|Night Parrot feathers from south-west Queensland - Pic by Steve Murphy|
The immediate threat of feral cats to the recently discovered population of Night Parrots in south-west Queensland has been clarified amid moves to secure the property where the parrots occur for conservation purposes.
Moves have been implemented to protect dingoes on the property in the belief that they could play a crucial role in controlling numbers of feral cats and foxes.
The Queensland Government is involved in moves to shift the focus of land use on the property from cattle grazing to conservation, and will have the ultimate say over future management strategies.
The naturalist John Young first heard Night Parrots on the property in 2008. Young released the first photographs and film footage of the Night Parrot ever taken in July 2013. At a recent talk in Melbourne, Young confirmed reports that a feral cat had been responsible for killing a female Night Parrot on the property.
Ecologist Steve Murphy has been conducting research on the parrots on the property in collaboration with Young under a program being funded by mining company Fortescue Metals Group. Funding for the current program expires at the end of 2016.
|Dr Steve Murphy|
Murphy and Young found 31 feathers last October and these have been reported as definitive evidence that a bird had been killed by a feral cat. However, Murphy says there is no certainty that a cat was responsible. The feathers were examined at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA in Adelaide by Associate Professor Jeremy Austin, an expert in the field of trace DNA analysis.
No cat DNA was detected during the analysis, although DNA sequencing confirmed that the feathers were indeed from a Night Parrot. DNA-based gender assignment revealed that the bird was a female.
Murphy says that using automatic sound devices, he continued to detect Night Parrot calls at the site where the feathers were found. Murphy says: “With respect to the feathers, the conclusion is that no-one can say with any certainty what happened to result in a Night Parrot losing 31 feathers. It may have been a cat, or it may have been an owl or goanna, or some other predator, or even two Night Parrots fighting. I’m not even sure if whatever it was actually caused the death of a Night Parrot, given the calling that I’m still detecting at the site."
Murphy adds: "This is not to say that cats are not a problem. They exact a tremendous toll on wildlife and continue to be a significant threat to Night Parrots. But it is important to stick to the facts.”
|Feral Cat at Night Parrot site with prey, probably a frog Cyclorana spp - pic by Steve Murphy|
Murphy is aware of one male feral cat in the area, but its activity has been mostly confined to creek lines and other areas away from the spinifex clumps favoured by the Night Parrots. Since well before discovering the feathers, he had been trying to trap and shoot cats in and around the area, but so far without success. Sharp-shooters were employed to try to shoot cats on the property shortly after the feathers were found, but again they were unable to locate any. Shooters will return to the property soon for another search.
However, Murphy says that based on intensive, ongoing surveys using camera traps, he is aware of several dingoes that regularly hunt in and around the area inhabited by the parrots. He believes this is good because of controls that dingoes can exert on cat numbers and behaviour. No baiting on the property has been undertaken because of the risk of inadvertently killing dingoes.
|Dingo at Night Parrot site - pic by Steve Murphy|
Since January 2014, there has been an interim stewardship agreement with the landholder - that includes a requirement that he not carry out any form of dingo control in and around the site. The stewardship arrangement includes other clauses that are designed to protect the parrots and facilitate the research efforts.
As for the future of the site, Murphy initiated a deal that is currently being brokered that would see the land use focus on the property shift from cattle production to the permanent protection of the Night Parrot and its habitat.
Says Murphy: “We are at a delicate stage of this negotiation. The Queensland Government is involved in the discussions, and indeed will have the ultimate say over whether the conservation strategy can proceed as planned.”