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.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Night Parrot - New book stirs fresh controversy

The following are transcripts of my news story and feature in the 11-12 August, 2018 edition of The Weekend Australian about Penny Olsen's new book Night Parrot.

News - Night parrot on brink of extinction as its watchers enter bitter feud

Five years after its rediscovery shook the natural history world, the confirmed population of the critically endangered night parrot is fewer than 20, indicating the species teeters on the brink of extinction.

A grim outlook for what is described as the world's most mysterious bird is emerging as bitter divisions among experts are exposed in a new book, Night Parrot, by Australian National University academic Penny Olsen, to be published soon by the CSIRO.

Dr Olsen launches a stinging attack on North Queensland naturalist John Young, whose publication of the first photographs of a night parrot in 2013 in south-west Queensland is described as the avian find of the century.

Dr Olsen suggests in the book that the bird had an injured wing and was set up for a staged photographic session.

Dr Olsen casts doubt on claims by Mr Young and his employer, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, that night parrots were found subsequently at other sites.

Supporters of Mr Young hit back, accusing critics of waging a personal vendetta against him.

Mr Young discovered the parrot in what is now known as the Pullen Pullen Reserve, owned by Bush Heritage Australia.

BHA and AWC are Australia's two biggest private conservation groups, owning millions of hectares of wildlife reserves. While BHA runs a night parrot research program in Pullen Pullen, the AWC and Mr Young are undertaking research in the neighbouring Diamantina National Park.

The two groups do not work co-operatively or share information to develop plans to protect the species.

Long-serving AWC chief executive and night parrot advocate Atticus Fleming quit the organisation abruptly last week, giving no reasons.

Mr Fleming's successor as AWC chief executive, Tim Allard, said he hoped to work co-operatively with BHA on night parrot research in future.

Mr Allard said there was no doubt about the validity of night parrot records collected by Mr Young at new sites.

The Pullen Pullen researchers have found fewer than 10 night parrots. A small but unknown number are recorded from Diamantina National Park. Four birds were discovered in the Murchison region of Western Australia last year; two disappeared after one was netted and fitted with a radio transmitter.

Dr Olsen says in her book that ecologist Steve Murphy, who once worked with Mr Young but fell out with him, advised the naturalist to remove a segment of a video of the bird to be screened publicly in 2013 because it was “wonkily staggering through the spinifex with one wing hanging”.

Dr Murphy claimed some of Mr Young's photographs were labelled at a time suggesting the parrot was caught many hours earlier.

Naturalist John Stewart, who was with Mr Young when the images and video footage were taken, described the claims as “nonsense”.

“That bird came in of its own accord, it wasn't caught,” Mr Stewart said. “It didn't look as if it was wonkily staggering. I can't understand why some people are out to get John.”

While subsequent research shows the night parrot is quick to take flight, Mr Stewart said the bird was not seen flying before or after it was photographed, possibly indicating it was injured prior to the encounter.

Asked if she had put the allegations to Mr Young, Dr Olsen said she invited him to contribute an account of his encounter for the book but nothing was offered.

Feature - Feathers ruffled as pursuers clash over avian holy grail

Australia's two biggest nature conservation organisations are pitted against each other in a turf war that is likely to determine the future of what the prestigious Smithsonian Institute describes as the world's most mysterious bird.In a new book, Australian National University scientist Penny Olsen lays bare the bitter rivalry between bird experts that is marring efforts to bring the night parrot back from the brink of extinction.

Olsen takes aim at North Queensland naturalist John Young, who stunned the natural history world by producing the first photographs of the critically endangered parrot in 2013. Olsen suggests the parrot was injured and set up for a staged photo session, prompting denials and an angry response from Young's supporters.

As Olsen explains in Night Parrot, Captain Charles Sturt failed to find a mythical inland sea during his celebrated expeditions through Australia's arid interior, but he did discover in 1845 what he described as a “beautiful ground parrot” that “rose and fell like a quail” when disturbed from its daytime roost.

