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The oldest Australian night parrot

9 May 2017 by Clem Fisher

Australian Night Parrot

The Australian night parrot specimen at World Museum.

National Museums Liverpool was founded in 1851 after the bequest to the people of Liverpool of an internationally important collection of birds and mammals belonging to Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby, of Knowsley Hall near Liverpool. Amongst this unique collection is a little green-and-yellow parrot…

For many years thought to be an Eastern Ground Parrot Pezoporus wallicus, an endangered Australian species which has been known to ornithologists since 1790. Our parrot was collected by John McDouall Stuart on 15th October 1845, near Lake Eyre, on Captain Charles Sturt’s expedition to Central Australia (see Sturt’s diary extract below). Stuart was one of the most successful of Australia’s explorers, later being the first European to cross Australia from south to north and back. Sturt, who was a British Government surveyor, then gave Stuart’s specimen to the British ornithologist John Gould, who sold it to the 13th Earl of Derby in November 1847.

Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby.

A few years later John Gould received another little green-and-yellow parrot, which had been collected by Mr K. Brown in 1854 from the Murchison area of Western Australia. When Gould looked at this specimen he realised there were actually two rather similar species. In 1861 Gould named the new parrot Geopsittacus occidentalis, basing his scientific description on the Brown specimen, making this the type, or standard for the species. This specimen is in now in the London-based Natural History Museum. The new parrot later became known as the Night Parrot, because they shelter from the heat during the day and come out to feed at dusk.

Many years later we realised the Stuart parrot in the Liverpool collections was not an Eastern Ground Parrot after all, but a Night Parrot, which are even rarer. It is therefore the oldest Night Parrot known in any museum. You can see from the “Mus[eum] Derbianum” label that we have since changed the scientific name (Pezoporus formosus is an alternative name for Pezoporus wallicus, the Ground Parrot). Our museum was known as “Museum Derbianum”, after Lord Derby, for quite a few years after our museum service was founded in 1851. Two older labels attached to the specimen survive from the specimen’s time at Knowsley. A little round label with “640,c” gives the specimen’s unique number, still used today.

A night parrot.

The other old label, now encased in plastic for protection, was written by Thomas Moore, Lord Derby’s curator, who came over to the public museum service with the Derby collection and became our first Director. This reads: “Mr Sturt. Per J[ohn] Gould Nov[embe]r 1847. Length 9 In[ches] Extent 16 In[ches]”. The length is from head to the end of the tail; “extent” is across the body with the wings extended. The most modern label, printed with “L[iver]pool Museums”, has “E & V” and the unique number, written by me several years ago to show that this specimen is part of our “Extinct and Vanishing Collection”, specimens which need extra care. The little tube tied to the supporting rod has a small fragment of the skin of the specimen, so that DNA samples can be taken without damaging any more of this very precious bird.

For many years Night Parrots were thought to be extinct, last seen in 1912, but one was found dead in 1990 and another corpse turned up in 2006. Just recently, after extensive searches by Australian ornithologists, it appears that these charming little parrots are not doing so badly after all.

Extract from Charles Sturt’s expedition diary for 15th October 1845:

“The day had been exceedingly cold, as was the night, and on the following morning with the wind at S.S.E., and a clear and cloudless sky, the temperature still continued low. At about a mile from where we had bivouacked, we arrived at the termination of the sandy ridge, and descended into the plain I had been reluctant to traverse in the uncertain light of evening. It proved firm, however, though it was evidently subject to floods. Samphire, salsolae, and mesembryanthemum were growing on it, and one would have supposed from its appearance that it was a sea marsh. Mr. Stuart shot a beautiful ground parrot as we were crossing it, on a bearing of 345 degrees, or little more than a N. and by W. course.”

Find out more about our bird collection and the rest of our zoology collections online.

  1. Rod Kavanagh says:

    Dear Clemency,

    Thank you for the fabulous account of this “missing” specimen. I have been seeking to confirm whether this bird, collected by John McDouall Stuart, is actually a Night Parrot. The photograph you have supplied of the specimen does not appear to have a red forehead (which would be indicative of a Ground Parrot), but is difficult to check in the photo. Are you able to confirm for me that the specimen does not have any red on its forehead?

    I raise this issue because the John McDouall Stuart Society has published in its Newsletter a quote from Charles Sturt’s Expedition Diary (which I cannot access to check) that:
    “This bird was only twice seen in the interior, but on both occasions in the same scrubby and salty country it is known to frequent in New South Wales and other places. A specimen was shot by Mr Stuart, in the bed of a salt water lagoon in 26.5° latitude, and 141° of longitude, but none of these birds were seen to the west of this point. It has dark green plumage mottled with black, and a patch of dull red over the bill.”

    I am assuming this quote refers to the same bird that Stuart collected on 15 October 1845 as reported in your blog. In which case, it would be good to check whether the specimen in your collection has a dull red patch over the bill. If so, the specimen would seem more likely to be a Ground Parrot than a Night Parrot (although admittedly the collection locality is well out of range for a Ground Parrot).

    I would be very grateful is you could please assist me to unravel this conundrum.

    Regards,

    Rod

    • National Museums Liverpool says:

      Dear Rod,

      Thank you very much for your kind remarks. Our Night Parrot has been seen by many visiting Australian ornithologists over the years (including by Wayne Longmore, who was one of the ornithologists who found the dead bird in 1990), so I have no doubt that it is what we think it it is. I have just got it out of its nicely air conditioned store to check the forehead, and there is no red on it whatsoever. It does look quite different from our Ground Parrots (more yellow, more compact). I hope this helps.

      With best wishes,

      Clem Fisher

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