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Maiawali Custodians, other Indigenous rangers and groups walking through Night Parrot habitat. By Lachlan Gardiner
Maiawali Custodians, other Indigenous rangers and groups walking through Night Parrot habitat. By Lachlan Gardiner

The next chapter for the Night Parrot

Words by: Coco McGrath
Location: Maiawali Country, Queensland
Published 27 Oct 2023

The sharing of Night Parrot knowledge at Pullen Pullen Reserve, Maiawali Country, bolsters the species’ protection.

The Night Parrot, an elusive ground-dwelling parrot, has long been shrouded in myth and legend. Dubbed the ‘Thylacine of the air’, the Night Parrot had been feared extinct for over 100 years.

In 2013, in the remote corners of western Queensland on Maiawali Country where spinifex grows in abundance – the perfect habitat for the bird – the Night Parrot was rediscovered by scientists. The news sent shockwaves through the birding community and beyond – there was a second chance to save the species.

Maiawali Custodians, other Indigenous rangers and groups walking through Night Parrot habitat. By Lachlan Gardiner

Ornithologist Dr Steve Murphy set in motion a conservation program to safeguard the bird. This led to Bush Heritage’s 2016 purchase of the land where the bird had been found, named Pullen Pullen Reserve after the Maiawali word for Night Parrot.

In the 10 years since the Night Parrot was rediscovered, Dr Murphy and Bush Heritage ecologist Dr Nick Leseberg have worked tirelessly to create a safe haven for the bird. They have collected data, including 100,000 hours of sound recordings, and tracked the bird through clumps of spiky spinifex and across vast floodplains to better understand its behaviour.

“We now know a fair bit about the ecology of the Night Parrot,” says Nick who leads Night Parrot monitoring on Pullen Pullen.
“We know how to detect them, and we know what threatens them.”

Thanks to Nick’s ongoing work in partnership with Maiawali custodians, Pullen Pullen has transformed into a research hub and a sanctuary for the Night Parrot.

Maiawali custodian and knowledge holder Judith Harrison explains, “The land is important because we never lost connection to Country. The Night Parrot was used in Maiawali ceremonial practices in the old days, and so we're reconnecting with our cultural practice as we protect the bird.”

Maiawali Custodians, other Indigenous rangers and groups walking through Night Parrot habitat. By Lachlan Gardiner

In 2020, Bush Heritage succeeded in securing Special Wildlife Reserve status for the land, which means the reserve, despite being privately owned by Bush Heritage, has the same level of protection as a national park. The birds are not prolific breeders, usually only fledging one or two chicks each year, so increases in Night Parrot numbers are painfully gradual. With Special Wildlife Reserve status, the population is given a safe place to grow steadily and further protected by a concerted feral management program.

As management of the existing population continues, Nick is turning his attention to sharing research and knowledge with land managers, fellow ecologists and, importantly, with Indigenous rangers. Since 2017, Indigenous rangers in Western Australia have reported hearing the distinctive call of the Night Parrot and some have been lucky enough to photograph the bird.

“Although the whole shebang started here in western Queensland, the truth is that we have a relatively small population of Night Parrots here. But where the birds are being found in Western Australia is across a much larger area and so the future of the Night Parrot rests largely in the hands of Indigenous rangers.”

In May 2023, with support from the Indigenous Desert Alliance, Nick and Maiawali custodians invited six Indigenous ranger groups to Pullen Pullen to share knowledge of the Night Parrot. Welcomed to Pullen Pullen by Judith, the gathering included: Kiwirrkurra Rangers from the Gibson Desert; Ngururrpa and Ngurra Kayanta Rangers from the Great Sandy Desert; Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa Punmu Rangers from central Western Australia; and the Central Land Council Warlpiri Rangers from the Tanami Desert in the Northern Territory.

Some ranger groups had seen Night Parrots on their Country or heard the bird’s intriguing ‘dink-dink’ call. Other groups were yet to find birds but have suitable habitat on their Country.

Judith agrees, “It’s wonderful for all ranger groups to share stories and knowledge so that we can continue to protect the Night Parrot. The Maiawali custodians are thankful for this opportunity, and for Bush Heritage’s on-going work and commitment to our partnership.”

Clifford Sunfly from the Ngururrpa Rangers is one of the lucky few who has seen a Night Parrot on his Country.

“We were laying out sound recorders all around the spinifex and we thought we might wait after sunset for a bit to listen. And sure enough we heard the whistling. And then I heard wings, a flapping sound and I saw the outline of the bird through the stars flying across.”

“I was so happy and excited. And that got me thinking, I really want to see it again.”

With the best science, Traditional knowledge and sophisticated land management practices in the hands of a dedicated and growing collective, the future of the Night Parrot looks promising. 

Gathering for the Night Parrot, Maiawali Country, Queensland. By Lachlan Gardiner

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