The rediscovery of the night parrot made headlines around the world. But all was not as it seemed, as ANU researcher Dr Penny Olsen uncovered.

For such a small, hapless bird, the night parrot sure gets humans worked up.

It’s the holy grail of ornithology. It’s legendary, fugitive, mysterious, almost mythical: the ghost bird; the thylacine of the air. To see one would be like “finding Elvis flipping burgers in an outback roadhouse”, “a cockatoo in a snowstorm”, or, in more straightforward terms, “a giant gold nugget”.

For more than a century, the night parrot has inspired not only colourful language, but obsessive odysseys, all fruitless, eluding everyone it lured into its desert habitat.

Until 2013, when the seeming impossible happened: someone actually got photographs of this “white whale of the bird-watching world”. It was a moment described by the New York Times, as “one of the greatest stories of species rediscovery in recent times.”

And it was a great story! In conservation news, it made for a nice change to have a happy, hopeful headline instead of a death notice. There was a great hero too, cast in the leading role.

Dr Penny Olsen at the National Library of Australia. Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

A species in the spotlight

You might think the hero would be the bird, but one of the few things we know about night parrots is they don’t like attention. In the photographs, the green and black speckled bird appears to be cringing under the spotlight. And quest stories are never really about the object being sought, anyway.

No, the hero was the quester: John Young, the naturalist who took the photo. Described as a “bush detective”, Young had spent most of his life looking for —and often finding — rare birds in remote Australia, and he had the stories to match.

In his gung-ho determination to find the night parrot, he told the ABC he was “like a terrier dog”: “I couldn’t leave it alone, it was like it was blood in my veins and I just didn’t want to stop.”

In the dozens of articles published around the world about the bird’s rediscovery, Young looks exactly the part of the larrikin hero: Crocodile Dundee meets Steve Irwin, with Merv Hughes’ moustache.

More articles would soon follow. While employed as Australia’s leading night parrot expert by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Young identified more and more locations for night parrot populations over the coming years, photographing their nests, finding feathers, and recording calls.

It was an onslaught of unbelievably good news, not to mention amazing PR for the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. For this critically endangered bird, John Young really was the hero we all needed.

“It’s a hugely interesting story,” Dr Penny Olsen says of the history of the night parrot. “And these characters get involved because there’s kudos if you’ve seen one or found one so that leads to some bad behaviour, you could call it.”

Olsen is a different kind of night parrot expert. She is the author of the definitive book on the subject, Night parrot: Australia’s most elusive bird, and Honorary Professor at the Research School of Biology at The Australian National University (ANU).

She has been on her own version of a quest for the night parrot, only her quest didn’t take her into the outback, but deep into the stacks of the National Library of Australia. “I look for everything I can find. Absolutely everything, going back historically.”

Olsen has a holy grail too: “I like the truth, as much as you can know it. Science. Fact. Whatever. I like to set the record straight.” She believes the public needs to have faith in facts, now more than ever.

An ornithological scandal

Before even starting research on her night parrot book, Olsen had suspicions that Young’s celebrated findings might not be all that they seemed. At the library, she dug deeper and deeper until she had accumulated “a mountain of material” supporting her theories. Then, in her book, she set the record straight.

In what The Australian called “a stinging attack”, Olsen suggested the bird which featured in Young’s original photographs was injured and had been staged for the photoshoot, not found in the way he claimed.

She also noted inconsistencies and question marks surrounding some of Young’s subsequent findings, including nests, eggs and feathers, saying they should not be taken as definitive proof of night Parrot populations.

“To some extent, I was defending my profession,” she says of what she wrote. “I think science should be as close to the truth as you can get.”

Young’s data was being used to inform decisions about funding and planning for night parrot conversation. The bird might feel mythical, but it lives in the real world, and the consequences of misrepresenting its population size and distribution were serious.

After her book was published, Olsen says she received a death threat. Her critics emailed booksellers demanding they remove “that terrible woman’s book” from the shelves. She was accused of ruining Young’s reputation. Many people in the birding world believed she had ruined her own reputation too.

It was a stressful time, she says, but she was confident in her research. She had gone over absolutely everything.

“There’s a side of her that’s a little bit of a terrier,” Professor Robert Heinsohn, from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, says of Olsen. “You have to have that attitude to keep going on research like hers. She knew she was on to something.”

Not too long after the publication of Olsen’s book, an uncropped version of Young’s celebrated night parrot photo came to light. In the photo, you can see wire mesh in the background, leading to concerns that the bird might have been illegally captured, as Olsen had suggested.

“I know I haven’t always been taken seriously. I’m just a woman … What would I know?”

Dr Penny Olsen

Young resigned from the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which went on to investigate his fieldwork, including those results highlighted by Olsen. A panel subsequently found that she was right to have doubts: three purported night parrot nests could not be proven to be such, and one contained fake eggs; a field recording of a night parrot call was actually a publicly available recording of a call from a different location; and there were discrepancies regarding where Young said he had collected a night parrot feather.

