For the better part of a century, the night parrot – Pezoporus occidentalis – was considered an extinct Australian legend.
Even after their "rediscovery" in 2013 by naturalist John Young, the birds have remained elusive, and very few people have ever seen one in the wild. Now, new photographic evidence of a fledgling member of the species has given conservationists renewed hope that the parrots are not only surviving, but also beginning to prosper.
Queensland University scientists Nick Leseberg and James Watson were conducting a field study in the state's Pullen Pullen Reserve when they spotted the fledgling bird take flight from a clump of spinifex grass.
"To see your first one and to realise what it was that you're actually seeing, not just a night parrot but a fledgling and the first evidence of successful breeding was very, very exciting," Leseberg explained to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "There were a few deep breaths."
Standing no more than 22-25 cm tall, the little green-and-gold birds are often described as "dumpy" – but despite that small stature, they've been making big waves in the scientific and conservation communities for a good while now. Known for being one of the few completely nocturnal bird species (a distinction shared by New Zealand's kakapo), the night parrots are also known for building their nests on the ground.
The birds were originally thought to have gone extinct in the late 19th or early 20th century, after the introduction of cats and foxes to their natural habitat collided disastrously with their ground-nesting habits. Prior to 2013, there had been some limited evidence that the species might still exist: in 1990, Australian Museum scientists found a dead parrot in south-western Queensland, and in 2006, a ranger found the remains of another parrot in Diamantina National Park, also in south-western Queensland.
These isolated incidents, however, had not given conservationists a clear picture of where the birds might be living, or even if they existed in any meaningful numbers.
All that changed in 2013, when Young presented a collection of videos and images of the colourful parrots to a group of fellow naturalists and media at the Queensland Museum. The evidence was compelling enough for the Australian government to create the Pullen Pullen Reserve with the specific purpose of protecting the species.
The reserve's exact location was kept under wraps to protect the parrots from poachers and human tourists – but that secrecy has also meant that very few people have actually seen the birds firsthand, even years after their rediscovery. Population estimates at the time of Young's findings ranged between 50 and 250 animals – not extinct, perhaps, but critically endangered nonetheless.
This notion of their scarcity persisted until October this year, when a team of researchers lead by Young spotted some of the parrots and recorded their calls in Diamantina National Park. The discovery suggests the birds' range is wider than expected, and the footage of the fledgling captured in the Pullen Pullen Reserve this month further reinforces the idea of the parrots being more populous and widespread than expected.
For conservationists like Bush Heritage Australia's Jim Radford, this is a good sign that the birds are back on their way up, at least for now. And that's combined with good rains this year, which usually prompt night parrots to mate.
"All indications are that it will be a very good year, not just for night parrots but for other birds," Radford told The Guardian. "I fully expect that [night parrots] will be discovered in other places in Australia in time as well, because I don't think that this can be the only population."
Top header image: John Turnbull, Flickr. The night parrot was rediscovered among spiky spinifex grass, which covers much of Australia's arid regions.