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A fleeting return

A fleeting return

Russell McGregor
Beauty and rarity were irresistible in the search for the Paradise Parrot one hundred years ago, as they are for birders today.

It was hot and dusty on Manar Park Station in south-east Queensland on 1 November 1922. Grazier Cyril Jerrard and his guest, the birdwatcher and journalist Alec Chisholm, were searching the parched grasslands for an extremely rare bird they knew lived there. The previous day, they’d trudged for miles across the desiccated landscape without success. Now, collecting firewood to boil the billy at lunchtime, Alec got lucky. Hearing an unfamiliar call, he looked up into a tall eucalypt and found what they were looking for.

It was a female Paradise Parrot. ‘There was no mistaking the slim, graceful form,’ Alec enthused in a 1924 article on seeking rare parrots. ‘A moment later I gasped with delight, “Oh, you little beauty!” For there was the male Parrot, the gorgeous red of his underparts gleaming in the midday sun.’

As the name suggests, the Paradise Parrot is an exquisite bird. The scientific name given by nineteenth-century ornithologist John Gould is even more glowing: Psephotus pulcherrimus, which roughly translates as ‘multicoloured and superlatively beautiful’. For birdwatchers like Cyril and Alec, the combination of beauty and rarity was irresistible, as it still is for birders today. But the fascination with the Paradise Parrot in 1922 went deeper: only the year before, the species had been resurrected from extinction.

Paradise Parrots (male), 1848, by HC Richter, from John Gould’s The Birds of Australia

The Paradise Parrot population had plummeted in the late nineteenth century, and no sightings had been reported since the turn of the twentieth, so in the 1910s several ornithologists pronounced it probably extinct. Alec demurred, and in 1918 launched an appeal for sightings through Queensland newspapers.

Most responses led to disappointment. One of the more promising leads came from a bushman living between Bundaberg and Gladstone, who reported that the parrots lived nearby and a neighbour had one in a cage. Following this up in April 1920, Alec and a friend travelled 400 kilometres by rail, walked another 16 kilometres along rough tracks, then rowed across a mangrove-lined creek in a leaky boat while sandflies savaged every inch of skin they had left bare. Eventually, they reached the caged bird, only to find it was a common Red-winged Parrot.

After four years of false leads and mistaken identifications, Alec finally had positive news. On 11 December 1921, Cyril Jerrard told him he had seen a pair of Paradise Parrots on his property near Gayndah. Four days later, he reported seeing them again, this time accompanied by five or six others that appeared to be their offspring.

If such an avian rediscovery occurred today, Gayndah would be instantly flooded with thousands of twitchers, birdwatchers, ornithologists and onlookers. But things moved more sedately a hundred years ago, and the parrot’s rediscovery was not made public until July 1922. Alec (who initiated the publicity) took 10 months to visit the site, and he was the only birder who did so. Presumably, it was thought best to leave things in the hands of the man on the spot, Jerrard, who was known to be a keen and competent naturalist. When Alec did visit Gayndah, it was for only two days, and by the standards of today’s birders he was very meagrely equipped. His kit comprised no more than a pair of field glasses and a notebook. Of course, he also brought a wealth of skill and experience in finding and identifying birds by both call and appearance: those requisites of birding have endured through all the changes of technique and technology since.

Alec Chisholm (right) with Professor Sydney Skertchly in Queensland, c 1920
Alec Chisholm (right) with Professor Sydney Skertchly in Queensland, c 1920, State Library of NSW 

A birder today, in the situation in which Alec found himself on 1 November 1922, would inevitably take hundreds of photographs through a telephoto lens. Alec took none. He was an accomplished bird photographer, but the cameras of the day were cumbersome contraptions unsuited for photographing flighty birds in the field. Bird photography then almost always entailed finding a nest, where birds could be expected to sit still for more than a moment.

