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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. “Despite his obtuse manner,” Murphy wrote, “I can’t help but like the guy.”
Things went downhill after that. Murphy wanted to set out sound recorders to systematically determine the bird’s presence or absence in various habitats; Young just wanted to find more birds. Amid temperatures exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the two men grated on each other. After Young passed out from heat stroke, he kept telling Murphy that Murphy wasn’t looking so good. “Harmony on this trip involves spending as much time as possible away from John Young,” Murphy wrote.
One day in October 2014, Murphy noticed something unusual: a Night Parrot feather on the ground. He and Young found 28 in total, possibly the remains of a nesting pair. Young turned up cat scat nearby. Feral cats rank among the greatest threats to Australian wildlife, and Night Parrots, as ground nesters, are particularly susceptible. “It made us both feel sick,” Murphy says. Since Young and Murphy had confirmed the existence of only a few living Night Parrots, this meant that a significant proportion of the species had potentially been wiped out. What’s more, the birds are hardly prolific breeders, fledging maybe two broods of one or two chicks each year.
The responsibility Murphy felt for the species now weighed even more heavily on him. The devil’s bargain he had made with Young meant that the two men were the bird’s only protectors. “The problem, from my point of view, was that everyone had been kept out,” he says. Murphy concluded that the only way to save the Night Parrot was to wrest some control from the man who had rediscovered it. “Just because he can find something doesn’t mean he can find out about something,” Murphy told me at his home in April. The statement was so harsh I asked him if he really meant it. “He doesn’t have a scientific bone in his body,” Murphy replied.
In late 2014 Murphy made an end run around Young and brokered a deal with Bush Heritage Australia, a conservation group, to purchase the property where the parrots were found. Young hasn’t been back since. “I’m not sure I’m welcome there,” he says.
In late April, Nick Leseberg, a University of Queensland graduate student, swatted a cloud of flies from the windshield of his truck as he drove down a bumpy track in the Pullen Pullen Night Parrot Reserve. Floods had just receded from the near 140,000-acre parcel of the former Brighton Downs, and the flies were unstoppable: They circled the vehicle madly, waiting for a crack in the door.
Leseberg took over Murphy’s research, and he was delivering me to the spot where Young says he first saw the Night Parrot 11 years earlier. The landscape rolled by as a flat, grayish bleh for miles, and then out popped a glorious red rock mesa, called a “jump-up” in Australia. Along the lower reaches, the spinifex looked like a procession of woolly caterpillars.
The parrots are still not easy to find. They generally call for only 10 or 20 minutes before sunrise and after sunset, times that Leseberg has dubbed “parrot o’clock.” Leseberg estimates there are 8 to 15 birds at Pullen Pullen and an adjacent property. He and his colleagues keep looking for more. They have listened at dozens of sites in the area and deployed recorders at hundreds, but the birds consistently appear at just three spots. “There has to be something special about this place,” Leseberg says.
The reserve sits in a region of the Outback known as Channel Country because of the rivulets draining from monsoonal areas to the northeast. It’s not exactly lush, but the moisture buffers the parrots—and the plants they depend on—from the desert’s harshest conditions. In 2015 and 2016, Murphy successfully tracked two birds during their foraging flights, revealing for the first time where the birds go when not huddled in their spinifex fortresses. Each evening, they head out to ephemeral wetlands known as gilgai, hunting for grass seeds. They fly up to 25 miles in a single night, a desert adaptation that makes their home range hundreds of times larger than that of the coastal Ground Parrot.
The birds’ persistence can also be explained by the fact that Pullen Pullen has avoided the lightning fires that obliterate other parts of the Outback. When fires start here, they wink out quickly because the spinifex occurs in isolated patches. And unlike in other areas, the gaps between plants haven’t been filled in by invasive buffelgrass (though it could expand from drainages if not kept in check). Finally, there are few predators. Feral cats lurk, but dingoes help keep their numbers down. Introduced foxes, common in the south, are entirely absent.
