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Pullen Pullen’s Night Parrot

Published 14 Feb 2024

Pullen Pullen on Maiawali Country is a remarkable place. In a remote corner of western Queensland, the 57,000-hectare Special Wildlife Reserve stuns with its rugged ironstone plateaus skirted by long unburnt spinifex. When it rains, tiny gilgais on the extensive gibber flats and low-lying floodplains capture what few nutrients remain in this ancient landscape. They burst into life and the flush of grasses and delicate herbs is not only spectacular, but provides important resources for some the region’s unique wildlife.

For more than one hundred years, the place held a secret: Pullen Pullen is home to the Night Parrot, the elusive ground-dwelling parrot dubbed the “thylacine of the air”. 

In 2013 Night Parrots were discovered on Pullen Pullen by naturalist John Young, almost 150 years since the last proven sighting. The significance of the area was recognised by both Bush Heritage, who bought the reserve in 2016, and the Queensland Government, who declared it Queensland’s first Special Wildlife Reserve.  

Since the discovery, a team of ecologists have worked tirelessly to create a safe haven for the ground-dwelling parrot. Dr Nick Leseberg has spent the past eight years studying the parrot, first as a PhD student at the University of Queensland, and now as an ecologist for Bush Heritage.  

“The initial research by Dr Steve Murphy and John Young showed that only a handful of birds existed. In the first years of the program there were only known to be two or three birds living at a couple of sites in a very small area,” says Nick. In 2015 birds were discovered at another site a few kilometres from the original site, but the population was never known to be more than a handful of birds. 

Close up of Night Parrot. Photo: Steve Murphy.

In 2016, Dr Murphy captured and fitted a Night Parrot with a GPS tag, which gave some incredible insights into the bird’s movements. The bird was travelling up to 40 km in a night to forage and drink, across both Pullen Pullen and neighbouring Mount Windsor Station. Follow up research found several birds resident on Mount Windsor, so a partnership was established that allowed Bush Heritage and the University of Queensland to include the Mount Windsor birds in their research program.

Worryingly, the boundary between the two properties was a barbed wire fence.  

“In 2006 a dead Night Parrot was found on Diamantina National Park, having collided with a fence, so we knew this was a risk to the birds,” explains Nick. “In areas where tracking suggested the birds might come close to the boundary fences, we used reflective tape to make the top strand more visible.”  

Surprisingly, this included the newly installed western boundary fence, which had to be installed when the lease for Pullen Pullen was created from the existing cattle property Brighton Downs. Although nearly 10 km from the nearest known parrots at the time, the tagged bird had travelled more than 9 km from its roost site on several nights to forage on floodplains near the new fence. 

Between 2016 and 2019, Nick’s research focused on how to detect Night Parrots so we could better understand how many birds were in the area.

Data collected with remotely deployed digital sound recorders allowed Nick to develop a picture of where the birds were.

“In 2016 there were two known sites with a few birds at each. By 2019, birds were being regularly detected at four sites. Birds were also picked up on acoustic data collected by Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service on neighbouring Diamantina National Park, suggesting the population in the area was more widespread than hoped.”

Still, it was difficult to estimate precisely the number of birds.

“You can’t see Night Parrots, only hear them on the recorders, or when you’re listening near a roost site,” says Nick.

“This makes it very difficult to estimate numbers, but by late 2019, it seemed like the population across Pullen Pullen and Mount Windsor was around eight to ten birds. With at least a few birds on Diamantina, and still some very remote areas we hadn’t searched, I thought a regional estimate of 10-20 birds was probably accurate.” 

While the population seemed to be doing well, October 2019 brought bad news; a dead juvenile Night Parrot was found caught in the Mount Windsor boundary fence.  

“This section of the fence hadn’t been flagged, as we didn’t think it was an area where the Night Parrots would be traversing,” says Nick.  