Summarising the panel findings, Audubon magazine wrote that Young “may have fabricated just about everything he reported about new populations and nesting sites of the birds over the past two years”.

When truth gets in the way

There was no great media fanfare vindicating Olsen. There were no headlines calling her “the library detective”. She says she received one apology from a former detractor, but that was it.

“Penny’s integrity is as pure as can be, but she has worn the cost of calling out the misinformation,” says Heinsohn. “It’s unfair, but it happened.”

When Olsen graduated from ANU with an honours degree in science, it was at a time when fewer than 20 per cent of graduates of such degrees were women. After university, she was hired by the CSIRO — starting at a lower grade than her male peers —and was, at the time, the only female research scientist in the Division of Wildlife Research. She was discouraged from doing fieldwork in the belief it wouldn’t be safe for her.

She went on to do her PhD, also at ANU, with her thesis being the first Australian study to prove that the insecticide DDT thinned raptor eggs. “She really got raptor research going not just in Australia, but worldwide,” says Heinsohn. She went on to publish more than 130 papers and chapters on ornithology.

“She was a fantastic scientist,” Heinsohn says. “She still is a fantastic scientist, but now she’s pivoted more into science communication.”

Olsen has written 30 general-interest books on ecology, focusing mostly on birds, a body of work which has been recognised with an Order of Australia. She has been awarded the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales Whitley Award for her books a record-breaking seven times.

“The whole progression of her life is just amazing,” Heinsohn says.

But if you ask Olsen about her career, she answers, “I’ve always been a bit surprised to find myself places. I’m not a strategist in that way. I’ve bumbled through one way or another. I met some fabulous people. I’ve been lucky… I don’t know. Sorry, that’s a bit of a rambling answer.”

It’s not a great answer, no. But it’s a true one, and sometimes that’s more important. In science, surely, it’s more important.

“I view her as Australia’s preeminent ornithologist,” Heinsohn continues. “She has dedicated her life to it, and she is sitting there at the pinnacle of what we have in this country.”

“She should be considered to be like that by everybody.”

Dr Olsen received a death threat after the publication of her book: Night parrot: Australia’s most elusive bird. Photo: Nic Vevers/ANU

But we give the airtime to those who fit the bill for the story we’ve already written in our mind.

In the comment section of that New York Times article about the rediscovery of the night parrot, one commenter, Bart from Los Angeles, notes: “I’d watch a documentary on John Young. The part about him is better than fiction.” The article doesn’t mention Penny Olsen.

“Interestingly, women hardly figure among the searchers and sighters,” Olsen notes in her book’s introduction. Since the quest for the bird began, it’s been one tale after another of white men heading into the harsh desert landscape, fuelled by bravado and the desire to be The First.

“I don’t look the part,” Olsen says. “I know I haven’t always been taken seriously. I’m just a woman who sits on her bum at her office in the university. What would I know?”

She knows a lot. Heinsohn says if he could download the contents of anyone’s brain for posterity, he would choose Olsen’s.

Parrot postscript

John Young knows a lot, too. He is an exceptionally skilled naturalist— Olsen would tell you that herself. He dedicated years of his life to finding a night parrot, and did so, one way or another. The location of that first bird led Young and ecologist Dr Steve Murphy to find other individuals in the area, contributing enormously to what we know about night parrots.

But this isn’t really a story about who knows what. It’s about who we listen to, and why.

Here’s something else about John Young, which feels relevant. In 2006, he told the media he’d discovered a new species of bird, the blue-fronted fig parrot. The news elicited a personal congratulations from Queensland’s Minister of the Environment.

But when a forensic photography expert analysed Young’s photo of the bird, he found it had been Photoshopped to change its “front” — the brow — from red to blue. Young denied the accusation but was also unable to supply the original photo to back himself up. He said he had deleted it. No more was heard about this blue-fronted fig parrot. There are other stories too, that might raise your eyebrows. Audubon reports on doubts about Young’s reliability dating back to 1994.

And yet it was so easy for us to listen to him, and so hard for us to hear that other terrier, Olsen. What does that say about us?

“We’re all enablers in some ways,” Olsen says. We want it to be a good story about a mysterious bird and a heroic “bushman”. What a drag to have the truth get in the way.

And you can hardly blame the people who write the stories for capitalising on the human-interest angles. When every other headline about species loss is just more of the same, you do what you can to get the reader’s attention.

In Queensland, there are only 15 night parrots that we know of. The national total is likely to be under 250 individuals, dispersed widely. Their biggest threat comes from fire and feral cats — a shockingly mundane enemy for such a hallowed bird — and habitat loss. Unfortunately for night parrots, the ground beneath their spinifex nests is rich with mineral resources.

To protect them, we need evidence-based data, and there are rangers and skilled amateur ornithologists and scientists out there collecting it. And there are even more people working away in offices, on papers and proposals and communication strategies, to raise funds and to lobby for protection measures.

There’s no mystique to this work. It’s just difficult, and important, and true. In science, such things should demand our attention.

This article first appeared at ANU College of Science

Top image: a night parrot illustration by Elizabeth Gould, 1890. Image: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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