Bush Heritage Australia is working to boost parrot numbers at Pullen Pullen. Staff shoot and trap cats, focusing on the days right before fledging. (In May, one cat was shot within 50 meters of an active nest.) The team has fenced out cattle, allowing large-seeded grasses the parrots eat to flourish and flagged barbed wire to reduce collisions.
None of these measures, however, can stop the Outback from becoming more inhospitable, as the warming climate leads to more frequent prolonged droughts. At Pullen Pullen, temperatures are predicted to rise 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2070, making parrots susceptible to heat-related die-offs, according to an analysis of their water needs.
As with any small animal population, a limited gene pool may also constrain the parrot’s ability to recover and adapt to changing conditions. So far, little is known about the bird’s genetic diversity, since the Night Parrot team avoids invasive research unless absolutely necessary. They have taken blood samples from feathers of three individuals captured for radio tracking, though they haven’t yet analyzed them fully. They may also be able to glean more information on the bird’s genetics across the continent by analyzing DNA from toe pads in museum specimens, but that approach is limited because there are only 25 in total.
In late evening Leseberg and I settled onto a pimple in the landscape as the sun dropped below the horizon. The flies took leave of us for the night, which meant that the mosquitoes were starting to come out. In the distance I heard a sound like a cell phone muffled by blanket: Dink-dink.
Was that . . . ?
Leseberg nodded. The dink-dink was likely coming from a roosting female, though it’s possible both sexes make that particular noise. Night Parrots have a repertoire of at least 10 different calls. We soon hear another call from the bird’s mate flying around somewhere behind us, a flute-like dingeding that seemingly only males make.
Though Leseberg, a former air-traffic controller for the Australian Air Force, is adept at following the bird’s movements in his head like blips on a radar screen, it’s not easy to decipher the behavior of a bird you almost never see. We heard a few more dink-dinks and then parrot o’clock came to an end, lasting just long enough to confirm that these mysterious birds are still out there.
Behold John Young charging through the tall grass at the Brooklyn Sanctuary in north Queensland. “It was just around there,” he shouted, pointing. “He did this courtship thing. I had never seen anything like it before. He flew at high speed, glided, throwing his head in the air singing.” Young was talking about the Buff-breasted Buttonquail, known from just a few locations in Queensland. “See, those two trees—those two dark bushes in the grass. That’s where he hit the deck. I followed him there, he banks and drops, and that was it,” he said. That was when, Young told me, he snapped the first-ever clear photo of the buttonquail alive. Until that moment, it was the only bird in Australia that had never been photographed.
I asked him if he had the photo with him.”I don’t carry it on my phone,” he said in typical Young fashion. I wondered if it really existed. A few months later, the photo was published in an issue of Wildlife Matters, the newsletter of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy—Young’s new employer.
Since his falling out with Murphy in 2014, Young weathered another divorce and a stalled-out career. Then in 2016, Atticus Fleming, then the CEO of the conservancy, asked if he’d be interested in a one-of-a-kind position: document and study the rarest birds on properties the organization owns or manages. “It was an out-of-body experience,” Young says. Like the Night Parrot, he was getting another chance.
Young would monitor Red Goshawks in Cape York. At the Brooklyn Sanctuary, he’d investigate the natural history of the Buff-breasted Buttonquails, which are so flighty we know less about them than the Night Parrot. (Only seven specimens exist in collections.) And he would resume work on the Night Parrot.
In the past two years, Young has found three new Night Parrot nests and recorded birds calling at seven sites inside Diamantina National Park, which borders Pullen Pullen. (The park subsequently declared a restricted-access area and threatened birders and other potential trespassers with fines up to $250,000 or two years’ imprisonment.) Young also claims to have discovered Night Parrot feathers some 375 miles away, near Lake Eyre in South Australia, a habitat dominated not by spinifex but by a fire-resistant succulent known as samphire. This year, Young set out 30 sound recorders in the area and says he had a “surprise” while camping there—one he’s not willing to reveal yet.
