The Night Parrot, one of only two nocturnal parrots in the world, has hung on in this stark, remote region in the interior of Queensland. Lachlan Gardiner


A Naturalist With a Checkered Past Rediscovered a Long-lost Parrot . . . Then Things Got Interesting

When John Young, Australia’s “Wild Detective,” proved that the Night Parrot hadn’t gone extinct, both man and bird got a shot at a comeback.

Some time ago in the Australian outback, a man who made his name as a Roo shooter—that is, someone who shoots kangaroos for their meat—arrived in the town of Winton with a headless carcass. This creature was not, as you might expect, a kangaroo. It was a dead bird.

Robert “Shorty” Cupitt came upon this mangled ball of feathers on September 17, 2006, while driving along a fence in Diamantina National Park in western Queensland. The bird had apparently clotheslined itself on the barbed wire. He tossed it in his truck bed, where it baked in the sun until he made it to the home of Paul Neilsen. Neilsen is the proprietor of the Tattersall Hotel, a rowdy pub packed with curios including a case full of opals, a terrarium of fossils, and a poster featuring Australia’s deadliest snakes and spiders.

“Is this what we’ve been looking for?” Cupitt asked, plunking down the specimen on the kitchen table. Neilsen’s eyes went wide. The squat parrot resembled a budgie that had inhaled a lumberjack’s breakfast. Its wing feathers were dark gray with yellow and green along their margins. The tail was banded like a bumblebee. The head, well, there was no head. But that didn’t matter. “Oh my God, yes,” Neilsen said. This was it, a Night Parrot, and a young one to boot.

Neilsen was staring at a ghost, a bird that the world had written off as extinct. The fact that it was less than a year old meant that there were more out there and they were breeding. The last time anyone collected a living Night Parrot, Australia was still a British dominion and the primary mode of transportation in the Outback was the one-humped camel. That was in 1912.

There had been sightings since, tantalizing leads that sent sane men on insane quests. In 1979, a birding guide said he spotted four, but lacked photographic proof. Eleven years later, an ornithologist scooped up a corpse on a roadside. After that, nothing. The Night Parrot became the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Down Under. “Every young male ornithologist has spent their holidays going out looking for the bird for the last hundred years,” says Penny Olsen, an ecologist whose book Night Parrot: Australia’s Most Elusive Bird was published in September.

Neilsen envisioned stuffing the decapitated bird and putting it on display. Cupitt, who had traded in his hunting rifle for a job as a Queensland Parks ranger, claims he immediately notified his higher-ups. But the squishy truth is that instead of passing the bird on to authorities, Neilsen stashed it in a freezer while he contacted the one man whom he could trust: John Young, a.k.a. the Wild Detective. “He’s one of Australia’s leading ornithologists,” Neilsen told me. “Except he doesn’t have a degree.”

The pub freezer where the headless Night Parrot temporarily resided. Lachlan Gardiner

Young was then in his late fifties, the Looney Tunes version of a naturalist with a floppy brimmed hat, white mutton chops, and drawn-on facial expressions. An egg-collecting scofflaw in his youth, Young had such a knack for finding species others thought unfindable that David Attenborough sought his services when filming documentaries, airing a segment with him on The Life of Birds. Young also spearheaded conservation initiatives, assisted on research projects, made media appearances, and had his own nature film series.

By the time Neilsen contacted him, however, Young was in a dark place. He had long been dogged by allegations that he was a world-class fibber, a spinner of bush tales. Then, in November 2006, Greg Roberts, a reporter and accomplished birder, suggested in an article in the Australian newspaper that Young had manipulated photos to support his claim of discovering a new parrot. Young’s wife then walked out on him. When Neilsen called, he loaded up his Land Cruiser and drove to Winton, in single-minded pursuit of the Night Parrot.

It took six years of searching, 200,000 miles of driving, weeks-long stretches without bathing, close encounters with venomous snakes. In July 2013, Young returned to civilization and presented to an awestruck auditorium at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane a video of a Night Parrot bounding along the ground. “The equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an Outback roadhouse” is how the editor of Birdlife Australia described the find.

The rediscovery promised a fresh start for the Night Parrot and, quite possibly, for John Young. After all, he was the only person in the bird world who knew where to find it. For the moment, at least, the fate of the species was entirely in his hands.

