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Parrot news! (Night Parrot, Swift Parrot, Orange-bellied Parrot)

September 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Back to posting! This post is about news related to three very rare and unique parrot species.

The first story is about the Night Parrot of Australia, which I wrote about HERE.  Night parrots are very elusive, nocturnal parrots from Australia. Sightings are very sporadic and therefore very little is known about them.  For a long time, it was even unclear whether or not the species still existed

However, some photos and videos of a night parrot were obtained recently, and you can see some here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-10/night-parrot-nature-reserve-created-queensland-endangered-bird/6680392

Since so little is known about these birds, and because they are likely very rare, a new reserve was created to protect them. The location of it is a secret, which is likely for the best so that poachers don’t go after the birds or so that large numbers of birders don’t overwhelm them.  One Night Parrot was caught and radio tagged so biologists could monitor its movements.

I am a birdwatcher and biologist and am always thrilled to come across a rare species. I can’t imagine how exciting it would be to find such an incredibly rare and elusive species!

Night Parrots look a bit like miniature Kakapos (another nocturnal ground-dwelling parrot) with more yellow, but Night Parrots and Kakapos are actually only distantly related.

One of the methods being used to protect the night parrots involves setting traps for non-native, feral predators (such as cats) that could kill the parrots. There’s more about this here: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/feral-cat-grooming-traps-to-secure-site-for-rare-night-parrots/story-e6frg8y6-1227503351863?sv=f3ace50e5213b8684e9bc91145763cab

Eliminating feral cats is always controversial, but in this case, doing so may end up saving an endangered species.

For another critically endangered Australian parrot, preserving mature forest may be the key to saving it. Swift Parrots are one of two parrots species that undergo routine migrations. The other is the Orange-bellied Parrot.  Both of these species breed in Tasmania and spend the non-breeding season in southeast Australia. To travel between mainland Australia and Tasmania, they have to fly across approximately 150 miles of water.

Both species are threatened by habitat loss. However, recent research suggests that preserving mature forests from logging could help conserve the swift parrot. Find out more here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-10/forestry-tasmania-urged-to-save-endangered-swift-parrot/6763332

Many parrot species rely on mature forests, as old trees are more likely to contain cavities that parrots use as nests.

The Orange-bellied Parrot is also in serious trouble, in part due to habitat loss.  However, disease is now threatening the species, as one adult and several nestlings have tested positive to a virus called psittacine beak and feather disease. The disease can cause deformed feathers and overgrown beaks and can be fatal, especially in wild birds.

Captive-bred Orange-bellied Parrots have been released into the wild and initially it was thought they could have been the source of the virus. However, the virus has not been found in any of the captive-bred birds released, and viruses from wild orange bellies are similar to those that have been found in wild Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. Sulphurs are rare where orange-bellies breed so the virus may have spread to orange bellies from another species.

More information can be found here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-14/questions-over-disease-threatening-orange-bellied-parrots/6771828 .

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More on the Night and Ground Parrots of Australia

June 3, 2010 1 comment

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

Parrot Oddballs Part II: The Mysterious Night Parrot of Australia

April 12, 2010 1 comment

Today, I will continue with my series of posts on the more unusual species of parrots.

This post is on a rather mysterious parrot species – one that has only rarely ever been spotted.  There aren’t any kept in captivity, so they are not kept as pets.  This is a bird that lives largely on the ground, and is nocturnal, two characteristics rarely found in parrots.

This is the Night Parrot of Australia, a bird that is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as being critically endangered.  Night Parrots were seen and collected sporadically during the 1800s, and in the 1900s, one bird was collected for a museum in 1912.  After that, the Night Parrot was presumed to be extinct, though there were unconfirmed sightings in the 1950s and 1960s.  However, in 1979, four birds were sighted at Cooper Creek in northern South Australia.  Then, in 1990, a carcass  of one was  found in western Queensland.  Further evidence of the bird’s existence include a sighting from the Pilbara region of Western Australia in 2005, and two dead specimens found in western Queensland.

Night Parrots are active mainly at night, and blend in very well with their surroundings, due to their yellowish-green feathers.  They can fly but rarely do and seem to prefer to escape from threats by running.  Sometimes, one will flee from a potential danger by flying a short distance close above the ground before landing and running or perhaps hiding in a burrow.  Apparently, they may fly at night to reach water.  During the day, they remain well concealed, either perching low in a tree, sitting concealed in bushes or tussock grass or hiding in a burrow.

Although Night Parrot sightings are very rare, the birds have been seen in each of Australia’s provinces, indicating that it has or had a very large range.  Almost nothing is known about the bird’s current range or population size.

Night Parrot from "Parrots of the World" by Joseph Forshaw and illustrated by William Cooper

The Night Parrot’s (Pezoporus occidentalis) closest relative is the largely solitary Ground Parrot (Pezoporus wallicus).  They are very similar-looking birds, but the Ground Parrot is brighter green and has a red band above the beak.   The Ground Parrot isn’t quite as mysterious as the Night Parrot, though Ground Parrots are endangered and difficult to see.  One subspecies, P. w. wallicus is found along the coasts in southeast Australia and Tasmania.  The range of the second subspecies, P. w. flaviventris, (Western Ground Parrot) does not meet that of the first and is separated from it by hundreds of kilometers.  It is found along the coast in southwest Western Australia.  The Western Ground Parrot has more yellow colouring on its belly than the eastern subspecies.

Ground Parrots do not fly much during the day and typically call and fly only right before sunrise and right after sunset.  They may flee from perceived danger by flying up and low over the ground for about 30 m before landing again.

Ground Parrot. Illustration by William Cooper, from "Parrots of the World," by Joseph Forshaw.

References

Davis R. A., Metcalf B. M.  2008.  The night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) in northern Western Australia: a recent sighting from the Pilbara region.  Emu, 108, 233-236.

Forshaw, J.  2006.  Parrots of the World.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA.

Leeton,  P. R. J., Christidis L., Westerman, M., Boles, W. E.  1994.  Molecular phylogenetic affinities of the Night Parrot (Geopsittacus occidentalis) and the Ground Parrot (Pezoporus wallicus).  Auk, 111, 833-843.

McDougall, A., Porter, G., Mostert, M., Cupitt, R., Cupitt, S., Joseph, L., Murphy, S., Janetzki, H., Gallagher, A., Burbidge, A.  2009.  Another piece in an Australian ornithological puzzle – a second Night Parrot is found dead in Queensland.  Emu, 109, 198-203.

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