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Found: world’s most mysterious bird, but why all the secrecy?

The Night Parrot has been called the “world’s most mysterious bird”. First discovered in 1845, it was rarely seen alive for most of the next hundred and seventy years, but it has been rediscovered in 2013…

A ex parrot: one of the few Night Parrots collected in the 1870s in South Australia. Marie Meister, Museum of Zoology, Strasbourg

The Night Parrot has been called the “world’s most mysterious bird”. First discovered in 1845, it was rarely seen alive for most of the next hundred and seventy years, but it has been rediscovered in 2013 by Queensland naturalist John Young.

The rediscovery has been shrouded in secrecy; photo and video evidence of the parrot was presented at an invitation-only viewing, and the Queensland government hasn’t been told the location of the parrot. So, why all the secrecy?

What a living Night Parrot looks like Wikimedia Commons

The first Night Parrot specimen was collected in 1845 in northern South Australia. After a spate of records in the 1870s, the parrot vanished. The 20th Century yielded almost no reliable reports until a single, road-killed specimen was found in 1990 in western Queensland. In 2006 another was found further to the south-east. This one was headless, presumably having flown into a fence line, decapitating itself.

Western Queensland seemed like the place to be. With colleagues, we have analysed existing records of Night Parrots to learn about where to look for the birds and when in relation to climatic events, and flowering and seeding cycles of plants that the parrots might feed on, such as spinifex. It has been a frustrating exercise, however.

In 2013, Queensland naturalist John Young found what he thinks might be two pairs of Night Parrots, and, to top it off, a nest with three nestlings. Young recently presented a select group of experts with photographic and video evidence of Night Parrots from May 2013, confirming that these were indeed Night Parrots.

Young also made recordings of the parrot’s vocalisations, which he used to draw the birds close enough to photograph.

Setting a camera trap that will hopefully capture a Night Parrot. Allan Burbidge

Young is keeping the Night Parrots’ western Queensland location secret for now. The fragile environments at the locality, if revealed, could be damaged by well-meaning but perhaps over-enthusiastic birdwatchers. The birds appear to have recently bred, and even relatively small numbers of people could have a serious impact. Disturbance could also interfere with research.

There is also the ongoing threat of illegal bird trade. Secrecy at least provides some restraint on this unscrupulous activity.

There are other examples of the locations of rare species remaining secret, particularly fish, reptiles and plants that are popular in exotic trade. In Australia, the exact location of the gorge close to Sydney in which the only known population of the Wollemi Pine grows remains a closely guarded secret.

But, this strategy can backfire, as shown by the case of the Mace Pagoda (Mimetes stokoei), a South African plant related to Australia’s banksias. Discovered in 1922, the location was kept secret. Unfortunately, no one knew it was there when the land where it grew was cleared for an orchard in the 1960s. Only when a single Mace Pagoda germinated from a seed in the soil was the mistake realised, but it soon died. The Night Parrot, like these other examples, has its own set of circumstances. Some secrecy about the location for now has some merit.

The solution is for John Young to share the find with researchers, and we are happy to report that this process has begun. There is much to learn about the parrot: basic biology, threats, and where else the bird might live. This find is the biggest clue in a century as to where the Night Parrot lives and which habitat it prefers.

The sound recordings John Young made of the Night Parrots are particularly interesting. For example, computers could screen sound recordings to identify whether the Night Parrot’s vocalisation was part of nocturnal soundscapes. But Young made it very clear that even slight use of the recordings to lure a bird can stress them. Nobody wants to promote that.

Following on from this momentous discovery, we look forward to the Night Parrot’s removal from that list of the world’s most mysterious birds. With careful research conducted with due permits and effective management we believe its intriguing history could see it become a flagship species. Such a species could galvanize community support, not only for its own conservation but for the conservation of our precious rangelands and arid zone into the future for all, including the Night Parrot, to enjoy.

Inspecting the Night Parrot’s arid habitat. Allan Burbidge

This article was co-authored by Allan Burbidge, Principle Research Scientist and the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife. Allan works in management of one of the Night Parrot’s closest relatives, the critically endangered Western Ground Parrot.

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17 Comments sorted by

  1. Jim Inglis


    John Young has done a wonderful job in finding this missing bird and should be strongly supported in keeping its whereabouts as secret as possible.

    John has arguably a more honest agenda for the preservation of the bird than some people who have been criticising him over his secretiveness.

    The feral dogs, dingoes, foxes and cats that predate these areas now days make the chances of survival of a rare ground dwelling bird like this slim enough without a campout of bird enthusiasts adding to the problem.