Young got hooked on birds as a kid growing up on a sheep-and-cattle farm in northern New South Wales. His father owned a 1957 edition of Neville Cayley’s What Bird Is That?—one of the country’s first illustrated field guides—and at the age of five, he began hunting for eggs with one of his two brothers. Egg collecting wasn’t an uncommon pastime for Australian boys, but Young took it to another level. He met the country’s most notorious egg collector, Mervyn Goddard, who taught him the aboriginal technique for climbing trees by notching steps with a tomahawk. By his teens, Young was painstakingly preparing specimens, using a dentist’s drill to remove the embryo through a tiny hole.

Though Young views egg collecting as a harmless hobby for all but the most sensitive species, biodiversity protection laws banned it in the late 1970s. He says he quit in his twenties, a year after those restrictions came into force, but he’s slippery when asked about details of his collection, whose whereabouts he claims not to know. He is haunted by the story of Goddard smashing some 3,000 clutches before authorities came to question him, and he doesn’t want the same fate to befall his own collection, which at one time represented more than 600 species.

Through his twenties, Young worked odd jobs as an electrician, a truck driver, a fencer. In his off time, he became an owling legend, famous for locating the hard-to-find nests of the Lesser Sooty Owl high in tree hollows. He was as comfortable in the canopy as he was on the ground. During a trip to Cape York to find the nest of the Eclectus Parrot, a misstep sent him plummeting more than 100 feet from the top of a fig tree. Somehow, he walked away. “I hit every branch, and they slowed me down,” he says. Jim Frazier, a former wildlife cinematographer based in New South Wales, soon got Young working on Attenborough’s films. “He’s one of the best birdos in the whole world,” Frazier says.

Young displaying his photo of a clutch of Buff-breasted Button-quail eggs beside a very similar grass formation at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy's Brooklyn Sanctuary. Lachlan Gardiner

In spite of his rising profile, Young was, he says, “living on the bone of my backside.” In the early 1990s, with backing from a wealthy anesthesiologist named Tom Biggs and Biggs’s wife, he launched John Young Wildlife Enterprises. The company puttered along for years, supporting Young’s harebrained expeditions to document obscure species by running bird tours and producing films.

Conservation came naturally to Young. Near his home on the Queensland coast, he was shocked to find Rufous and Masked Owls bleeding from their eyes. After a necropsy performed on one casualty, an Eastern Grass Owl, revealed traces of brodifacoum, the active ingredient in a rat poison used on sugarcane plantations, Young successfully pressured the manufacturer to pull it from the market. Later, he led the charge to create the TYTO Wetlands—one of Australia’s largest urban wetland restoration projects—in order to preserve the Eastern Grass Owl and Crimson Finch. A life-size cardboard cutout of him stands in the visitors’ center.

Over the years, Young also garnered a reputation for being a showman. Olsen, in her 2007 book Glimpses of Paradise, wrote that Young often “claimed a sensational find, shrouded in secrecy, which divided the birding community and ultimately came to nothing.” She quotes a letter in which he boasted of collecting 31 eggs from Paradise Parrots, gaudy-looking birds that have not been observed since the 1930s. Young denies making the claim but says he saw holes in termite mounds that he believes could have been made only by nesting Paradise Parrots. “I didn’t know it was a crime to get excited about a find and slightly exaggerate,” he says of his tendency toward hyperbole.

In 2006 while working with wildlife officials to locate nests of the near-extinct Eastern Bristlebird, Young took photos of a fig parrot in the rainforest canopy in southern Queensland. The only fig parrot described from the area, the Coxen’s, hadn’t been seen in more than 30 years. Young claimed his photos represented an entirely new species, larger than the Coxen’s and sporting a blue-colored brow. Biggs saw a marketing opportunity and promptly set up a press conference. “It’s only through my climbing skills and knowledge of bird behaviour that I’ve found it,” Young told Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail. Queensland’s Minister of the Environment congratulated Young and said his agency would collaborate on documenting the so-called Blue-fronted Fig Parrot.

Over the next several days, Roberts, the reporter, shared Young’s photograph with a forensic expert, who posited that it had been altered to change the bird’s brow from red to blue. To know for sure, the expert would need to examine the original photographs. No can do, Young replied. He had deleted them. In the 12 years since that announcement, no further proof has emerged. Young has admitted only to lightening or darkening certain parts of the image. Though he stands by his claim, he’d much rather talk about finding the Night Parrot. “It was the biggest challenge of my life,” he says.

Map by Mike Regan

The interior of Queensland is not an easy place to survive. For most of the year it’s baking hot and dominated by spinifex, a pincushion that passes for vegetation. Then for a few weeks—during a good year—the skies open up, water rushes down dry creek beds, and the colorless Outback turns green.

