Chasing the ‘Ghost Bird’ of Australia’s Outback
There had been no confirmed sightings of a live night parrot for nearly 140 years.
So when the naturalist John Young produced evidence of the near-mythic bird in a remote corner of Australia’s outback in 2013, it was one of the greatest stories of species rediscovery in recent times.
It was “the bird-watching equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an outback roadhouse,” Sean Dooley of BirdLife Australia, told the country’s national broadcaster at the time.
It got stranger from there, when the discovery became tainted.
Over the next eight years, the find set off a series of breakthroughs in tracking the “ghost bird,” as it is described in some Aboriginal storytelling. But it would take teams of Indigenous rangers, working with scientists in Australia’s most unforgiving and remote landscapes, to accelerate the discovery of more night parrot populations in recent months — a feat that may ultimately help to save the species.
A bird-world scandal
The night parrot was long considered the holy grail of Australian birding. Mr. Young captured photographic proof at a cattle station in the Australian state of Queensland that the parrot still lived. When he presented his pictures at the Queensland Museum, his discovery elicited “collective gasps and murmurs,” according to Australian Geographic magazine.
Mr. Young had a history of making questionable claims. In 1980, he claimed to have rediscovered the extinct paradise parrot, but could not produce evidence. In 2006, he announced the discovery of a new species, the blue-fronted fig parrot; but the authenticity of his photographs was questioned. When asked later about his history of making unproven claims, Mr. Young once said, “I didn’t know it was a crime to get excited about a find and slightly exaggerate.” (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)
His night parrot triumph brought a measure of redemption — for a while. News reports heralded Mr. Young’s find. In 2016, he became a senior field ecologist at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
But scandal was never far away. In 2018, Mr. Young supplied his night parrot photograph to Audubon Magazine, which was profiling him; the photo had been published before but this version was uncropped. The magazine’s readers noticed aviary mesh in the corner of the photo, and accusations followed that he had illegally and excessively detained the bird, and possibly even injured it. He denied the accusations.
Mr. Young had truly found the night parrot. But an independent review found that he had faked audio recordings of the birds, and that one of his photographs of a possible night parrot nest contained fake eggs. Mr. Young resigned from his post.
While the disputes of Mr. Young’s methods played out, other investigators were conducting their own search for the night parrot.
A phantom in green and gold
It’s hard to imagine a more elusive bird to track than the night parrot. The nocturnal, ground-dwelling birds shelter amid thick clumps of dry, spiky grass in Australia’s most isolated and harshest regions — some more than 1,000 miles from the closest city.
Until Mr. Young’s discovery, almost everything scientists knew about the night parrot came from amateur ornithologists’ 19th-century diary entries and a small number of museum specimens.
The English explorer Charles Sturt, on an 1845 expedition in southwestern Queensland to find a mythic inland sea in the center of Australia, “flushed a ground parrot,” that was, he wrote, “dark green speckled black. It rose and fell like a quail.” John Gould, an English ornithologist, formally described the night parrot in 1861.
Expeditions sought the bird, but few were successful. In the 1870s, Frederick Andrews, who worked for the South Australian Museum, collected more than a dozen specimens across the arid north of the state.
Then the trail went cold. There were sightings, but none confirmed. A night parrot carcass was found in western Queensland in 1990, and another in 2006. In 2012, Smithsonian Magazine placed the night parrot at the top of its list of the world’s most mysterious bird species.
In the two years after Mr. Young’s initial discovery, scientists had recorded calls by night parrots, but “we only knew about a pair of birds,” said Nick Leseberg, a night parrot researcher and a Ph.D candidate at the University of Queensland. “Seriously — two night parrots in the universe.”
That changed in 2015. A group of scientists on an expedition, funded by a mining company, and led by Steve Murphy, an ecologist and night parrot expert, found a small number of night parrots close to the site of Mr. Young’s discovery. The following year, Dr. Murphy managed to attach a GPS tag to one of the birds; the battery lasted just over 11 minutes, but it was enough to briefly capture the movements of one of the world’s rarest birds.
It revealed that prime night parrot habitat in Queensland consisted of areas of tussock grass called triodia that had been long untouched by fire, and close to water sources and seed-rich floodplains. (Triodia is commonly called “spinifex” in Australia, but comes from a different family of grasses.)
Night parrots are extremely vocal, particularly just after sunset when they forage for food and water, and just before sunrise. In 2016, Mr. Leseberg, working with Dr. Murphy, stationed audio recording equipment in areas of western Queensland where night parrots might be present. Using these and earlier recordings, Mr. Leseberg programmed software to recognize night parrot calls — the haunting, two- or three-whistles the parrots use when leaving their roosts, the frog-like croak as they fly — from thousands of hours of recordings.
While these scientists were making progress identifying small night parrot populations, other groups were gaining ground, too.
