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The Night Parrot, Pezoporus occidentalis, is a rather undistinguished looking bird: plump, medium-sized and mottled with yellowish green and dark brown.

Yet it is one of Australia's most intriguing birds and, despite being reported from every state on the Australian mainland, is possibly Australia's least known. Night Parrot biology is poorly known, with most information coming from early observers. It is restricted to remote parts of the arid zone where there is dense, low vegetation, such as porcupine grass Triodia. It hides in the vegetation during the day and becomes active at night. Like a quail, the Night Parrot prefers to spend most of its time on the ground, running between shelter when possible or making short, low flights, quickly diving back into the vegetation.

Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis
This specimen of a Night Parrot is one of only a very few that exist worldwide. Even before it was presumed to be extinct, the Night Parrot was known as Australia’s most enigmatic avian species, glimpsed only rarely by early explorers of arid Australia. Night Parrot feathers were collected during the Horn Expedition of 1894, the first primarily scientific expedition to document the natural history of central Australia. There were no known sightings of the Night Parrot between 1912 and 1990, when a dead specimen was discovered in western Queensland by a group of scientists including Walter Boles, an ornithologist at the Australian Museum. Night Parrots were rediscovered in remote south-west Queensland in 2013, and Pullen Pullen Reserve was established by Bush Heritage, Australia, to assist their conservation. More birds were discovered on a neighbouring property in 2015 and another population was discovered in Diamantina National Park in 2016. In 2017 Night Parrots were also discovered in Western Australia, raising hopes for the persistence of this enigmatic species. 15 (high) x 20 (long) x 8 (deep) cm Central Australia Registered 1878 AM ornithology Collection PA.8393 Photographed for the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition and catalogue in 2017. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Sightings were very occasional from the collection of the first known specimen in 1845 until the 1870s. Between 1870 and 1890 there were numerous observations and another 20 specimens were collected. Confirmed records became rarer from the mid-1880s and had stopped almost completely by 1900. The only specimen from the early 20th century was taken in 1912 and the species was subsequently considered extinct by some ornithologists. A number of reports in the 1960s and early 1970s could not be confirmed until 1979, when a South Australian Museum team found several birds in far north western South Australia.

In 1990, a team comprising Walter Boles (Australian Museum ornithologist), Wayne Longmore (Australian Museum associate) and Max Thompson (visiting US ornithologist) was returning from an extensive field trip that for the previous six weeks had taken them from Sydney to the Kimberley and across the Top End of the Northern Territory. They were returning through western Queensland, travelling south from Mt Isa along the Diamantina Developmental Road (Highway 83). On 17 October 1990, 36 kilometres north of Boulia, they stopped at the side of the road, so Max could turn one vehicle around to get a better look at some Australian Pratincoles (Stiltia isabella ). Wayne and Walter remained parked on the side of the road to reduce the disturbance to the birds. When Max returned and pulled behind the first vehicle, Walter got out and walked back to speak to him. As Walter turned away from the vehicle, he happened to look down and saw the carcass of a Night Parrot on the roadside next to his foot.

This parrot had been killed by a motor vehicle, but it could not be determined whether it had been killed where it was found, or had been transported some distance in a vehicle's grill before falling by the roadside. Fortunately, scavengers had not consumed the body, though it could also not be determined how long it had been dead.

Like many discoveries in science, this find was a combination of serendipity and knowing what to look for.