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Meet the Mount Pitt bird

Studying the image of the Mount Pitt bird from the State Library's collection, students will formulate open and closed questions, create short informative texts and complete a research task.
Stimulus: #1: 
Watercolour illustration of a Mount Pitt bird (Providence Petrel) by the Sydney Bird Painter ca 1792.

Text Type

  • Informative: Students formulate open and closed questions
  • Informative: Students write a short description
  • Informative: Students write a list of rules for sustainable hunting

Learning Intentions

Students are learning to

  • Formulate open and closed questions
  • Write descriptions
  • Conduct research

Success criteria

Students will be successful when they can:

  • Compose both open and closed questions
  • Create a short descriptive piece of writing, supported by visual information
  • Find out the answers to a series of research questions

Background notes for teachers

The watercolour illustration of the Mount Pitt bird was probably painted in India. It is believed the painter used the skin of a preserved bird to complete the painting and that it was not painted from life.

The identity of the painter is not known. The artist is known as the Sydney Bird Painter and there are other examples of his paintings of birds from between 1780 and 1800.

Preliminary discussion

Find Norfolk Island on a map with your students, before discussing the following questions whilst viewing the image of the baby Mount Pitt bird:

  • What type of bird do you think this might be?
  • What do you think it might eat?
  • Where do you think it might live?
  • What does it remind you of?
  • How old do you think this bird might be?
  • Zoom in on the feather detail. Describe its feathers.
  • Why do you think the bird has this type of feathers?
  • Where do you think this bird might live?
  • What is the bird doing?
  • Why do you think its beak might have this shape?
  • Why do you think the artist painted this image of the bird?

History of the Mount Pitt bird and Europeans

Share the following story with your students.

Norfolk Island was first colonised by East Polynesian people for a brief period about 400-500 years ago. The first European to sight the island was Captain James Cook in 1774. Norfolk Island was colonised by  a small group from the First Fleet, just months after the colony of Sydney was established. By 1790 the colonies in both Sydney and Norfolk Island were desperately short of food and supplies. The crops on Norfolk island had failed and the colonists faced starvation. The governor decided to send the two ships Sirius and Supply from Sydney to China, via Norfolk Island, to get provisions.

Unfortunately, the Sirius was shipwrecked off Norfolk Island. The shipwreck meant that the small and already hungry colony on Norfolk Island had 400 more mouths to feed. The arrival of the Mount Pitt birds, which nested on the top of Mount Pitt, in late March proved to be the settlement’s salvation. Unfortunately for the birds they had returned to Norfolk Island to breed just as food was in shortest supply for the colony. This lucky timing meant the Mount Pitt bird was also called the Providence Petrel. Providence refers to the belief that God is taking care of human beings. The Mount Pitt bird and its chicks and eggs became an important source of food.

These clumsy birds were easily killed. Colonists headed up the mountain at sunset when the birds returned in their thousands to their nests after hunting for food during the day. The colonists collected both the birds and their eggs as food. Some reports suggest that the Mount Pitt bird tasted like pigeon, which was considered a luxury food and a delicacy back home in England. The Mount Pitt bird, or Providence Petrel was also called a mutton bird because their meat had a high fat content like mutton.

Lieutenant Ralph Clark of the Royal Marines was on the Sirius as it travelled to Norfolk Island. His journal is in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, and can be found here. Ralph Clark believed that up to 200,000 birds were killed as food over just three months in 1790. He tried to record the number of birds killed in his journal, and his final tally for 1790 was 172,184.

Perhaps surprisingly, the danger of over harvesting this valuable resource was quickly realised. Orders were issued limiting the numbers of birds which could be taken and the hours during which they could be hunted. Wanton cruelty was punished and attempts were made to preserve their habitat. Convicts who destroyed eggs or the burrows the birds nested in were punished. The ruling officer on Norfolk Island even attempted to prevent the forest habitat of the Mount Pitt bird from being cleared to help save the species. However by 1800 (only ten years after they began to be harvested) the Mount Pitt bird was extinct on Norfolk Island. Some estimates suggest that over one million birds were killed between 1790 and 1800.The birds only returned to the Norfolk Island area in 1985. About 100 birds are nesting on Philip Island, a small islet off the coast of Norfolk Island. Over a hundred years later it is believed none of the Mount Pitt birds will land or nest on Norfolk Island.