Wildlife here exists on a knife edge defined in millimeters of rainfall. White settlers rocked that balance when they introduced cows and cats in the early 19th century. They saw the landscape at its most productive and ran livestock at levels many times what the ecosystem could handle. Once-widespread marsupials, including the lesser bilby and pig-footed bandicoot, were thought to go extinct by the 1960s. Birds like the Plains-wanderer and Bush Stone-curlew largely vanished from the interior. Other species, such as the Night Parrot, began a long, slow decline that continues today.

When explorer Charles Sturt first flushed a Night Parrot from spinifex in 1845, during an ill-fated expedition to find an inland sea, he reckoned it was a Ground Parrot, which he knew from the coast. “He flew about bewildered like a bird that has been blown out to sea during a Gale,” Sturt wrote. He didn’t realize that unlike the coastal variety, this bird had adopted a nocturnal lifestyle, likely to avoid predators. (The Night Parrot and New Zealand’s Kakapo are the world’s only nocturnal parrots.)

By the turn of the 20th century, the Night Parrot became scarce. In 1922, collector Lawson Whitlock searched for the elusive bird in the interior and only found its scratchings in the dirt. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the government in Western Australia distributed pamphlets to roadhouses asking for information on any sightings, but no proof emerged. The owner of Australian Geographic offered $38,500 for evidence of the species’ existence, which he paid out in 1991 when a dead parrot was collected from a roadside.

That was when Young began looking for the bird in his spare time. When the second dead parrot turned up in 2006, he ramped up his efforts, with Biggs bankrolling them to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. Young began his search by going to the spot where the bird hit the fence and putting himself in its mind. He surmised that the parrot had followed a line of trees on the west side of the fence and wondered why it would make a sharp turn in that particular place. Looking east, beyond the fence, he saw spinifex-covered hills on a cattle property known as Brighton Downs and had a hunch that the bird had been heading that way.

Young had been camping on Brighton Downs for nearly a month when he first heard the Night Parrot’s two-note whistle in April 2007. When he mimicked it—dink dink—a pair landed nearby.

He recorded the call but couldn’t see the birds to take a photo. They didn’t reappear the following nights. Over the next several years, he expanded his soul-sucking search to encompass all of interior Australia. “The harder it became, the more driven I became,” he says. In 2011, he remarried and tried to rebuild his home life, but the bush kept calling him back. On May 26, 2013, he finally captured photographs and video of the Night Parrot at Brighton Downs that he could present to the world unaltered.

A Night Parrot Young photographed in 2013. John Young/AWC

Well, not 100 percent unaltered. Young couldn’t help but Photoshop a spinifex twig from the bird’s back. Never mind that. The point is he really did find the bird.

In June 2013 Biggs flew an expert to Brisbane to validate Young’s find before they went public. Steven Murphy, a conservation ecologist who runs a consulting firm called Adaptive NRM, listened to Young’s story with growing discomfort. He was sold on the photos, but it sounded an awful lot like Biggs and Young were holding the fate of Australia’s most endangered bird for ransom. Young refused to divulge its location to the government. Instead, he planned to raise $1.5 million to manage the property where he’d found it. “He just said, ‘I’ve done all the work and I can handle it on my own,’ “ Murphy says. “That worried everyone.”

Murphy would end up with a trump card, however. The previous year the mining company Fortescue Metals Group had dedicated $750,000 to study the Night Parrot as part of a site-expansion deal. In August, Murphy submitted a proposal to the company and offered to hire Young on that contract in order to document the Night Parrot’s ecology and establish a methodology to detect them. At the time, the most detailed accounts of the bird’s natural history consisted of the diary entries of an amateur ornithologist and two pages published by a specimen collector in 1883. One of the few things researchers knew for certain was that the parrots frequently roosted in spinifex and feasted on its seeds, but the plant doesn’t set seed every year, so the birds had to be using other resources.

Apart from their love of birds, Murphy and Young had little in common. Murphy is a meticulous researcher who writes his every thought and observation in a palm-sized notebook, while Young is a gonzo naturalist who files away knowledge in his mind only. They struck an agreement, vowing to keep the call and location of the birds under wraps until they were safe. Even the federal government and a scientific committee established in 2013 to oversee Night Parrot research were kept in the dark about the study site.

During Murphy’s first trip to Brighton Downs in August 2013, he tried to keep an open mind. “Much rides on how John Young and I interact in the field,” he wrote in his journal, which he shared with me. Although Young’s demand for secrecy seemed excessive­—he insisted they camouflage the site’s solar panels with black tape, for example—Murphy could appreciate Young’s heartfelt concern for the birds. &l