Night Parrots spreading their wings

Published 06 Dec 2016 

It was the discovery that sparked global interest – now cutting edge research has revealed fascinating new insights into the elusive Night Parrot.

Night Parrot researchers Dr Stephen Murphy and Rachel Barr in the field. Photo by Lyndon Mechielsen
Night Parrot researchers Dr Stephen Murphy and Rachel Barr in the field. Photo by Lyndon Mechielsen
Earlier this year, Bush Heritage supporters rallied to protect the habitat of one of the world’s rarest birds, considered extinct for more than 80 years. The resulting reserve, now known as Pullen Pullen Reserve, provides the Night Parrot with a safer habitat. But since late last year, scientists have also had a keen eye on the cattle station next door.

Dotted along the neighbouring property are sections of spinifex habitat. And hidden among these coarse, spiny grasses are what Bush Heritage supporters and birdlovers the world over have been waiting patiently to hear news of: more Night Parrots. Sound recordings have confirmed that the elusive birds are using the spinifex to roost and forage.

With the Night Parrot’s range now known to include this new area, protection and recovery efforts must now extend beyond Bush Heritage’s boundaries to ensure this species can be brought back from the brink.

Piecing together the Night Parrot puzzle

Dr Stephen Murphy with sound recording equipment. Photo by Lyndon Mechielsen.
Dr Stephen Murphy with sound recording equipment. Photo by Lyndon Mechielsen.
When researching a species once assumed to be extinct, any new discovery is paradigm-shifting. That’s the position that research leader Dr Stephen Murphy finds himself in as he balances the excitement of spear-heading recovery efforts with the enormous weight of responsibility.

Thanks in part to the support that Bush Heritage donors have provided to the Night Parrot program, we already know far more about the species than at any point in history. Yet such is the mystery of this species that answers only lead to more questions. Every day brings a new insight, and yet another avenue of research to be explored.

“Satellite imagery and bio-acoustic recorders (known as Song Meters) have painted a really detailed picture of the Night Parrot’s habitat and range,” Dr Murphy says. “We captured a second bird in May (the first was carefully captured, after intensive QLD government ethics committee scrutiny, in April 2015) and were able to collect some really important information, including a thermal photograph and a skin temperature.”

Researchers in the field at Pullen Pullen. Photo Rob Murphy.
Researchers in the field at Pullen Pullen. Photo Rob Murphy.
In April this year, the work led the research team to an active Night Parrot nest, the first one discovered in more than 100 years.

“We're now able to describe the nest itself, what it looks like, how it’s made and its position within the landscape,” he says. “We were also able to observe and document adult Night Parrot behaviours around the nest. A carefully installed Song Meter revealed three previously unheard vocalisations, which was incredibly exciting.”

The bird captured in May was also carefully fitted with a tiny state-of-the-art GPS tracker. This tracker can be programmed to record at numerous, specific times and for set time periods and is one of the most innovative devices being used in the field.

A Night Parrot at home in the spinifex grass. Photo Steve Murphy.
A Night Parrot at home in the spinifex grass. Photo Steve Murphy.
“The GPS tag has only got 700 seconds of battery life. That’s it,” Dr Murphy says. “Our job was to think about what it is we really wanted to know and schedule that time accordingly.”

“We allocated those 700 seconds into a schedule that captured GPS points every five to ten minutes for two lots of two-hour periods each night. We did this across five nights. Overall it resulted in 127 recordings of Night Parrot locations, and they’re accurate to within a couple of metres.”

The resulting data were a revelation.

“It’s an incredible turn of events. For the last 80 to 100 years, people have been writing and talking about Night Parrots as if they were extinct. Now, we’ve got recordings of their calls, we’ve got information about nesting, and we’ve tagged two with tracking devices. I struggle to find the words to describe how exciting that is.”
– Dr Stephen Murphy, lead Night Parrot researcher

Over a total of only four hours on one of the nights we tracked the bird, it flew 41kms. At one point it was traced to a water point several kilometres from its roosting site. The bird regularly visited alluvial systems and floodplains to feed. The data have provided a great leap forward in how best to manage the landscape to provide maximum benefits to Night Parrots.

This information poses even more challenging research questions: if temperatures increase by three to five degrees, as climate-change modelling predicts, what impact will that have on the water-seeking behaviour of the Night Parrot? Modelling suggests that reliance on freestanding water will increase dramatically over the next few decades. Given feral cats are known to live near water points, what risks does that then pose for predation and how can we manage this?

These are all questions that must now be answered.

What have we learnt about the Night Parrot in 2016?

  • Although (as previously suspected), Night Parrots visit areas dominated by succulent plants, probably to obtain water, they also access freestanding water in nearby habitat occasionally, when temperatures are particularly high.
  • Night Parrots have now been recorded at three sites apart from those on Pullen Pullen Reserve.
  • Snakes are a threat to the Night Parrot. This was discovered, to our absolute dismay, in April 2016 when a plundered Night Parrot nest was found with the remains of Night Parrot eggs. DNA testing later revealed a snake was the culprit. “It was really devastating… we had no idea that snakes were going to be a threat,” says Dr Murphy.
  • Previously, a Night Parrot was found to have been able to safely carry a 0.42-gram radio-tracking “backpack”, with no apparent harm to the bird. This year researchers have very slightly increased the weight of the backpack that tracked birds carry (to about 2g), to gather even more critical information.

Steve’s toolkit:

What will you find in lead Night Parrot researcher Steve Murphy’s toolkit?

  • Night vision gear: this enables researchers to observe Night Parrots during darkness from a safe distance, so that feral predators aren't alerted to the location of the nest.
  • "ultra-miniaturised” surveillance cameras (about the size of a matchbox) to capture visual information about both the Night Parrot and its predators
  • bio-acoustic recorders, known as Song Meters, that capture sounds over long periods and tell researchers that Night Parrots have visited the area
  • tiny GPS tags, weighing less than 2g, attached to birds’ backs to record their movements across the region (these tags are applied after ethics-committee approval and state application processes)
  • a highly sensitive and directional microphone carried by researchers to make high-quality recordings of Night Parrot vocalisations
  • a sterile sampling kit, just in case anything is discovered, like feathers, scats or eggshells, that need to be sent away for forensic DNA testing.

Published research

  • Social landscape of the night parrot in western Queensland, Australia.
    Garnett, S.T., Kleinschmidt, M., Jackson, M.V., Zander, K.K., and Murphy, S.A. (2016). Pacific Conservation Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/PC16014
  • The only known egg of the Night Parrot? A molecular and morphometric assessment of an alleged egg from the Tanami Desert.
    33: 211-214. Olsen, P., Austin, J.A., Murphy, S. and Dally, G. (2016) Australian Field Ornithology
  • An estimate of the water budget for the endangered night parrot of Australia under recent and future climates.
    Kearney, M., Porter, W., and Murphy, S. Climate Change Responses (in press)
  • Observations of breeding Night Parrots Pezoporus occidentalis in western Queensland.
    Murphy, S.A., Austin, J.J., Murphy, R.K., Silcock, J., Joseph, L., Garnett, S.T., Leseberg, N.P., Watson, J.E.M., and Burbidge, A.H. (in review)
  • Movements and habitat use of the Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis in south-western Queensland.
    Murphy, S.A., Silcock, J.L., Murphy, R.K., Reid, J., and Austin, J.A. (in prep)
  • The diet of night parrots Pezoporus occidentalis in western Queensland as revealed by DNA sequence data.
    Murphy, S.A., Austin, J.A., Murphy, R.K., and Paltridge, R. (in prep)
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