornithological puzzle — a second night parrot is found dead in Queensland” stated, “The specimen confirms a breeding event by night parrots in the region less than two years before its discovery in September 2006.” McDougall’s study concluded that Diamantina National Park could be key to the night parrot population.
Further muddying the waters of the night parrot mystery, Bush Heritage oversaw the purchase of an area of land where scientist John Young sighted a specimen in 2013. His later discoveries were called into question, however, and some findings were retracted by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. A committee looking into his findings concluded that the night parrot eggs he had presented (among other artifacts) appeared to be false.
INCREDIBLE: An Indigenous ranger in Western Australia has had a rare encounter with a night parrot.
— 9News Australia (@9NewsAUS) August 27, 2021
This neatly summarizes the night parrot’s story. Sightings have been confirmed and verified, and the bird definitely is out there in the far reaches of Australia. Just how the species is truly faring, however, remains a mystery, and that’s what’s so intriguing about it.
By Chris Littlechild, contributor for Ripleys.com