Student Activities

Questioning Task

Students view the image of baby Mount Pitt bird and are asked to construct both open and closed questions that express what they would like to know about the watercolour painting.

Number of set tasks: 1

Writing Task

Students write a description and draw an image  of the Mount Pitt bird.

Number of set tasks: 1

Research Task

Students conduct independent research to find answers to a list of questions about the Mount Pitt bird.

Number of set tasks: 1

Activity notes for teachers

In Activity 1 students are to formulate open and closed questions that express what they would like to know about the painting.

Closed question

If you are asking a question with a YES or NO answer then it is a closed question. These are not always simple questions!

For example:

  • Is this a baby bird? YES
  • Is this a photograph? NO

Open Question

An open question requires more than one word for the question to be answered. It might be a few sentences long and require an explanation.

For example:

  • Why did the painter decide to paint this bird?
  • Why does the bird have fluffy feathers?

Students write a short description of a baby Mount Pitt bird. An activity sheet which provides sentence starters can be found as a downloadable resource in the Student Activities section.

Explain the different names for the Mount Pitt bird to your students before assisting them to complete the research task.

Research task answers

The answers to the research task questions are provided below.

What is a Providence Petrel?

A large, robust, greyish-brown bird with a head, wings and tail browner than the rest of the body. They live mainly in the south-west Pacific Ocean region.

What is a Petrel?

Petrels are a type of sea bird. They only return to land to breed.

Why were they called Mount Pitt birds?

They were known as Mount Pitt Birds because they nested in the forests of Mount Pitt on Norfolk Island.

How big is a Mount Pitt bird?

About 40 centimetres long or the size of a pigeon.

How do the Mount Pitt birds move?

They are very graceful when they fly but are very clumsy once they land on the ground.

What do they eat?

Providence petrels eat fish, squid and crustaceans such as crabs.

Where do they breed?

They only breed on two mountain tops on Lord Howe Island and on Philip Island, a small islet near Norfolk Island.

During the breeding season in winter they return to these two nesting sites to raise their chicks. At other times they migrate to the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

How do they nest?

They make nests by burrowing into the ground and or hiding in rock crevasses or between the buttress roots of trees.

Providence petrels survived on Lord Howe Island because they nest at the top of high mountain tops.

What are the threats to the Mount Pitt bird?

Predators that threaten the survival of this species include rats, cats and pigs.

They are also drowned when they try to take bait from the hooks used by long line fishing fleets.

Providence petrels are considered a vulnerable species. This means they are at risk of extinction.

How many are alive today?

There are believed to be between 64 000 and 100 000 Providence Petrels in the wild today.

Additional Resources


A student:

  • communicates with a range of people in informal and guided activities demonstrating EN1-1A      
  • interaction skills and considers how own communication is adjusted in different situations EN1-2A         
  • uses basic grammatical features, punctuation conventions and vocabulary appropriate to the type of text when responding to and composing texts EN1-9B



Develop and apply contextual knowledge

  • listen for specific purposes and information, including instructions, and extend students' own and others' ideas in discussions

Understand and apply knowledge of language forms and features

  • use turn-taking, questioning and other behaviours related to class discussions

Respond to and compose texts

  • communicate with increasing confidence in a range of contexts
  • engage in conversations and discussions, using active listening behaviours, showing interest, and contributing ideas, information and questions
  • formulate open and closed questions appropriate to the context
  • use a comment or a question to expand on an idea in a discussion
  • contribute appropriately to class discussions


Understand and apply knowledge of language forms and features

  • create short imaginative, informative and persuasive texts using growing knowledge of text structures and language features for familiar and some less familiar audiences, selecting print and multimodal elements appropriate to the audience and purpose

Respond to and compose texts

  • compose texts supported by visual information (e.g. diagrams and maps) on familiar topics


Respond to and compose texts

  • compose sentences effectively using basic grammatical features and punctuation conventions
  • use subject-verb and noun-pronoun agreement when composing texts and responding to texts orally and in writing

In each year of Stage 1 students must study examples of:

  • visual texts
  • media, multimedia and digital texts

Across the stage, the selection must give student experience of:

  • an appropriate range of digital texts, including film, media and multimedia

Learning across the curriculum 

Cross curriculum priorities:

  • Sustainability

General Capabilities:

  • creative and critical thinking
  • literacy