Extinction Countdown

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After 100 Years, Has the Elusive Night Parrot Finally Been Discovered?


night parrotAn Australian man who calls himself "the wild detective" claims to have rediscovered a bird species that has never been photographed alive. Has the long-lost night parrot at last been found?

Among Australian scientists and bird-lovers, the elusive night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) has been something of a Holy Grail. The small, ground-dwelling parrots all but disappeared in 1912 and have been observed only a handful of times in recent years. A few of the birds were reportedly seen—but not photographed—in 1979 and 2005, and two dead parrots (one of which had been decapitated) were discovered in 1990 and 2006. Scientists have spent near-countless hours in the Australian bush seeking the lost species, but until now no birds have definitively turned up.

But last week naturalist John Young made a startling claim: After spending 17,000 hours and 15 years in the field looking for the night parrot, he has not only photographed one but captured it on video for all of 17 seconds. He showed off some of his photos and six seconds of video at a closed-door session held at (but not sponsored by) Queensland Museum on July 3. The images themselves were not released to the media; Young says he has sold the rights to an undisclosed media company. The newspaper The Australian printed one of the pictures on June 29, although it was heavily obscured by a watermark of the paper's logo.

Young, who has spent years in the Australian bush looking for rare bird species, told The Australian that he first heard—but didn't see—a night parrot in 2008. He did, however, manage to record the sound of its whistle. He said he used the recordings to attract night parrots in 2009 and 2012, which he heard rustling in the bushes, but neither got close enough for him to see. Playing the audio again on May 25 of this year, he said, led to his discovery and the resultant photographs. He also collected feathers, which are being tested for DNA and compared with museum samples.

The footage shown to scientists last week brought what Australian Geographic characterized as "collective gasps and murmurs" from the audience. Ecologist Max Tischler of Bush Heritage Australia told the magazine that Young's 15-year quest "has been rewarded with phenomenal footage and images." Australian Birdlife magazine editor, Sean Dooley, told the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) that the discovery, if it proves true, is the "equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an outback roadhouse."

But it may not be easy to prove Young's claims. He won't reveal where the photos were taken nor hand over the footage. He refuses to involve the government in conserving the species, saying he'd rather raise the money to do it himself. On top of that, Young himself is a rather controversial figure in ornithology. His supposed discovery of what he called the blue-fronted fig parrot in 2006 has been disputed because it was later discovered that he had digitally altered his images. As he admitted to ABC, "I lightened them, darkened them, did my own sort of stuff, and I was criticized for it and probably rightly so." Young said the current photos, however, will stand up: "There's absolutely no doubt. I made mistakes before, but I won't do it again."

Young's story reportedly has some holes. An article by Greg Roberts in The Weekend Australian (reprinted on Roberts's blog) pointed out that Young claims in some interviews that the feathers he found came from the side of the road, yet also saying that they came from a roosting site near where he took the photos. Young's history will be hard to overcome: He has claimed on at least two additional occasions to have located other extinct or nearly extinct birds, but his findings were never duplicated.

Has the night parrot been rediscovered? John Young and several of the scientists who have seen his photos are convinced. Until the images are made more widely available, however, we will have to wait and see.

Photo: An undated painting of the night parrot by Martin Thompson, via Wikimedia Commons

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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