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Golden-shouldered Parrot. Photo Geoffrey Jones.
Golden-shouldered Parrot. Photo Geoffrey Jones.

Golden Shouldered Parrot

Scientific name: Psephotus chrysopterygius

Australia is famed for its colourful parrots, and the Golden-shouldered Parrot is no exception. 

The male’s plumage is turquoise and orange, with a black crown and bright yellow shoulder feathers. The females and young are green and turquoise.

Golden-shouldered Parrots are about 23cm to 28cm long, with a long, tapered tail.

The Golden-shouldered Parrot is a totem species for the Olkola people of central Cape York Peninsula and known as ‘Alwal’.

Golden Shouldered Parrots at a termite mound nest. Photo Geoffrey Jones (

Where do Alwal live?

This iconic bird was once seen in large flocks across the Cape, but it’s now estimated there are only between 780 and 1,100 individuals left in the wild. Olkola people take their cultural responsibility to care for and protect Alwal for all posterity very seriously, with Alwal conservation activities identified as a priority in their Healthy Country Plan.

The Golden-shouldered Parrot’s range has contracted dramatically over the last 150 years due to changed land use. Once found over most of Cape York Peninsula, it’s now restricted to a total area of 3,000km2.

A Golden-shouldered Parrot poised for action. Photo Geoffrey Jones (

It’s listed as Endangered nationally and by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Golden-shouldered Parrots inhabit tropical savannah woodlands and open grasslands. They move between different habitats within their range during the wet and dry seasons taking advantage of seasonal food sources.

They feed in grasslands, in pairs or in small flocks, and like many birds, they roost in trees. But their nesting site is a little peculiar – they nest in conical termite mounds!

Also known as antbed or anthill parrots, they excavate their nests just after the wet season, when termite mounds are soft.

The mounds insulate the chicks on cold nights, but their timing has to be just right – if termites are still active, they can cover over the nest entrances, or kill eggs by cementing them to the bottom of the nest.


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Golden-shouldered Parrot behaviour

Golden-shouldered Parrots are seed-eating specialists (granivores). They peck at fallen seeds on the ground, and use their feet to hold on to grass stems to eat directly from the flowering seed-heads. Their diet influences several facets of their behaviour and ecology.

In far north Queensland the rainy season generally begins to ease around March. The first protein-rich grasses begin to seed, and for the parrots this is the perfect time to breed. Females lay four to six eggs, most of which hatch in 20 days, and are fully fledged within five weeks.

Hamish Ross and Glen Ross, Olkola Rangers, with an active nest. Photo Bush Heritage/Olkola.

While Golden-shouldered Parrots are often found in pairs or in small flocks made up of family groups, they have a special relationship with Black-faced Woodswallows (Artamus cinereus). As the parrots are often on the ground feeding they’re vulnerable to predators, but the woodswallows’ alarm call lets the parrots know when predators are close by.

The Golden-shouldered Parrot has been described as a fire-dependent species.

A young Golden-shouldered Parrot. Photo Geoffrey Jones (

The plant species they prefer – Cockatoo Grass (Alloteropsis semialata), Fire Grass (Schizachyrium spp.) and Glimmer Grass (Planichloa nervilemma) – are more abundant and seed for longer under the right fire regimes. Their grassy woodland habitat is also maintained by fire, and recently burned sites are safer because predators are easier to see.

Surprisingly, the wet season is a tough time for Alwal. When rain is heavy and continuous, they sit quietly in trees and do not feed. Young immature birds often die of starvation during this time. Birds survive by eating flowers and buds from trees. Amazingly, they sometimes pair toxic foods – like new growth from Cooktown Ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys) – with clay from the termite mounds, helping to counteract the food’s poisonous effect.

Threats to Golden-shouldered Parrots

Eggs are eaten by reptiles (especially goannas) and fledglings are also eaten by ants and birds. The Pied Butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) is the most significant predator of adults, ambushing the ground-foraging parrot from nearby woody vegetation.

Since European settlement, fire regimes have changed dramatically across northern Australia. With fewer naturally-occurring storm burns, combined with the impacts of grazing, woody species like Tea-tree (Melaleuca viridiflora) have invaded grasslands. This means more hiding spots for predatory birds, and less grass seeds for parrots to eat.

Grazing by cattle and feral pigs exacerbates wet season food shortage, increasing the risk of mortality. Alwal require suitably old (30-50 years) termite mounds to nest in. As such, the loss of or damage to these crucial nesting sites can have a major impact on the population.

What’s Bush Heritage doing?

