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More on the Night and Ground Parrots of Australia

I signed out an old book called “The Parrots of Australasia” (by Charles Barrett) from my university’s library and it contains some information about Ground and Night Parrots (Pezoporus occidentalis and P. wallicus). This book was published in 1949 and so is out of print but it has some lovely paintings and interesting information, so I’ll share some here.

The information about these parrots is as follows (as quoted from the book):

“South-eastern Victoria is probably the principal remaining stronghold of the curious Ground Parrot (Pezoporus wallicus), which formerly enjoyed an extensive range – coastal areas of southern Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South, and Southwestern Australia, and Tasmania.  From much of its olden territory the bird has disappeared; and where it still exists its numbers are few. Foxes are among the worst enemies of this and other ground-frequenting birds. The reclaiming of swampy heathlands, haunts of Pezoporus for centuries, is partly responsible for its increasing scarcity; while vandals out with dog and gun have accounted for many of the birds.

The Ground Parrot has a distinctive appearance, and could be mistaken for only one other species, the Night Parrot. Its green plumage is uniformly barred with black and yellow; the forehead is scarlet – a vivid colour-patch, lacking in the Night Parrot, which, otherwise, is somewhat similar in appearance, though less elegant.

In the very early days of settlement in New South Wales, the Ground Parrot, then rather plentiful in the neighbourhoods of Sydney, became known to the white man who, perchance, first heard of the Goolingang’s existence from the natives.  The aborigines of Western Australia – different tribes, had several names for it, Djul-bat-la, Ky-lor-ing, Boo-run-dur-dee, and Djer-doon-dee, as recorded by Gould, in his Birds of Australia, where, too, we find an excellent account of the strange bird’s haunts and habits:

The Ground Parrot is diffused over the whole of the southern portions of Australia including Tasmania, wherever localities exist suitable to its habits. I also procured both adults and young on Flinders Island, where I found them breeding on the grassy plains which cover the greater portion of the island.  So far as I could learn, it is everywhere a stationary species.  Having frequently met with it in a state of nature, I am enabled to state that in its actions it differs from every other known species of its family. Whether the power of perching is entirely denied to it or not I am uncertain, but I never saw it fly into a tree, nor could I ever force it to take shelter on branches. It usually frequents either sandy sterile districts covered with tufts of rank grass and herbage, or low swampy flats abounding with rushes and other kinds of vegetation peculiar to such situations. From its very recluse habits, and great powers of running, it is seldom seen until it is flushed and then only for a short time, as it soon pitches again and runs off to a place of seclusion. On the approach of danger it crouches on the earth or runs stealthily through the grasses, and, from the strong scent it emits, dogs road and point as dead to it as they do to ordinary game birds…It flied with great rapidity, frequently making several zigzag turns in the short distance of a hundred yards, which it seldom exceeds without again pitching to the ground.  Its flesh is excellent, being delicate in flavour and equalling, if not surpassing, that of the quail and snipe. Its five or six eggs are deposited on bare ground.”

Gould’s observations agree with those of later observers, including the author of this book, who met with the Ground Parrot on the Coorong, in South Australia, and again, at Marlo, in Gippsland, Victoria, where several of its nests have been found in recent years.  In November, 1936, Jack Jones was down Marlo way on a birding observing expedition, and on an extensive heath inland from Point Ricardo, he found a nest of the Ground Parrot occupied by four young birds.  The nest had been formed by nipping short the inner stalks of the tussock in which it was situated (Emu, Vol. XXXV).

The Ground Parrot is believed to exist in fair numbers on a small island lying off the northern coast of Tasmania; and it may still occur on Flinders Island, although the author failed to find it there in 1943 during rambles through untamed areas suited to the bird’s needs.

“The range of this species in the northern part of the island is somewhat wide,” writes Littler, in his Birds of Tasmania, (Launceston, 1910), “but nowhere is it plentiful.  It consorts  in small bands of about half a dozen individuals.  In various localities along the North and North-east coast it is more plentiful than in inland districts.  Although epacris and grass-tree covered country, such as is to be found about Falmouth and George’s Bay, are its favourite haunts, I have seen it equally at home in paddocks thickly covered with Scotch thistle miles past Cressy and towards the Lakes.”

There being no authentic records, only reports, of its occurrence since F. Lawson Whitlock’s search for it in Central Australia, the Night Parrot (Geopsittacus occidentalis) probably is extinct, though there are faint hopes that it may yet be found in some remote place. In 1937, it was reported as having been seen somewhere in Western Australia – a tract of spinifex-and-sand country far distant from any settlement: this vague report lacks confirmation; and the unique parrot, which Gould likened to a diminutive Strigops, a rare New Zealand species with Nocturnal habits, must still be regarded as a vanished bird.

One of the last white men to see the Night Parrot alive, F. W. Andrews, wrote the only comprehensive account of its habits and economy that has hitherto been published.  His paper was read before the Royal Society of South Australia in February, 1893, and is quoted at length by Campbell, who states that the Night Parrot ranged across southern Australia, living chiefly in the “porcupine”, or spinifex-grass of dry and arid tracts. It had been observed in the Wimmera district of Victoria, where, it was reported, a nest containing five eggs had been found in some “porcupine grass”. (Nests and Eggs of Australian Birds).

“During the day,” says Andrews, in his “Notes on the Night Parrot,” published in the Transactions of the Society before which they were read, “this bird lies concealed in the inside of a tussock or bunch of porcupine-grass (Triodia), the inside being pulled out and a snug retreat formed for its protection.  Here, also, its rough nest is formed and four white eggs laid,  When the dark shades of evening have fairly set in, it comes out to feed, generally flies direct to the nearest water, which is often a considerable distance from its nest; in some instances I have known them to fly a distance of four or five miles.  After drinking and shaking themselves up a little, they fly to feed on the seeds of the porcupine-grass, return to water two or three times during night.”

“The name given to this bird by the aborigines is “Myrrlumbing” from the supposed resemblance of their whistling note to the sound of that word. They have also a very peculiar croaking note of alarm whilst at the water, which much resembles the croak of a frog. On one occasion one of these parrots was caught in a hut, where it had apparently been attracted by the light of a bush lamp; it was put into a box, with a handful of dry grass. On examination the next morning the bird could not be seen; it had placed the dry grass in a heap and had drawn out the inside straw by straw until it had formed a hole, in which it had concealed itself.  These birds are pretty generally distributed through the north and north-west of this colony; they come and go according to the nature of the season. When the early season is wet, the porcupine-grass flourishes and bears large quantities of seed, on which the birds feed; but if, on the contrary, the season is a dry one, the grass does not seed, and no birds are to be seen.

Evidence of the presence of the Night Parrot in the North-west Desert was obtained by the Calvert Exploring Expedition. Whitlock, who went searching for the “lost” bird in Larapinta Land, Central Australia, came so near to success that he found the feathers of one which had been eaten by blacks quite recently. Since Whitlock met with this bitter disappointment, nothing has been heard of the Night Parrot, excepting that report from Western Australia.”

Ground Parot (top) and Night Parrot. Painting by C. W. Cayley, from "Parrots of Australasia" by Charles Bennett.

Webmaster’s Notes: Since this book was printed, there have been sightings of the Night Parrot, and more information about these can be found in the blog post here:

Parrot Oddballs Part II: The Mysterious Night Parrot of Australia

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  1. June 3, 2010 at 1:51 am

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