Meet the Paradise Parrot, the only species of bird on the Australian mainland known to have become extinct.
It is about three quarters of a century since Eric Zillmann saw a Paradise Parrot, but the memory is as fresh as it is vivid. “I can see the bird now as clearly today as back then,” the renowned naturalist tells me from his home in Bundaberg, on the central Queensland coast.
Eric Zillmann, 88, is the only person alive who has seen the only bird known to have become extinct on the Australian mainland. His last sighting of Psephotus pulcherrimus, in 1938, is also regarded as the final authentic record of this brilliantly coloured parakeet which has gone the way of the Tasmanian Tiger and the Dodo of Mauritius.
Eric was just 10 years old when he saw his first Paradise Parrot and all of 15 when he saw his last parrot five years later, but even at that age he was a keen student of natural history. “We grew up in the bush. We didn’t have TV or anything like that and we knew what we were looking at.” His family lived near Wallaville, 12km south-west of Gin Gin in the Burnett River Valley, southeast Queensland. It was the era of The Depression, and the family managed as best they could.
In 1933, the flooding of Currajong Creek damaged fencing and bridges on a unnamed 230-ha property in the area, prompting the owner to sell it a friend of the Zillmanns. When the fencing was repaired, the owners hired Eric and his father, Ernest, to manage livestock. Their job was to muster and dip cattle, and during regular mustering forays, they would encounter the parrots.
“It used to be just the one pair of parrots each time we went out but we would always see them,” Eric says. “I remember the colours, the red flashing wing and the brownish back as the male took off in front of us. They would always be on the ground feeding when we found them. Sometimes we went out dipping once a month and they’d be there each time.”
Eric says the birds favoured short grasses in sparsely wooded country. “They were not shy. You could get to within 30 feet (about 10m) of them before they’d flush and fly off.”
In 1938, the Zillmanns and other workers were levelling termite mounds for the material that then formed the foundations for tennis courts. “We hired a two-ton truck and dug up 13 loads of ant bed.” After lopping off the top of a mound, Eric found a chamber containing four eggs.
He did not link the termite mound to the parrots, or finally identify the species of parrot he and his father had been seeing, until he looked up a copy of A.J. Leach’s 1926 field guide, An Australian Bird Book. “That’s when we realised for sure what the birds were,” he says. “The existence of the birds had been known to people in the area but they were simply known to us as the anthill parrots. At that time, we did not know that the parrots were so rare.”
A steep decline in populations of the species began late in the 19th Century, and the Paradise Parrot was extremely rare by the 1920s. Almost certainly, a combination of intensive grazing and modified fire regimes throughout its southern Queensland range was responsible for the demise of the species.
Eric left the Gin Gin area soon after discovering the egg chamber but his father continued to report the single pair of Paradise Parrots until 1940. Much later than these sightings, Eric became involved in searches for the lost parakeet in the 1960s. He was shown the same termite mound where, in 1922, Cyril Jerrard took his historic photographs of the Paradise Parrot near the Burnett River. Visits by Eric to the area where he saw the parrots as a teenager proved fruitless.
Eric’s sightings are acknowledged in Penny Olsen’s seminal book on the Paradise Parrot, Glimpses of Paradise – The Quest for the Beautiful Parakeet (2007).
Eric Zillman has been awarded an OAM and an honorary tertiary degree for his services to natural history. His abilities in the field with birds and other wildlife - and his knowledge of natural history in the Wide Bay-Burnett region of Queensland - is legendary. Eric is reluctant these days to tell his story about the Paradise Parrot, but he appreciates the value of his unique experience. “I can’t prove now the identity of what we saw but in my mind I know what they were. I am humbled by what I regard as the most uplifting experience of my life.”