Alwal is a key conservation priority for our partner in Cape York, the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation. Olkola elder Mike Ross is chairing the national threatened species recovery team, for Alwal – the first Aboriginal-led recovery team in Australia.

We’ve supported the Olkola Aboriginal Land Managers to undertake counts of active nests, gain information on the size of the current Northern (Moorehead River) population, and set up remote cameras to monitor fledglings and predators.

By restoring traditional fire regimes, Olkola land managers will reduce woody thickening caused by Tea-tree invasion and maintain the grassy woodlands that the parrots need to thrive.

Additionally, Olkola have established a long-term monitoring program to measure changes in the health of Alwal habitat with long-term vegetation plots. More is being learnt about nest predation, tackling feral cats and how the Dingo fits into the picture

We’re working with the Olkola to ensure that generations to come can appreciate the beauty of this unique parrot and the savannah grasslands it depends on.

Golden-shouldered Parrot Bushgift card.

A Golden-shouldered Parrot Gift Card is a virtual gift that supports our work with the Olkola people protecting Alwal in the wild. See our bushgifts card range for more.

Donate today to help us continue this and other vital conservation work.

Alwal stories

BLOG 06/04/2021

Finding Alwal’s sweet spot

A new research project on Olkola country funded by the Paul Hackett Memorial Scholarship will shed light on the nesting habits of the Golden-shouldered Parrot.

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BLOG 09/08/2019

Dingo protects endangered Alwal

The Olkola People of Cape York believe one of their totems may be a secret weapon in protecting another. Since 2014 Dingo baiting has been stopped and the boss totem of Olkola Country is making a comeback.

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BLOG 06/08/2019

Felixers: a tool to help save Alwal?

Olkola and Bush Heritage may have a new tool in our battle to protect the endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot (Alwal) from feral cats.

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BLOG 24/07/2018

Our volunteering experience with Olkola

Mick and Kerry Moylan are long-time volunteers with Bush Heritage and their contribution can't be overstated! Here they share their experience of volunteering in Cape York for the recent Alwal Recovery Team meeting with our Olkola Aboriginal partners.

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BLOG 10/07/2018

Olkola lead the way for their Totem

I was fortunate to spend time last week up on beautiful Olkola Country in Cape York to be part of a very exciting national recovery team meeting for Alwal, the Golden-shouldered Parrot.

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BLOG 12/06/2018

That tricksy Felixy

It's well known that cats have a huge and often catastrophic impact on native species and are notoriously difficult to control. The Felixer cat trap might be the solution.

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BLOG 18/12/2017

Alwal’s Christmas dinner

Last week was the last trip for 2017 by Olkola Land Managers and Bush Heritage for the 'Bringing Alwal Home' project, and we gave the Golden Shouldered Parrots (Alwal) their Christmas dinners! The early wet season is a critical time for the survival of juvenile Alwal. Seeds are in short supply as early rains have germinated much of the seed and it's too soon for the young grasses to produce more. We provide supplementary food.

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BLOG 11/05/2017

Alwal breeding

The first surveys for Alwal (Golden-shouldered Parrots) have begun for 2017 and successfully recorded 12 nests. At some of the nests we observed the sympatric grub, Trisyntopa scatophaga, which lives in Alwal nests and helps keep them clean.

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BLOG 13/12/2016

Helping Alwal survive the wet season

Olkola, Bush Heritage, Artemis Station, Black-faced Woodswallows and friends all working together to support young Golden-shouldered Parrots make it through their first wet season.

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BUSHTRACKS 06/12/2016

Bringing home Alwal

A partnership between Bush Heritage Australia and the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation aims to bring the Golden-shouldered Parrot back from the brink.

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BLOG 29/11/2016

Alwal’s first flight

It's not every day you get to see the first flight of a baby bird, especially not an endangered species, nor to capture the moment on camera. But through hours of dedicated survey time Olkola Land Manager Glen Kulka did just that!

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BLOG 06/07/2015

Olkola & the Golden-shouldered Parrot

Hey! Where's the road gone?! The metre high grasses have covered it up again! I've never driven 7 hours just to put in a photo point before (that's 7 hours there and 7 hours back, by the way) but for the Olkola land managers this is just a regular day.

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Origami paper parrot.

Origami paper parrots

The Golden-shouldered Parrot, or Alwal in Olkola language, is one of Australia’s most colourful birds. When you're ready to make a paper parrot, download our PDF template and print on a double-sided colour printer. Then simply cut out and follow the instructions.

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