This is a wonderful moment: there actually is some good news to report! An animal that was feared to have gone extinct has been located. Not just an individual, but a whole group, alive and well in the bush.
Let me back track, briefly. A few years ago I had a chat with the film maker Robert Nugent, and he told me that he was starting on a new project focussing on the Australian night parrot. He explained that this elusive nocturnal parrot might be extinct, but that there were unconfirmed reports of a living group. I wondered how he would film a bird that is active only at night, and that in any case hasn’t been seen for sure in a very long time; I marvelled at the ingenuity of the creative drive. Those cryptic birds haunted my imagination and I began to envision them as mysterious and rather glorious mythical beings.
Yesterday I consulted my bird books and found a more prosaic story. The night parrot, Pezoporus occidentalis, is related to the ground parrots (Pezoporus wallicus). There are two main types of ground parrots, eastern and western. My area is home to the eastern variant. I have seen them every once in a while, and although one book describes them as ‘dumpy’, I find them lovely even though they are neither slim nor showy. They are listed as vulnerable to extinction. The night parrot looks pretty much the same and is far more endangered.
The ominous account in the bird books reads: ‘Recent specimen (1990) found dead beside highway near Boulia, Queensland’.
Now Bush Heritage has announced that a group of night parrots has been located. What is more, they are being protected in situ. The Bush Heritage conservation organisation was started by Bob Brown, our great moral leader. He and a few others conceived the idea of generating a fund with which to buy properties with high conservation value and dedicating them to regeneration (if needed) and protection. The reason was simple: if we waited for governments to take the lead in conservation we would lose too much. Community action was necessary. Bush Heritage is supported by donors and has been going for 25 years. It now owns millions of hectares of land.
The night parrot site involved agreements with the local land owner and the Queensland government to acquire a sizeable block of land. The on-going work of conservation involves liaising with local landowners and with the local Maiawali people. The new property is called Pullen Pullen to honour the local Indigenous name for the bird. It’s location is being kept secret. The birds were important figures in Maiawali culture. Mr Darryl Lyons explained that his people ‘were known in their main corroboree as the rainmakers and were often summonsed by neighbouring tribes to go to their areas to do the rain dance and the ceremonial dress of that corroboree had the Pullen Pullen feathers in it.’
Night parrots were once widespread across arid Australia. They are ground dwellers in spinifex and samphire country. It is possible that they are able to gain all the water they need from Sclerolaena plants (which also produce edible seeds) and therefore do not require direct water sources. It now seems probable that one big factor in the decline of night parrots was the cessation of Aboriginal burning. Spinifex burning is well documented; it was organised to create patches. The effects ensure that there is spinifex at various stages of growth, that there are lots of patchy edges, and that the incidence of catastrophic fires is reduced.
The ornithologist Steve Murphy is in charge of researching and organising protection for the night parrots. He says there is one main threat aside from humans: feral cats. At any time they could knock off the whole population. According to one news report, there are dingoes in the area, and that is probably why the feral cat population is low. No one wants to take risks, however.
I am captivated by the story of Maggie, a one-year-old collie who has been trained to smell and track feral cats. Her human companions, Mark and Glenys Woods take her out early in the morning, and she patrols the area sniffing for cats. Mark Woods explained: ‘Maggie’s sense of smell is so highly developed she can distinguish a feral cat from a domestic cat. This incredible ability makes them one of the most effective tools in managing and eliminating feral cat populations.’ When she scents a cat or a den she sits and waits. That is the extent of her job.
According to the reports, along with relying on dingoes and on Maggie, an alternative mode of control is being used. It is a mechanical device called a ‘grooming trap’, designed to be triggered only by cats. When triggered, it shoots out 1080 poison. The idea is that cats will lick off the poison and die. This device inflicts a terrible death; creatures who ingest 1080 suffer horribly.
Feral cats are the subject of a huge campaign designed to try to limit their numbers. A key element in the campaign is the demonisation of cats. This tends to obscure the fact that many of the causes of death of native animals, particularly birds, are generated by humans. A Bush Heritage publication on ‘Land Clearing and its Impacts’, tells us that Australia is still clearing way too many trees, and that clearing affects not only the trees themselves but also other creatures who live in and among trees, including those who inhabit the understory. This report does not pull its punches:
‘Over 5 million parrots, honeyeaters, robins and other land birds are killed each year by land clearing….
