Lost, then found, then lost again: can we learn from the extinction of the paradise parrot? | Queensland

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Exactly 100 years ago, on Saturday, a bird that had been relegated to extinction made its comeback. The exquisitely beautiful paradise parrot was rediscovered by Cyril Jerrard, a Gayndah breeder in the Burnett district of Queensland on December 11, 1921.

But his return was fleeting. Scattered pairs were seen around Gayndah until 1929. Some were seen around nearby Gin Gin in the 1930s. After that there were only rumors and hope.

Today, the paradise parrot has the tragic status of extinct. It is the only bird species from mainland Australia known to have suffered this fate since colonization.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the rediscovery of the parrot, we can look back on the event and ask ourselves why the resurrection of the bird was so brief. From there, we can better understand how to help the many species threatened with extinction today.

Our ‘greed and thoughtless’

In 1924, a few years after finding the paradise parrot, Jerrard identified the reasons for its decline. “Directly through our greed and unconsciousness,” he wrote, “and indirectly through our disturbance of the balance so well preserved by nature, we are undoubtedly responsible for the tragedy of this bird.

Despite being a rancher, he recognized that “the most fatal change of all” has been brought about by the pastoral industry.

Cyril Jerrard examines a Paradise Parrot’s nest in a termite mound near the Burnett River in central Queensland. Photograph: National Library of Australia

Jerrard’s collaborator in trying to save the bird, journalist and birdwatcher Alec Chisholm, also pointed to pastoralism – particularly prairie burning – as the main factor in the decline, along with trapping for the aviary trade and wild cats.

But while Jerrard and Chisholm could explain why the Paradise Parrot was slipping into extinction, there wasn’t much they could do about it. In books, newspapers and magazines, Chisholm publicized the plight of the parrot and advocated for its preservation. His pleas did not exactly fall on deaf ears, but they were insufficient to counter a social ethic that favored economic gain over avian loss.

In addition, birders in the 1920s and 1930s had a woefully limited repertoire of strategies to save endangered species.

On this last point, things have radically changed. We now have in-depth scientific studies on the risks faced by endangered species and a wide range of corrective measures.

There are gaps in science and imperfections in conservation strategies, but today there is potential for rescuing endangered species that was lacking when the Paradise Parrot was rediscovered.

Course for the golden-shouldered parrot

Take, for example, the close relative of the Paradise Parrot, the golden-shouldered parrot of the Cape York Peninsula. Listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, it faces threats similar to those that wiped out its southern cousin in the last century.

Deep in the land of the Golden Shouldered Parrots, Pastors Sue and Tom Shephard are dedicated to preserving their station’s parrots, just like Jerrard 100 years ago. But, unlike Gayndah’s breeder, the Shephards have scientific backing.

From pioneering studies by environmental scientists in the 1990s to more recent surveys, scientists working on the peninsula have scrutinized the needs of species and advised on how to save them. They attach particular importance to fire management.

Birds eat the seeds of several favorite grasses, which require specific fire regimes to thrive. The availability of seeds affects the reproductive success of the parrot. Fire also helps maintain woodland, grassy habitat for birds and leaves fewer places for predators to hide.

But fire regimes in Australia have changed dramatically in northern Australia since European colonization. This means that the golden shouldered parrot has less food and is more vulnerable to predators.

A male Golden Shouldered Parrot (Psephotus chrysopterygius) on the termite mound containing its nest in the Cape York Peninsula
A male parrot with golden shoulders (Psephotus chrysopterygius) on the termite mound containing its nest on the Cape York Peninsula. Photograph: Minden Pictures / Alamy

Chisholm in the 1920s knew that fire had something to do with the disappearance of the Paradise Parrot, but his writings on the subject were vague and vague. There was then no clear understanding of the fire ecology of this land, let alone the role of indigenous fire regimes or the willingness to learn from them.

We now have detailed calibrations of the type and intensity of fires needed to ensure the Golden-shouldered Parrot’s reproductive success and minimize its loss to predators. The traditional owners of its land, the Thaypan and Olkola peoples, collaborate with pastoralists and conservationists, linking traditional knowledge with Western science to restore fire regimes beneficial to the parrot.

A pair of nesting paradise parrots photographed by Cyril Jerrard in 1922
A pair of nesting paradise parrots photographed by Cyril Jerrard in 1922. Photograph: National Library of Australia

Although we are better equipped today to save endangered species than we were with the paradise parrot, this is no reason to bash. Despite the superior conservation strategies and technologies now available, the engines of extinction identified by Jerrard in the 1920s remain stubbornly persistent.

Priority to the welfare of birds

If we are to ensure that the Golden Shouldered Parrot and other endangered species do not follow the Paradise Parrot’s path, we need science-based strategies and technologies. But we need more than these. Sometimes, at least, we have to subordinate greed to avian welfare.

For this we need to connect, emotionally and ethically, with the birds around us. Birds should matter to us – not just in an abstract or objectified way, but as beings of intrinsic worth.

This is what Chisholm was getting at in his 1922 book, Mateship with Birds, the final chapter of which was titled The Paradise Parrot Tragedy. In lavish language then fashionable among nature writers, he urged readers to:

Challenge the dangerous idea that a thing of beauty is eternal joy in a cage or cupboard; and disdain, too, the unbalanced belief that the moving finger of civilization must move over the bodies of the “finest and best” children of nature.

He and Jerrard lacked the tools and technology to avert the Paradise Parrot tragedy, but not an appreciation of our moral responsibility to try to do so. We now have the tools and the technologies, but our moral compass seems more unstable than ever.

The article is republished from Conversation; The original can be found here. Russell McGregor is Assistant Professor of History at James Cook University

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