That was the case for the Paradise Parrot. It was Jerrard who took the photos, and doing so demanded determination and ingenuity. After finding the parrots’ nesting tunnel in a termite mound, in March 1922 he constructed a hide about two metres away using rough-cut stakes and old hessian bags. There he squatted uncomfortably, waiting for the birds to alight. In language that might now seem quaint, he recounted taking the first ever photographs of wild Paradise Parrots:

It was a hot afternoon and my place of confinement was small and ill-ventilated, and in consequence, it was not long before I was ‘larding the lean ground’ (like Falstaff ) with moisture from my person. Ere an hour had passed, however, there came a magic sound that banished all sensations of discomfort and made me hastily draw the shutter of my camera and grasp the release, while simultaneously I peered through the interstices of my shelter.

... It was one of the supreme moments of my life. I pressed the release, and at the slight click he [the male Paradise Parrot] hopped back on to the fence. But he was not really alarmed, and I had barely time to change the plate before he was back on the mound. I waited. The female had now come into view on the fence. The male approached the nest hole, just where I wished him to pose, uttered a sweet inviting chirp to his mate and peered into the hole. In answer, as it seemed, to her lord’s reassuring word, the female alighted on the summit of the mound. Oh kind Fortune! I ‘fired’ again, both birds posing for just the instant required. I felt sure I had them clear and sharp, and so it proved when the plate was developed.

We don’t know how many photos Jerrard managed to take, but over about a month he seems to have secured no more than half a dozen clear images. And he was a skilled photographer.

In Jerrard’s narratives of his Paradise Parrot encounters, the thrill of the chase and parallels with hunting are palpable. They remain so among birdwatchers today, but back then a good deal of birding involved hunting in more than a metaphorical sense. Birders commonly carried guns and collected specimens: that is, they shot birds, skinned them and stashed away the preserved skins in cabinets. They also watched and admired living birds, as birders do today. But with rudimentary optical equipment, clumsy cameras and unwieldy guidebooks, having a bird in the hand was often the only way of guaranteeing correct identification.

Fortunately for the Paradise Parrots of Gayndah, Cyril and Alec had forsaken the gun for more modern modes of birding with binoculars and camera. So had many of their birding colleagues, especially those of the younger generation. Birding was undergoing a fundamental transformation, moving away from specimen collecting toward a pastime more like that practised today. It was not a painless transformation, and in the 1920s amateur collecting was the subject of increasingly heated controversy. Among its leading opponents was Alec Chisholm.

Befitting the new style, the rediscovered Paradise Parrots were not transmuted into skins. But their prospects were not bright. The pair on Cyril’s property laid a clutch of five eggs in 1922 but none hatched. He never found a nesting success. Over the course of the 1920s, he and his neighbours sporadically saw pairs of Paradise Parrots and, once, a flock of nine feeding in a millet field. But they were last seen in the Gayndah district in August 1929, and by the middle of the next decade Cyril and Alec were publicly expressing concern about whether the birds survived.

The spectre of extinction haunted Australian birding in the 1920s, as it does a hundred years later. Ornithologists worried that annihilation was, or soon would be, the fate not only of the Paradise but also of a dozen other parrots plus many more bird species. They had a fair idea of the causes.

Cyril Jerrard explained the Paradise Parrot’s decline in 1924:

The one undisguisable fact, however, is that the advent of the white man has spelled destruction to one of the loveliest of the native birds of this country. Directly by our avarice and thoughtlessness, and indirectly by our disturbance of the balance so nicely preserved by nature, we are undoubtedly accountable for the tragedy of this bird.

Although he was a grazier, he admitted that ‘the most fatal change of all’ was wrought by the pastoral industry. Alec also nominated pastoralism, especially the associated burning of grasslands, along with trapping for the aviary trade and the ravages of feral cats, as the major factors. He ended his 1922 book, Mateship with Birds, with a chapter titled ‘The Paradise Parrot Tragedy’, in which he mourned that ‘“the most beautiful Parrot that exists” has been brought to the very verge of extinction by human agency.’

Cyril and Alec may have put their finger on the causes of the Paradise Parrot’s decline, but they were unable to do much about it. Alec wrote prolifically about the parrot, publicising its plight and pleading for its preservation. The public was receptive, up to a point, but his pleas were inadequate to counter a social ethos that privileged economic gain over avian loss. Besides, ornithologists then had a lamentably restricted repertoire of strategies to save endangered species.