‘For every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress. Half of Australia’s terrestrial bird species may become extinct this century unless habitat destruction is rapidly controlled.’ And yet, regulations against land clearing are being abandoned, while feral cats are targetted ever more severely.
The pest industry recently expanded its empire when a gathering of Environment Ministers (in July 2015) endorsed the National declaration of feral cats as pests . This meant that they would ‘review arrangements within their respective jurisdictions and, where necessary, to remove unnecessary barriers to effective and humane control of feral cats’. The site explaining feral cat issues includes details of new methods of using 1080 for cat killing. The short translation of this obscure pronouncement is that the 1080 deathscape expands again.
It is true that feral cats kill a lot of birds and other animals. It is also true that their populations become wildly out of sync when dingoes are killed. The relationship between cats and dingoes is one of those extinction cascades: the effort to kill dingoes opens the way for an over-abundance of cats, foxes, and rabbits. All three species multiply without check when their top predators are gone, and the impacts on native animal and plant species are disastrous.
I write regularly against the use of 1080. Poison is not an appropriate way to address conservation issues. A basic principle of compassionate conservation is that the conservation of one species ought not to be achieved by inflicting dreadful deaths on members of other species. I do not want to see conservation measures contribute to an industry dedicated to death. The pest industry promotes itself by vilifying other creatures; it spreads suffering around the country in the name of land management, and tries to make mass death look like responsible action. I will be writing to Bush Heritage to share my views on 1080. I donate to this organisation because I believe passionately in its aims; at the same time I do not want my money contributing to 1080 or similar poisons.
There are ways to get rid of cats at Pullen Pullen without all the suffering. The dingoes should thrive if the area is kept clear of 1080, and they will take care of the cats. And Maggie and her humans, Mark and Glenys Woods, are on the job. Their cross-species alliance is an ideal to be aimed for in all conservation.
I want to congratulate Bush Heritage for the large-scale in situ approach to conservation. The great merit of this approach is that it enables endangered species to continue their lives in the manner that has evolved for them to live well and happily. A further merit is that it enables humans to facilitate the work of the natural world, rather than disrupt it. It builds on the understanding that every life is an inter-species project, that we live within systems of connectivity. It sets out an ethical project for humans:
to work in alliance with existing systems.
This approach differs greatly from the anthropocentric engineering approach in which humans imagine themselves as the creators of a new and improved nature.
Alliances are the way life works sustainably. The night parrots are embedded in multiple alliances – with spinifex that gives them shelter and food, and with Sclerolaena that give them water and food. The Sclerolaena are terribly annoying to humans, especially barefoot humans; they are best known as prickles, burrs and bindyi. And yet for night parrots they are literal life-savers. These little birds have survived colonisation with its invasive humans, cattle, horses, and catastrophic fires (with the cessation of Aboriginal burning); they have survived many more disasters than I am aware of. Their resilience is their great asset. Our conservation efforts can enhance that resilience by removing feline predators and, as Bush Heritage is doing admirably, protecting them from human predators.
We will know more about these interspecies, biocultural alliances when we get to see Robert’s film. I’m told that ‘Night Parrot Stories’ will be shown in the Sydney Film Festival on 19 June. In the meantime:
Three cheers for the gorgeous cryptic survivors!
© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)
Robert Nugent’s previous film on locusts is ‘Memoirs of a plague’.
Quote from bird book is from Simpson and Day, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (sixth edition).
The Darryl Lyons quote is from a news report.
To learn more about Aboriginal burning in Central Australia, a good resource is Peter Latz’s book Bushfires and Bushtucker.
The Mark Woods quote is in ‘Bush Tracks’, the Bush Heritage quarterly magazine (Autumn 2016).
Bush Heritage Report on Land Clearing and its Impacts (view here).
On Sclerolaena, see the info sheet on wildlife and native plants.
There are numerous essays on this site concerning 1080, the pest industry, and the role of dingoes as ecological regulators. On pests, see ‘How to Love a Pest‘.
The best article on killing and conservation is by Thom van Dooren and can be read online (here).