Young hasn’t made things easy for his new employer. During a scientific meeting in Alice Springs last year, he accused Leseberg of running over a Night Parrot nest in Diamantina. “I wanted to skin him alive,” Young says, though he now admits he got carried away. John Kanowski, Young’s current boss, wrote an apologetic email on his behalf. “To my mind, he’s like a big boy,” Kanowski says. Is Young worth it? “We have a lot of skilled naturalists working for us but no one of his capacity. He is like Usain Bolt: He’s a freak!”
Young no longer has a monopoly on finding new Night Parrot populations. Last March birders photographed a Night Parrot in central Western Australia and discovered a nest, which was later abandoned. The birds have also been reported calling in the Northern Territory and confirmed in another region of Western Australia. Leseberg tried to radio-track one out west, but it vanished.
Though Pullen Pullen remains the only site where Night Parrots have been sighted and studied year after year, there are potentially five populations across the country. That they have persisted for so long over such a wide range, in such seemingly low numbers, and without any targeted management, suggests there is hope for them yet, particularly if efforts are made to restore and protect critical habitats, as is happening at Pullen Pullen.
While conservationists have held up Night Parrots as a Lazarus species—one that is rediscovered after being thought extinct—Leseberg says that’s a little misleading. Historic documents reveal that locals have reported their existence continuously over the past century, but nobody took them seriously. “Birdwatchers are an inherently skeptical bunch,” he says. One wonders how many more species have been written off too readily. The Plains-wanderer—not extinct but critically endangered—was recently spotted at Pullen Pullen.
If you ask Young when we should give up on a species, when we should accept that it has been erased from the Earth, his answer is never. “As far as I’m concerned, nothing is extinct,” he told me.
Even if you don’t believe everything Young says, he’s worth listening to.
Update October 2, 2018
Following the online publication of this article last week, several readers noticed a cage-like mesh visible in the Night Parrot photo that John Young took in 2013 and provided to Audubon. Capturing an endangered bird like the Night Parrot without a permit would have been illegal, and Young has long denied he did so. Young’s employer, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, was alerted to the photos and on the morning of Thursday, September 27, Young was asked to resign from his position as Senior Ecologist. In an email to Audubon, Young attributed his resignation to this article and “other negativity,” but did not respond to a question about whether he had captured that bird.
Young’s detractors, including Steve Murphy of Adaptive NRM, have long questioned how Young obtained such clear photos and videos of such a skittish bird. When Young first shared his photos with Murphy, Murphy noticed that the time stamps indicated that they had been taken at 5 p.m., long after the nocturnal birds are active. Murphy also suspected that Young altered one photo, not to remove a spinifex twig, as Young has claimed, but to erase feathers damaged during its capture. “I was hoping he would open up and say he caught the bird,” Murphy says. “He wouldn’t.”
During the reporting of the original article, Audubon also interviewed John Stewart, a retired schoolteacher who was with Young at the time the first photos were taken and claimed the Night Parrot simply froze under their spotlight. “We set up in a spot where we thought it would pass through,” he said. “It eventually came to us. Once you get a spotlight on a night bird, they tend to drop to the ground.”
Doubts have also been raised about Young's claims related to the presence of Night Parrots at Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary in South Australia, which may have added to the pressure on him to resign, according to two sources who declined to be named. John Kanowski, AWC’s National Science and Conservation Manager, said that he still has full confidence in Young’s work since the organization hired him in 2016 and vowed to investigate any claims of scientific misconduct. “John’s resignation had nothing to do with his work with us,” he says.
In his email to Audubon, Young said that he hopes that he never sees another Night Parrot again for the rest of his life. “I spent all those years looking for the bird and now its ended up costing me,” he wrote. “My interest in conservation has gone.”
This story originally ran in the Fall 2018 issue as “On the Trail With the Wild Detective.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.