In 2017, Indigenous rangers in Paruku, a protected area in Western Australia, photographed a night parrot using a camera trap. Their discovery sparked new interest in night parrots among Aboriginal ranger groups across the state.
An Indigenous-led discovery
Australia has vast swaths of Indigenous protected areas: land and sea preserved for conservation and cultural purposes, which are owned and managed by a variety of Aboriginal groups. Indigenous ranger programs aim to protect these areas’ biodiversity, and rely on cultural knowledge of the land — much of which is passed down from community elders.
Clifford Sunfly is a 27-year-old ranger from Ngururrpa, an 11,500-square-mile area of protected Indigenous land in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia. It is due south of Paruku, where camera traps had captured photos of a night parrot.
The youngest ranger in his community, Mr. Sunfly grew up watching nature documentaries by Sir David Attenborough. He was the first person from Ngururrpa to graduate from high school. And he just became the first ranger in his community to see a night parrot.
Ngururrpa is six hundred miles from the nearest town. But if the number of bird calls recorded there is any indication, it may contain the largest known population of night parrots.
After the Paruku discovery in 2017, the number of known night parrot populations grew incrementally at first — a handful in the desert’s south, a few more hundreds of miles away in the north.
But in 2018, a new collaborative approach changed everything. Western Australian ranger groups invited Mr. Leseberg and Dr. Murphy to a gathering in Balgo, a community on the northern edge of the Great Sandy Desert, to help the rangers’ expeditions. The scientists explained the sort of habitat where the rangers might find night parrots, and taught them how to set up the audio recorders.
After that, the number of newly discovered populations has increased dramatically. The first night parrot calls were detected on Ngururrpa in 2019; there are now 14 known night parrot populations in Western Australia.
In August, Neil Lane, a ranger on Martu country, hundreds of miles southwest of Ngururrpa, became the first Indigenous ranger to see a night parrot after searching in a site that his community elders had identified. “They know the country,” Mr. Lane, 36, said.
Surrounded by red sandhills, he got down from the vehicle and a night parrot flew up from a clump of spinifex. Other rangers arrived, formed a line and walked through the grass. They flushed the bird again, and everyone saw it.
In November, a team of Ngururrpa rangers, including Mr. Sunfly, mounted a night parrot expedition after the audio recorders detected thousands of calls. The rangers braved wildfires and floods to reach their destination.
Shortly after sunset on the second night, Mr. Sunfly became the first Ngururrpa ranger to see a night parrot. “It flew across me,” he said. “It was flying real quiet. But I heard the flapping of the wings. Then I saw its outline in the stars.”
While the rangers are not scientists, they are “highly attuned to, and acutely aware of, all aspects of the environment” that their people were living in over millenniums, Dr. Murphy said. “The observational-based science that they built up was incredibly detailed.”
It’s time to recognize that there are other experts, like the community elders and the rangers, said Malcolm Lindsay, a program manager at Environs Kimberley, a nonprofit working with ranger groups in the Great Sandy Desert. “Their approach is more holistic,” he said. “Yes, they want to conserve the night parrot, but also protect their cultural knowledge, practice, communities and landscapes that sustain the birds.”
Despite recent breakthroughs, night parrots remain critically endangered. As few as 15 birds survive in Queensland, Mr. Leseberg said. Most of these are in the 217-square-mile Pullen Pullen Reserve, which is run by the nonprofit Bush Heritage Australia, in the state’s west. “Every time I go out there, I go to the hill where they were last time, I wait for sunset, and I hold my breath,” said Mr. Leseberg. “We always find them in the end, but your heart is always in your mouth.”
The situation is more promising in Western Australia, but even there, the birds’ future is uncertain; there may be fewer than 250 night parrots spread across an area larger than Minnesota. On Ngururrpa, Mr. Sunfly and his fellow rangers found not just night parrots, but also tracks left by cats. Feral cats kill an estimated 272 million Australian birds each year, and Mr. Leseberg believes that cats kill most young night parrots.
“When there’s a big distance between small populations, stochastic events” — like a wildfire, or a rise in the number of feral cats — “can knock them out really quickly,” he said.
In the meantime, ranger involvement is not just helping the night parrot. The programs are also reconnecting remote desert communities to traditional lands like Ngururrpa.
As more rangers became involved, traditional stories about the night parrot are emerging. “They used to say to us, ‘You hear that? Someone’s whistling for you’. They did it to scare us when we were naughty,” said Kathryn Njamme, a Ngururrpa ranger widely respected for her traditional knowledge, of the night parrot stories she used to hear.
“We feel happy to be back out on country,” said Ms. Njamme, 48. “Our spirits belong to this country and our work out here is looking after the land. We want to get all the young people out on country so that the next generation can take over.”
In the ongoing search for the night parrot, Mr. Sunfly has learned from both the scientists and his own community. “We use technology to help pinpoint where the night parrots might be,” he said. “But we ask the old people everything. Everything comes from the old people.”