In 1922, Cyril Jerrard captured the first and only photographs of the parrot of paradise, the only Australian bird officially declared extinct since European colonization. Jerrard was well aware that he was looking at one of the last of his kind: “The only indisputable fact [is] that the arrival of the white man has meant the destruction of one of the most beautiful native birds in this country. ” wrote in 1924.
The last accepted sighting of a parrot from paradise, also by Jerrard, was in 1927, near Gayndah, in the Burnett River district of southern Queensland.
Nearly a century later, in the dim light of twilight, I am standing 20 meters from a bird feeder, clicking in vain as a pair of golden-shouldered parrots, the closest surviving relative of the paradise parrot, accept a brochure in Artemis Station, a cattle estate on the Cape York peninsula in the far north of the state. My images are rubbish, but as I watch, I have an eerie sense of how Jerrard would have felt.
Almost exactly 10 years ago, I saw a flock of 50 golden-shouldered parrots along Cape Developmental Road in Windmill Creek, near the northern limit of Artemis. For decades, the 125,000ha station has been the stronghold of the species. Today it has about 50 birds in total. There are scattered groups in neighboring stations and an unknown number in remote Staaten River National Park to the south.
Golden-shouldered parrots were once common from Coen, 120 km north of Artemis, to Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the first specimen was collected in the 1850s. They were caught for poultry farming (in the 1850s). 1970, a pair could fetch $ 10,000 on the black market; its value has decreased as birds are common in captivity). For decades, its reach has shrunk, as a combination of pressures took its toll.
Now station owners Sue and Tom Shephard, in collaboration with a team led by applied environmentalist Steve Murphy, are taking radical and counterintuitive measures to save the species. Using a mixture of brush and herbicide, the goal is to order the landscape for the benefit of the parrot. It took almost two years to obtain the relevant approvals from the state Department of the Environment and Heritage Protection.
The project is a jointly funded venture between the Landcare and Threatened Species Recovery Hub programs of the federal government and the Queensland government. Donations from the public are also being actively solicited. “People are very interested in golden-shouldered parrots,” says Murphy. “Lots of people have been to Artemis. They know the station, they met Tom and Sue. “
Land removal is one of the most politically vexing issues in Queensland. However, that is what is happening here.
“We’re clearing the native vegetation and the last thing the department wanted was a rough approach to giving approval, which could have had all sorts of unforeseen consequences elsewhere,” says Murphy. The paperwork, finally signed in late June, is one inch thick.
Once, the Cape York savanna region consisted of open grasslands, studded with tall, mature eucalyptus trees and the conical witch-hat-shaped termite mounds in which golden-shouldered parrots burrowed their nests. Altered grazing and burning practices have transformed their habitat, which is now drowned out by an understory of tea trees and other low shrubs, as well as introduced grasses.
“It’s a long history of grass suppression through grazing, and I’m not going to try farmers here, combined with low-intensity fire,” explains Murphy. “What keeps these plants in check in a normal pasture is the high intensity intermittent fire at the beginning of the rainy season. Without the grass cover to allow for that higher intensity fire, we have lost what kept all these plants in check. “
In the old country, parrots had clear sight lines that helped them avoid predators. Small aerial birds called swallows circled overhead, sounding the alarm at the first sign of danger. But the infestation of the landscape caused the swallows to advance, and the parrots, having lost their early warning sentinels, were ambushed by hawks, butchers, goannas and cats hiding in the bushes.
Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University and co-author of The Action Plan for Australian Birds, identified the problem in the early 1990s. “The Shephard have maintained the situation around Artemis by providing complementary food. But everywhere, areas that I found [the parrots] commonly in the 1990s they are now empty of nests, “he says. Estimate the total population at around 900 birds.
First, the distribution of the birds began to contract from the northeast. The situation is a little better south of Artemis, in Mary Valley. “When there are parrots in an area, they do a test scratch on a lot of mounds and you can see the bits of land they scrape. We didn’t find any evidence of recent breeding, “says Murphy.
“The termite mounds just sit there like gravestones. You feel like you’re walking through a graveyard. “
There are three types of termite mounds in Artemis, made by different species: magnetic, bulbous, and conical. For reasons that are not fully understood, golden-shouldered parrots are finicky, nesting almost exclusively in conical mounds in the early dry season. They are almost never reused: After being pierced by parrots, the termites are believed to reseal and reinforce the voids more solidly, making them more difficult to dig into.
Now, Murphy’s team is organizing an intervention, getting to work with a circular saw. Standing near a mound where five chicks had just fledged, the team’s first goal is to clear the immediate area around the nests. “What we are trying to do is reduce the density of predators throughout the landscape and provide the maximum visual distance for the parrots to see the predators coming,” says Murphy.
Wood and debris pile up on the ground. While the threat of predation by aerial ambushes is reduced, in the short term, there is more cover for cats. “We will set fire later in the year and remove most of this, and whatever is left we will physically wash away,” he says. “We have to be constantly vigilant about the impacts that we are having and make sure that we do not have any perverse results.”
There’s a screech behind us, and Murphy cocks his head and smiles. “Parrots,” he murmurs.
For now, they should be relatively safe. The breeding season is over and the birds have stopped visiting the mounds. These have their own complex ecology: a species of moth lives exclusively in the nesting voids and is completely dependent on the parrot for its existence: the larvae of the moth eat the parrot feces in the nest chamber, playing a toilet role for the chicks (the moth the specific name is scatophaga: literally dung eater).
Artemis has been owned by the Shephard family since 1911. Sue and Tom have witnessed the changes in the landscape, particularly since the property was fully fenced. The fence helped gather, but confining the livestock put pressure on the sandy and impoverished soils.
“I can see that we are to blame, as much as everyone else,” admits Sue. “But you have to make money, prices go up and down, and when they go down it’s really difficult.”
She is being harsh blaming herself. Aside from perhaps the traditional owners, the Thaypan and Olkola people of Cape York, who are helping to re-establish ancient burning practices, she knows as much about parrots as anyone. For decades, he has helped lead banding programs to track the movements of individual birds. Parrots are also a tourist attraction, and the station charges a nominal camping fee ($ 10).
In the old days, the Shephard had to fire poachers, who set bird traps in Windmill Creek. “We’d go to races in Laura or somewhere and sometimes we’d come home early and meet them,” Tom recalls. Once, he released dozens of birds – not just parrots, but finches and other species – from a web of mist, which he then burned, before confronting the intruder. “I don’t think he liked it too much.”
If grasslands can be restored, with proper fire management, the land should ultimately be better for livestock and parrots. Murphy sees himself as a facilitator. “What makes this project unique at Artemis is that it is not an external, top-down conservation ecological cause imposed on a grazing company,” he says. “This comes 100% from within.”
There is another driver. “What motivates me a lot in this story is the parrot from paradise, and he’s gone, we can’t get him back. This species is headed in the same direction. “Murphy puts himself in Cyril Jerrard’s shoes.” I often think, if you were transported back in time, what would you do? Somehow, I feel like a reverse time traveler. I came back and said, ‘Guys, if we don’t go in and figure this out, we’re going to lose these birds.’
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism