Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Paradise Parrot: Historical Musings

One of only two images of Paradise Parrot in the wild 
A recent visit to the Upper Burnett River Valley (the report is here) got me thinking about the Paradise Parrot, the only bird on mainland Australia to have become extinct. It was in this part of south-east Queensland that the last authentic sightings of Paradise Parrot in the wild were made. Cyril Jerrard observed the parrots over a seven-year period between 1920 and 1927 on and around Manar Station, near Gayndah, with a neighbour seeing the species in 1928.

Eric Zillmann saw the Paradise Parrot over a five-year period between 1933 and 1938 around Wallaville west of Gin Gin, also in the Burnett River Valley, about 80 kilometres north-east of Manar Station. Despite many claims of sightings since, Eric Zillmann's are believed to be the last authentic records. I reported a first-hand account of Eric's sightings in a previous post (see here).

Termite mound - Eidsvold
There are several earlier records of Paradise Parrot from Eidsvold, Gayndah and elsewhere in the Upper Burnett region -evidently a stronghold for the species - in the late nineteenth century; most of these are documented in Penny Olsen's fine book about the species, Glimpses of Paradise: The Quest for the Beautiful Parrakeet. While wandering the woodlands around Eidsvold in the Upper Burnett, I noticed numerous termite mounds of the type once used for nesting by the Paradise Parrot. The experience prompted me to take another look at Cyril Jerrard's historic observations in the region.

Cyril Jerrard
I was fascinated to read Jerrard's comprehensive account of his encounters with the species. Jerrard never got around to publishing his findings but prepared a draft article based on his notes. The draft surfaced decades later and has been published by the National Library. Jerrard's elegant account of his first contact with the species is captivating:

“Whit! Whit!” The piercing but not unmusical notes caught my ear with the interest that for me always attaches to a strange bird call. I drew rein and followed with my eyes the two pretty little long tailed and low flying birds — parrots unmistakably — that after uttering their preliminary whistle of alarm, rose at my approach and flew from the roadside, where they had been feeding, to a tree not far off . I turned my unwilling horse off the road and for half an hour quietly followed the little strangers as they moved from place to place, feeding on the ground or resting in the trees. They manifested no great fear of me, so that I was able to note their principal markings and to observe that one — the male evidently — was exceedingly beautiful, the other —pretty but more modest of garb, and both very graceful in their shape and movements."

Paradise Parrot 
At the time of this discovery in 1920, the Paradise Parrot was feared to be extinct as there had been no firm records for many years. Jerrard was aware of the parrot because a friend had given him a newspaper clipping in which renowned ornithologist Alec Chisholm issued a public plea for information about its potential survival.
Jerrard located a nest in 1922 and was able to obtain two photographs, one of the male at the nest entrance and one of a pair on the termite mound. They are the only images of wild Paradise Parrots in existence. Jerrard describes the moment of capturing his first image (above):

"He was in a tree close to me, but I could not see him till, after a few minutes of breathless waiting on my part, he dropped to the fence just behind the nest and, after another challenging note or two, alighted in all his glory on the nest mound itself. It was one of the supreme moments of my life. I pressed the release."

Paradise Parrot egg clutch 
Both Cyril Jerrard and  Eric Zillmann found clutches of eggs inside termite mounds used for nesting. Cyril Jerrard opened up his mound when it became obvious the birds had stopped sitting on the eggs, which evidently were infertile. Eric Zillmann found a clutch when he and other workers were levelling termite mounds for material that was used to form the basis of tennis courts at the time.

Cyril Jerrard inspects a Paradise Parrot nest
I found an account by a farm worker, Arthur Elliot, who worked as a jackeroo on Manar Station between 1927 and 1929, when the last Paradise Parrots were seen there. Elliot had no knowledge of parrots but wrote of his surroundings:

"I remember riding up a high hill on the edge of the scrub and looking out over miles and miles of brigalow scrub, the leaves shimmering in the sun like the sea."

Elliot commented that between 3,000 and 4,000 head of cattle were on Manar Station. Herein lies the explanation for the extinction of the Paradise Parrot: the widespread modification of its woodland habitat for the grazing industry. Other seed-eating birds occurring within the southern Queensland distribution of the Paradise Parrot, such as the Squatter Pigeon and Black-throated Finch, similarly suffered dramatic population declines, presumably for the same reason.

 Jerrard sums the fate of the parrot up well:

"The most fatal change of all for the grass seed eating Paradise Parrot, was that the more nutritious of the native cereals, like the Oat or Kangaroo grasses, were dying out under overstocking by sheep and cattle. What still remained were not allowed to produce their seed. Droughts accentuated their food scarcity to the point of starvation and in particular, it has been definitely recorded that the 1902 drought absolutely wiped the “ground parrot” out in some districts."

As a consequence, the world is a poorer place.