Rare Night Parrot feathers have been obtained by the Australian Museum through unsolved circumstances.

Mounted Night Parrot feathers and S.W. Jackson’s label on the back of the plaque.
Mounted Night Parrot feathers and S.W. Jackson’s label on the back of the plaque. Image: Walter Boles
© Australian Museum

The Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) is one of Australia’s most mysterious birds, with few confirmed records, and fewer specimens of the bird since 1912. In 2011, some feathers of belonging to the Night Parrot were donated to the Australian Museum via an unusual route, accompanied by ambiguous information. Determining just where these rare feathers originated has proved to be a mystery in itself.

The Night Parrot feathers in question are mounted on a small cardboard plaque. Together with similarly mounted feathers of two other rare Australian birds, the Rufous Scrub-bird (Atrichornis rufescens) and Noisy Scrub-bird (A. clamosus), they were anonymously donated in 2011 to the University of New South Wales Book Fair, which quickly passed them to the Australian Museum.

The label on the back of the feather plaque was the first clue to the feathers’ origin. Details of how the specimens were obtained were written in the hand of Sidney W. Jackson, renowned field ornithologist. Jackson was hired by the wealthy collector, Henry L. White of ‘Belltrees’, near Scone, to curate his own growing collection of bird skins and eggs (this collection was presented to Museum Victoria, Melbourne, in 1917).

The two sets of scrub-bird feathers were able to be matched to specimens in the White Collection by Wayne Longmore, collection manager at Museum Victoria and research associate of the Australian Museum Research Institute, based on information given in their labels. The Night Parrot feathers prove more problematic.

Jackson’s label on the back of the plaque attributes the feathers to the naturalist Richard Helms, supposedly obtained during the Horn Expedition to Central Australia in 1894. The trouble is, Helms was not on the Horn Expedition, nor did the Horn Expedition acquire any specimens of Night Parrot (it did, however, note Night Parrot feathers adorning the walls of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, brought in by the operator’s cat!).

If not from Helms, where, then, did Jackson get these feathers? It is most likely that he also took these from specimens in the White Collection, although this cannot be confirmed by the label or examination of specimens.

Hopefully, more information will emerge that helps resolve lingering questions, one of the biggest of which is, how did the feathers get into the Book Fair in the first place?

Walter Boles
Senior Fellow, Ornithology

More information:
Boles, W.E. & Longmore, N.W. 2014. A ‘new’ Night Parrot specimen? Australian Field Ornithology 31: 141-149.