    We can only hope that it will continue to breed successfully and the numbers will build up but like other disappearing ground parrots the prognosis is not good.

  2. Henry Verberne

    Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

    Thanks for this article Leo. Its is uplifting to know this rare bird still survives and it demonstrates the value of conserving our wild rangelands.

  3. Mark McGuire

    climate consensus rebel

    Indeed great news. And what a beautiful bird.
    But, why the secrecy? Indeed, Australian University Climate scientists trapped in ice in the very bay where photographic evidence of Mawson in an ice free bay 100 years ago, and not a peep, or a twit from theCon.
    Of course I deliberately go off-topic as what is a bigger story than bush fires in spring in the Blue Mountains.
    The longer theCon denies this story, the more irrelevant this site becomes.
    By the minute.

    1. Mark McGuire

      climate consensus rebel

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Well, well. A Quick check of thCon's coverage of this trip is telling: Quote-"This matters to Australians because, if Antarctica sneezes, we get a cold." .
      O dear.
      Quote:"In the 100 years since geologist (Sir) Douglas Mawson’s 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), Australia’s Antarctic science has earned a reputation for excellence in discovery, innovation and delivery on national and international goals. Data collected during this expedition is still used by scientists today for reference and comparison."
      Comparison? We shall see. None so far @theCon.

    2. Jim Inglis


      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Mark, I totally agree with you on the Con's lack of coverage of a very "interesting" subject and I have made similar calls on other threads.

      It does indicate the mind set here very strongly.

      But you must admit it is all very inconvenient and embarrassing ☺.

    3. Lawrie Conole

      Consultant ecologist & PhD candidate at University of Tasmania

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      And meanwhile ... there are no Night Parrots stuck in sea ice or ice of any kind other than an odd cracking inland frost ... and what bearing has all of this on the article above?

    4. Jim Inglis


      In reply to Lawrie Conole

      If you know anything about Night Parrots, Lawrie, we'd love to hear it but as Mark commented on Leo's, "why the secrecy?" and compared it with the lack of comment by the Con on the Aa junket.

      Are you embarrassed or something?

    5. Lawrie Conole

      Consultant ecologist & PhD candidate at University of Tasmania

      In reply to Jim Inglis

      Ah ... Should I weigh in any further? Probably not, but I'm bored.

      I know a thing or two about birders (I am one) and Night Parrots (I believe I've heard them in the field near Cloncurry), but my response was really just a long disappointed sigh about the relentless tide of anti scientific conspiracy theory being hitched to yet another wagon. Given that has run a story about sea ice in Antarctica, I'm not sure how the secrecy conspiracy can be sustained. Birders routinely sit on rare bird locations to the annoyance of their colleagues (which us often the point), bit I think the sea ice story is out there for everyone to speculate wildly about.

    6. Jim Inglis


      In reply to Lawrie Conole

      "Birders routinely sit on rare bird locations to the annoyance of their colleagues"

      That explains John Young well.

      And I can imagine a bloke like John Young whose only income is gained from his bird cred has a vested interest in keeping things as close to his chest as possible.

      A small income and huge distances to cover is reason enough to preserve his "intellectual property" but he has no conflict of interest as far as the bird is concerned.

      John was able to cash in somewhat on his great knowledge with assistance to people like David Attenborough but a lifetime of good works and great knowledge with birds, in the main, wouldn't make you wealthy.

      Being a bit of a bird tragic myself, Lawrie, this last week my missus and I have been fortunate enough to have had over a dozen Glossy Black Cockatoo sightings in our backyard.

      I know they're not as rare as the NP but they are heading that way.

    7. Jim Inglis


      In reply to Lawrie Conole

      Lawrie, I know about the relentless tide....

      Scientists that have been feeding us all one way traffic on sea ice for decades, when it bites them on the bum like with this taxpayer funded exercise in Antarctica with the Akademik Shokalskiy, they should be able to see the irony of it all instead of ignoring it or justifying it as more global warming.

  4. Jeremy Tager


    Fantastic discovery! One can only hope there is no coal in the area - no amount of listing will protect it from the rapacious ones.

    1. Aidan Kelly

      lawyer at Matrix Approvals

      In reply to Jeremy Tager

      I am not sure about trusting the views of an extispicist - what have you found with those entrails? -

    2. Liz Downes

      logged in via email

      In reply to Jeremy Tager

      Catching up with this article a couple of weeks late and my first thought was "God (of birds) forbid there's coal or CSG anywhere near them" - and trolling through a sea of comments about Antarctica (anyone looking for night penguins there?) I found at least one person had his eye on the topic. Thanks Jeremy, sadly you are so, so right ...