Today, we have official lists ranking species into categories from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Least Concern’; we have detailed scientific studies of the risks facing threatened species and a vast array of remedial measures available. There are gaps in the science, and economic gain may still be prioritised, but there is a potential to rescue endangered species today that was lacking in the 1920s and 30s. Indeed, such rescue strategies are currently in progress for the Paradise Parrot’s close relative, the Golden- shouldered Parrot of Cape York Peninsula — so far, successfully.

The Paradise Parrot was not so lucky. Little was done to transform the species’ rediscovery into its survival, other than entreaties by Alec and a few of his birding companions plus an aborted attempt at captive breeding. Sightings dwindled and misgivings grew.

First ever photograph of a Paradise Parrot
First ever photograph of a Paradise Parrot, a male at the entrance to his nest, 1922, by Cyril Jerrard, National Library of Australia
Yet many birders held hopes that the parrot still lived in remote corners of the land. Alec, for one, continued to believe in the bird’s probable survival until his death in 1977. (Cyril fades from the story long before, having died by accidental drowning in 1943.) Alec knew it was not a matter for dogmatism, telling his friend Jim Bravery in 1965 that ‘the Paradise Parrot probably still exists ... but of course one can’t be certain.’ Reported sightings kept coming sufficiently often to quell whatever doubts he had.

A spike in reported sightings came in the 1960s and 70s, perhaps a result of the outback’s increasing accessibility by four-wheel-drive vehicles and the growing popularity of birdwatching. In 1966, a report from a kangaroo shooter near Hebel in south-western Queensland drew an excited response from Alec. ‘The species has been rediscovered,’ he told his friend Janey Marshall, ‘apparently quite definitely.’ But the kangaroo shooter’s story soon joined the ranks of many others that fluttered on the edge of the imagination.

Expeditions were mounted to find the bird. In 1992, for instance, 10 expert birders and National Parks officers combed an area of Queensland’s Central Highlands where the Paradise Parrot had been reported. ‘We were motivated by credible 1990 reports of the parrot being observed on a cattle station in the Dawson Valley’, recalls expedition leader Pat Comben, a keen birder who was then Queensland’s Minister for Environment and Heritage. ‘After days of tough birding, we found no trace of the Paradise Parrot. On the final day, as I stood on an isolated sandstone bluff, uncertainty remained. I looked across the vastness of the largely unvisited area we were trying to cover. Not prime habitat, but big enough and isolated enough to hold tight its secrets.’

Only two years after Comben’s expedition, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature moved the Paradise Parrot’s ranking on its Red List from Threatened to Extinct. It’s the only mainland Australian bird species to carry that lamentable label. Some birders continue to believe — or hope — that the parrot survives. Some still search for it. Their optimism is admirable, but it is sadly prudent to accept the verdict of extinct.

Cyril Jerrard inspecting an abandoned Paradise Parrot nest in a termite mound near his property in the Gayndah district, 1922
Cyril Jerrard inspecting an abandoned Paradise Parrot nest in a termite mound near his property in the Gayndah district, 1922, State Library of NSW

Only one living person has seen live Paradise Parrots. He is Eric Zillmann, now aged 98 and living in Bundaberg. He last saw the parrots on his parents’ property near Gin Gin in 1938 when he was only 15. But the memory is still vivid. ‘I can see the bird now as clearly today as back then’, he told renowned birder Greg Roberts in 2011. Eric and his father regularly saw a pair of the parrots when out mustering cattle in the 1930s but thought little of it at the time because, as he put it, ‘we did not know that the parrots were so rare’. In later life, he became a celebrated naturalist and legendary birder, but childhood encounters with Paradise Parrots remain among his most cherished memories. Reflecting on them, Eric said, ‘I am humbled by what I regard as the most uplifting experience of my life.’

For Eric, remembering his long-ago sighting is a humbling experience. For the rest of us, who have never seen a Paradise Parrot and never will, the remembrance of its passing may also be humbling. At the very least, it might remind us of our obligations to the birds and other living things around us.

Russell McGregor is Adjunct Professor of History at James Cook University in Queensland. His latest book, Idling in Green Places: A Life of Alec Chisholm, was shortlisted for the 2020 National Biography Award.

This story appears in Openbook Spring 2021.


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