“By this time we’d removed tens of kilometres of unnecessary fence, including the entire southern boundary with Diamantina National Park, but this really brought home the risk these fences pose. We’d love to remove all of them, but the reality is this is pastoral country and we need fences to keep cattle out of Pullen Pullen. We made the decision to flag all our boundary fences, regardless of whether they were near known Night Parrot habitat, to try and ensure this didn’t happen again.”

Despite occasional restrictions brought on by COVID, work continued through 2020. A regular program of twice-yearly cat control activities continued, and Nick was able to continue monitoring the population using sound recorders.

“By the end of 2022, after a run of good years, the place was booming. The floodplains were really benefiting from the exclusion of cattle and there were as many Night Parrots on Pullen Pullen and Mount Windsor as I had ever seen,” says Nick. “There were four known sites with birds, and potentially two others where we heard birds on a couple of occasions. I think there could have been as many as twelve or fourteen birds across the two properties.” 

As we have learned though, you never know what is coming around the corner. The sustained good conditions triggered a Long-haired Rat plague throughout the Channel Country.  

“I had never seen anything like it,” says Nick. “I had read about these plagues as a kid, and it was incredible to see it first-hand.”  

Of course, this increase in rats was bound to bring an increase in the numbers of cats, so Bush Heritage tripled the number of planned cat control trips.  

“A typical cat control trip would last for two weeks, and might remove ten cats. The early trips in 2023 followed the same pattern, but by mid-year, cat numbers were increasing, and consecutive trips removed around 50 cats each,” explains Nick. “It wasn’t all bad news though. The stomachs of the cats were examined to determine what they were eating, and we were only finding rats, nothing else.”

By the end of 2023, rat numbers were dwindling. Although cat numbers remained high, there was evidence they were losing condition; there were fewer pregnant females, and prey other than rats in the stomachs examined.  

“Of course the real worry is what impact this could have on the Night Parrots,” says Nick. “While we haven’t been able to find as many birds as the end of 2022, it also seems the behaviour of the parrots has changed a little. We’re still detecting them across three to four sites, but at some of those sites the detections are not as regular. We don’t know if these means there are fewer birds, or if they are moving around more.”  

As good conditions are forecast through 2024 and beyond, Bush Heritage will continue to put pressure on the cat population. 

“Controlling cats is an ongoing battle, but the most important thing we can do to conserve Night Parrots” says Nick. “They will always be there, but it is our job to ensure they have as little impact as possible, allowing species like the Night Parrot to recover.” 

While this ongoing research has obviously benefited the Night Parrots on Pullen Pullen and Mount Windsor, its impact is being seen across Australia. Habitat models based on the early work by Dr Steve Murphy, and detection methods based on Nick’s research, are now being used to search for Night Parrots more widely, with some spectacular results. “The last ten years of work on Pullen Pullen has been critical to Night Parrot conservation more broadly,” says Nick. “Sharing the lessons from this research has seen Night Parrots discovered in more than a dozen locations now, mostly in Western Australia.”  

Many of these discoveries have been made by Indigenous Ranger groups, combining the knowledge of Nick and others around Night Parrots, and their knowledge of country.  

“It’s definitely been one of the most rewarding parts of this whole project. Sharing knowledge, and seeing that put into practice by the rangers who go on to make these incredible discoveries has been fantastic. And to think it all started here on Pullen Pullen makes me proud.” 

About Bush Heritage Australia

Bush Heritage Australia is a leading not-for-profit conservation organisation that protects ecosystems and wildlife across the continent. We use the best science, conservation and right-way knowledge to deliver landscape-scale impact. We’re on the ground, working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the agricultural sector to make sure our impact is deep, sustainable, and collaborative.

Today we work across 1.2 million hectares of land across our network of reserves and many millions of hectares through our partnerships. Together we protect threatened ecosystems and 7,735 species of plants and animals, including hundreds of threatened species (see our annual Impact Report for details).

Media contact

Jill Rischbieth: 0434 894 494
jill.rischbieth@bushheritage.org.au

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