The night parrot has for more than a century been the centre of often fevered attention among nature lovers internationally. Since populations of the species crashed in the late-1800s, scores of expeditions to far-flung parts of the continent have failed to rediscover it. The capture by Young of the first photographs and video footage of a night parrot is described as the avian find of the century. The holy grail of the birding world had come home to roost. Other than two mummified corpses found in 1990 and 2006, no solid evidence of the parrot's existence had surfaced since the last confirmed specimen was collected in 1884.

Before photographing his parrot, Young recorded its call in breakaway country of breath-taking beauty in the Mayne Range of Queensland's remote Channel Country. When announcing the find, Young told an excited audience at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane that the bird approached him and a colleague, John Stewart, in response to playing its call. Said Young at the time: “To sit there and watch this holy grail come out, like some sort of mythical ghost… it puffed itself up in some sort of alien shape, almost doubling its size, shaped like an echidna, raking its head on the ground… it was electrifying.”

Olsen questions Young's claim about how the bird was photographed, suggesting it was captured hours earlier and was injured, writing in her book: “It was highly unlikely that a wild, uncontained bird would stay around long enough to be filmed so precisely and from such an angle in torchlight.” Wildlife ecologist Steve Murphy was working with Young at the time but has fallen out with the naturalist; the pair are bitter foes today. Murphy told Olsen he advised Young to edit the video footage before airing it, suggesting he “remove a segment that showed the bird wonkily staggering through the spinifex with one wing hanging”.

John Young
Murphy claimed some of Young's photographs were digitally labelled as being taken at 5pm - long before the nocturnal bird would be moving about naturally. The implication was that it was caught the previous night, probably in a net, and kept until arrangements were in place for a staged photographic session. If confirmed, these allegations would seriously damage Young's reputation as arguably Australia's finest field naturalist. Asked whether she put the claims to Young, Olsen says she invited him to write an account for the book but nothing was provided.

Young declines to respond to Olsen, with whom he has clashed previously. His field assistant, John Stewart, speaks publicly for the first time to dispute the claims. Stewart told Inquirer the parrot was not caught; it approached him and Young in response to playing back its call. “It came at us quite aggressively,” Stewart says. “It was stamping on the ground and carrying on, putting on quite a show… There are some people who just seem to be out to get John.” Night parrots are skittish and quick to take flight, but Stewart says the bird did not fly, either before or after it was photographed, suggesting its wing may have been injured prior to the encounter.

In response to Murphy's claim that Young's images were taken at 5pm, Stewart says the bird was photographed about 7pm. “I don't know where he got that time from. It was well after sunset before we saw it.” Responding to Murphy's claim that the video was edited to remove a segment showing what appeared to be an injured bird, a source close to Young says: “Bits were taken out of the video for use later. It's as simple as that. “

Young generated controversy in 2006 when he claimed to have discovered a new species of fig-parrot in the rainforests of north-east NSW. The claim was challenged by The Australian and photographic experts suggested Young's image of the fig-parrot had been digitally altered. Referring to what she describes as the “fabricated” fig-parrot photograph, Olsen writes of Young's night parrot image: “Unbelievably, close inspection of the photograph revealed that it too had been digitally altered.” The suggestion is that the image was doctored to hide an injury or evidence of man-handling. But Young says he “tweaked” the image to remove a spinifex twig from feathers that spoiled it.

Young discovered the night parrot in the spinifex-clad ranges of the vast Brighton Downs cattle property. Bush Heritage Australia in 2016 bought a 56,000 area frequented by the parrot called Pullen Pullen Reserve. University of Queensland scientists have taken over research begun by Young and Murphy on the reserve to assess the status and behaviour of the bird. Adjacent to Pullen Pullen, a similar research project is under way in the 507,000ha Diamantina National Park.

After Young parted company with Murphy and Bush Heritage Australia, he was hired in 2016 by Atticus Fleming, the long-serving chief executive of another big private conservation group, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. Under an agreement between the AWC and the Queensland Government, Young is undertaking night parrot research in the park. Fleming abruptly quit the organisation last week for unknown reasons; the AWC issued a brief statement saying it had accepted his resignation.

