Maggie nose best

Monday 11 April, 2016
Mark Woods and trusty companion Maggie are helping in the fight to protect the Night Parrot from feral cat predation. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.Mark Woods and trusty companion Maggie are helping in the fight to protect the Night Parrot from feral cat predation. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.

Meet Maggie, a four-legged friend working hard to protect the world’s only known population of Night Parrots on our newest reserve, secured recently with the help of Bush Heritage supporters.

It’s 3am. The sun won’t appear for hours, but for Mark and Glenys Woods and their ever-loyal companion Maggie, work is about to begin.

After a quick breakfast they jump in the ute and drive 45 minutes to the secret location in western Queensland where the world’s only known population of Night Parrots has survived.

Since naturalist John Young’s rediscovery of the population in 2013, a recovery team led by Bush Heritage Australia, and ornithologists Dr Steve Murphy and Allan Burbidge, have been working tirelessly to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. The first step – to purchase the land where this elusive population live – has been taken, thanks to Bush Heritage donors, and the reserve is now under intensive and careful management.

Cats – the biggest threat

The priority since the purchase has been managing threats to the Night Parrot population, chiefly feral cats.

With a sense of smell many times more powerful than a human’s, Maggie is a vital weapon in the fight against feral cats. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.With a sense of smell many times more powerful than a human’s, Maggie is a vital weapon in the fight against feral cats. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.

Evidence suggests that feral cat density on the property is low, but there are at least two individuals prowling close to where Night Parrots roost during the day. Just one feral cat that develops a taste for Night Parrots would be enough to drive this population, and possibly the species, into extinction.

Maggie goes to work

Maggie is a one-year-old, short-haired collie specifically trained to sniff and track these predators. “A dog’s sense of smell is many times more powerful than a human’s,” Mark explains. “Maggie’s sense of smell is so highly developed she can distinguish a feral cat from a domestic cat.

This incredible ability makes them one of the most effective tools in managing and eliminating feral cat populations.”

But today, time is crucial. Temperatures are set to reach 45 degrees by 9am, and the heat can cause Maggie to pant excessively, blocking her finely tuned nasal receptors.

The night Parrot. Photo by Steve MurphyThe Night Parrot. Photo Steve Murphy.

Immediately after arriving at the site Maggie leaps from the car and is hard at work, quickly picking up a scent along one of the creek lines. Mark and Glenys are in hot pursuit, following Maggie through the cracked and dry creekbeds. Mark watches Maggie extra closely when she is ‘scenting’. If she finds a cat or den she has been trained to immediately sit, and Mark must swing into action.

Maggie keeps her head anchored to the ground, criss-crossing the creek line and weaving amongst the trees and logs. She leads them over a ridge and stops to a dead halt. She sits.

Mark steps past Maggie and, seeing they have arrived at a potential cat den, he looks for signs of life. There are paw prints embedded into the ground. The surrounding tussocks, branches and logs make perfect shelter. Peering in, Mark immediately notices the cobwebs and there is no evidence of recent activity. The cat that called this place home has moved on.

Mark turns back to Maggie who is still sitting patiently, waiting for her next instruction.

Dr Stephen Murphy and Rachel Barr will return to the property in April to begin a new Night Parrot research and survey method using more advanced radio tracking and GPS technology. Photo from The Australian.Dr Stephen Murphy and Rachel Barr will return to the property in April to begin a new Night Parrot research and survey method using more advanced radio tracking and GPS technology. Photo from The Australian.

He smiles and pulls a tennis ball from his pocket and Maggie springs back to life, eyes wide and tail wagging. It’s play time. “Collies have an incredibly high play drive,” Glenys says, “and playing with a tennis ball is the ultimate reward for a job well done.” Maggie chases the ball in wild excitement. A vigorous game of fetch ensues as Mark makes sure to generously reward Maggie for successfully finding the cat den.

But before long they are back at work. Soon Maggie seems to have picked up a fresh scent and they are off again, ready to track and eradicate one of the most serious threats to Night Parrots.

Other control measures

While Mark, Glenys and their highly trained sniffer dogs will continue to work on the property, Bush Heritage is also investing in other strategies to remove feral cats from this critically important area.

“The difficult thing about cat control in this situation is that we are targeting specific cats,” says Steve Murphy, the ornithologist who successfully trapped and tracked a Night Parrot in 2015. “It’s hard enough to remove just any old cat from the bush, let alone trying to remove a specific individual that is posing a significant threat. That’s why we need to keep trying a variety of techniques, including scent dogs, trapping, shooting and other emerging technologies.”

Unlocking Night Parrot secrets

While work continues in eradicating the threats to Night Parrot survival, Steve has been working to unlock the secrets of the world’s most mysterious bird that was – until recently – thought to be extinct.

Working with colleagues at the University of Melbourne, Steve is examining whether Night Parrots could derive enough water solely from succulent plants that grow in the area.

“In April last year we found a Night Parrot sitting right next to a patch of succulent Sclerolaena. Preliminary modelling indicates that, even on the hottest day, a parrot could indeed get all its water requirements from as little as 13 grams of Sclerolaena without having to venture to a water source. Understanding where Night Parrots spend their time is very important because it means we can target those areas for feral cat control.”

It’s insights like these that will ensure that Bush Heritage’s newest reserve will achieve its goal of providing a secure place for Night Parrots to live forever.

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