Friday, 13 July 2007

Dead parrot no joke to birders

The ultimate in suppression has angered Australian birders as a real-life dead parrot discovery was kept quiet.

Last September an Australian park ranger Diamantina National Park, Queensland discovered the headless corpse of a bird he could not immediately identify. The yellow-bellied bird appeared to have flown into a nearby barbed-wire fence and it was eventually passed to experts at the Queensland Museum to identify.

Imagine their amazement when they realised it was a juvenile Night Parrot, a small, drab, budgerigar-like bird that has fascinated scientists and frustrated birders for more than a century. Once relatively common in central Australia in the 19th century, its numbers mysteriously declined, and it was declared extinct by some experts as long ago as 1915.

In 1979, a team from the South Australian Museum saw a several birds in Southern Australia and in 1990, a dead specimen was discovered by a roadside in south-western Queensland. Seven separate sightings were made in 1992 and 1993, a short distance north of where this bird was found but confirmation of these sightings the following year was not successful.

The finding of this new specimen should have been a cause for international celebration, immediate investigation and a concerted search for live birds but the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the parks, apparently decided to suppress news of the find.

Now, after months of apparent inactivity and claims that authorities feared an unsupervised influx of excited birders from all over the world, a nationwide coalition of experts and enthusiasts has been set up to look for more birds. The National Night Parrot Network, which includes the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, is a part research sharing group, part rapid response team, ready to climb into a four-wheel-drive or an aircraft and head into the desert on reports of a sighting.

Mike Weston, research and conservation manager at Birds Australia, says the "incredible secrecy" prevented a concerted inquiry that might have yielded clues to the birds' habits. "The way it was handled was most disappointing" he added.

An Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman rejected allegations of secrecy. Staff, she said, had surveyed the area where the bird was found without success.

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