Although two teams of night parrot researchers are working close to each other, they are not co-operating or exchanging crucial information that would enhance the prospects of mapping out plans to protect the bird. Young was working with the AWC for several months when the organisation announced he had found parrots at seven sites, including three nests, in Diamantina National Park. The AWC has also announced that Young discovered new parrot populations at Goneaway National Park, east of Diamantina, and in northern South Australia.

Steve Murphy
Olsen says none of these records have been independently corroborated. She says the South Australian claim was based on an “extremely blurry” image of a night parrot feather “perched atop the solid, matted contents” of a finch nest. In the absence of confirmation of Young's records, Olsen says the known parrot population is “small and extremely vulnerable”.

James Cook University adjunct professor Peter Valentine refutes Olsen's claim, saying he was with Young in Diamantina National Park in October 2016 when he heard a call identical to one of the recorded parrot calls. AWC senior ecologist Rod Kavanagh says he has heard night parrots several times at two sites in the park, adding: “I don't understand why these people continue to attack John. We would not be any the wiser about this bird if he had not found it in the first place.”
A tiny population of night parrots was discovered in the Murchison region of Western Australia last year. As The Weekend Australian revealed, one of those birds disappeared after it was caught in a net and fitted with a radio transmitter; its mate vanished soon after. It is not known how many - if any - birds remain at the site. Another night parrot was photographed last year in the Great Sandy Desert of WA when it was caught in a camera trap.

On the basis of published information, the confirmed world population of the night parrot is less than 20 - far fewer than was hoped at the time of Young's 2013 announcement. In her book, Olsen documents how feral cats, and probably foxes, are likely to have played a key role in the parrot's demise. In 1907, the naturalist CH McLennan wrote that it was becoming extinct in the mallee of western Victoria: “...when I find feathers or remains of the night parrot, there are generally fox or cat traces in the soil.” Foxes are absent from the Queensland night parrot sites and cat numbers are kept in check by dingoes. 

Feral cat in camera trap at Pullen Pullen - Pic by Steve Murphy
Olsen describes how degradation by livestock grazing of habitat and changed fire regimes across the Australian outback have had dire consequences for the species and other wildlife. There has fortuitously been little grazing in areas where the parrots occur today. The old growth spinifex clumps they use for roosting and nesting are separated by extensive areas of rock, so the habitat has been spared the ravages of uncontrolled wildfires that wreak environmental havoc across the bird's once vast range.

Still, there are no guarantees that the few sites where the birds survive will remain safe from cats and other threats. As mysterious as ever, the night parrot is hanging by a thread.


Further information from the book can be found here.


  1. Very interesting article.Great to read that so many people are trying so hard to save this little gem.

  2. I was the journalist who wrote the first story of John and his friends discovering the night parrot. I was a journo with The Australian and had with me photographer and computer expert David Sproule who had 50 years experience as a professional photographer. He took apart the camera on which John had taken the pics, examined in great detail the computer card and did all other tests that I am not qualified to describe. Dave is available for comment if required.
    Dave gave the assurance to our employer (News Ltd) and subsequently our lawyers that everything was legitimate. Neither Dave nor I knew what a night parrot looked like but we could attest to the film not have been tampered with and nothing was photoshopped.
    It all seems to me - an outsider with limited knowledge - that there is a lot of professional jealosy concerning John's obvious success. That is most unprofessional.
    John won the race to find one of these elusive birds, and his success should be applauded, not derided from afar on scant evidence. It is quite juvenile to do so, and John deserves to be congratualated most sincerely, as does Greg Roberts for his continued support. Tony Koch.

    1. FYI Tony.. John later admitted to having photoshopped the image that appeared in The Australian after irrefutable evidence of it having been doctored was presented online and David Sproule, when subsequently asked about his examination of the pictures said that he had not examined them "that closely".

  3. Supposedly Penny Olsen is a scientist and yet she does not talk to the primary source but then makes disparaging remarks about John Young. This speaks volumes to her character and professionalism or lack thereof.

  4. Excellent write up because you are telling us an interesting story without bias.

    How many photographers synchronise their camera time settings before a photo shoot? The alleged 5.00pm footprint on Young's images are most likely to be no more than an overlooked time setting on the camera used.