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Baby night parrot sighted in drought-ridden outback Queensland puzzles researchers

By Eric Barker and Melanie Groves, Thursday February 15, 2018 - 12:56 EDT
ABC image
Mystery flight: The night parrot was thought to be extinct for 75 years. - ABC

The sighting of a newly-hatched night parrot in drought-ridden western Queensland has surprised researchers, raising more questions than answers.

The bird, thought to be two to three months old in December, was photographed on Bush Heritage's Pullen Pullen reserve by PhD candidate Nicolas Leseberg, who has been studying the elusive species for the past two years.

"It's really interesting that even though it had been a really dry year that this desert bird was still willing to keep breeding," Mr Leseberg said.

"Based on its age we can tell that it was born around September and in the area there'd been no serious rain for seven, eight or even nine months."

Baby night parrots were last sighted in November 2016 after the area had received extensive winter rain.

"That was the first time a baby had ever been photographed and that was fascinating but that was sort of expected," Mr Leseberg said.

More questions than answers

The night parrot was considered extinct for more than 75 years but in 2013 it was rediscovered at Pullen Pullen nature reserve, a location that has been kept secret.

The 56,000-hectare property in western Queensland has been designated specifically for the purpose of protecting the parrot.

There have been several sightings of the bird since this discovery, but Mr Leseberg said the latest picture was the only sighting of a baby night parrot since the landscape had dried out.

"We know now that the birds were trying to breed fairly persistently throughout 2016 and 2017," he said.

"2016 was obviously in response to the really good conditions but even though there was no rain they were continuing to try to breed throughout 2017."

Mr Leseberg said while the birds were consistently trying to breed in the past years, they were not often successful bringing the babies to adulthood.

"They certainly get some through but it's maybe not as successful as we thought. That's interesting because we know they're keen to breed and they can do it when conditions aren't that good," he said.

"But the flipside of that question is if they're so keen to breed and they can do it apparently when conditions aren't that good, why are they still so rare?"

Brutally efficient predator

While the bird is becoming more extensively researched, Mr Leseberg said it was unknown why it bird had become so endangered.

"That's the $64 million question and the one that I spend most of my time thinking about," he said.

"We know that it's not probably any one factor, it's a lot of things and we think that one of the most important for these animals is predation by things like cats and foxes.

"These are not predators that Australian native animals grew up with and suddenly there's this brutally efficient predator there that was able to knock them off easily."

Mr Leseberg said a changed fire regime was also a major factor.

"Night parrots particularly are really dependent on spinifex which burns really well and they need their spinifex to be really old and with new fire regimes it doesn't get as old," he said.

"Whether they can recover? They're doing their bit and trying to breed and raise young ones. It's just up to us to see if we can control some of those threats."


© ABC 2018

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