Maroubra ground parrot

Note: Photo copyright Chris Lloyd, WIRES and may not be reproduced without permission. Used on WLMD with permission.

A Brief History of Sydney's Parrots

Although Sydney is a haven for many parrots today - including the world famous sulfer-crested cockatoo, galahs, crimson rosellas, rainbow lorikeets, yellow-tail black cockatoos, Australian king parrots and others - it wasn't always that way.

In fact, the Australian Museum reports that in the year 2000, fifteen species of parrots were reported from Sydney. This compares with just two between 1860 and 1900.

One of the two species recorded in the 19th century was the ground parrot (Pezoporus wallicus). The last confirmed sighting of this bird in Sydney was made in 1904.

Ground Parrot in Sydney

Come 2006 and a NSW WIRES volunteer (WIRES stands for Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service) was called to attend an injured bird in Sydney's coastal suburb of Malabar. On attending the scene the bird did not resemble any of the better known species from Sydney - most especially as it was a parrot and to the local wildlife rescuers, all Sydney parrots are easily identified.

Nevertheless, the only conclusion that could be drawn was that this was a ground parrot. Phones started ringing hot and what began as disbelief was quickly confirmed as truth - after a 102 year absence, a single ground parrot was rediscovered in an area of its former range - coastal Sydney.

(The rescued bird - a female, and the first seen in Sydney for 102 years - is shown here. Click to enlarge)

Where did it come from?

The obvious question - where did it come from? The nearest known population of ground parrots is 100 kilometres (62 miles) south-west (at a place suitably called Barren Grounds). To the north, the nearest known ground parrots reside at Yuraygir, some 525 kilometres (325 miles) distant.

A research article published by Chris Lloyd indicates that the calls of the Malabar specimen differed significantly from the calls of other known ground parrot populations - seemingly suggesting it had not arrived from either Barren Grounds or Yuraygir.

Another possibility that was considered is that it may have been an aviary escapee. Lloyd indicates that "two WIRES members with extensive experience in holding both wild and domesticated birds in captivity held the [Malabar ground parrot] for four to eight weeks each. Both agreed that its behaviour (particularly toward cage wire, people and domestic animals) was not that of an aviary bird." Further, deliberate exposure to a domestic dog procured behaviour that indicated it was familiar with the process of fleeing from dogs.

Sydney's resident ground parrot population?

The third possibility - which seems strengthened by the apparent weakness of the first two - is that Sydney has harboured its own ground parrot population, without detection, for the past 104 years.

Lloyd notes that "records of sightings of Ground Parrots in the area are difficult to establish. We have been unable to confirm sightings of the species in the Malabar area in the 1940’s, leaving the last record as a bird found in Long Bay in 1904 (Forshaw 1992). Extensive work done by Rod Gardner and others from 1998 to 2004 did not find members of the species (Gardner 2005). Members of the local Bushcare group had not reported hearing or seeing anything similar during their work over the previous two decades. This is not surprising as none of them were usually working around at dusk, dawn or at night, and were not familiar with the call or the birds' appearance and behaviour."

Field surveys

Following this amazing discovery, volunteers from WIRES, the Friends of Malabar Headland and the nearby Malabar Sewage Treatment Plant carried out a significant number of field surveys which included the playback of the rescued bird's calls. Although there is some possibility that calls heard during the survey may have been made by resident ground parrots, this could not be proved.

What happened to the rescued bird?

Apart from establishing the rescued bird's origins, there remained an open question - what to do with it? Options included releasing the bird back into Malabar, releasing the bird into another ground parrot population, or retaining the bird in captivity with the possibility of including it in a breeding program.

Ultimately she remained in captivity for approximately 12 months before finally passing away.

Ground parrots in 2008?

A further 12 months on from the events of the 2006 ground parrot rescue, another ground parrot is believed to have been sighted at the same location in Malabar.

On May 15 2008, volunteer bush regenerators sighted a strange green parrot with long legs walking along the ground. Referring to a bird field guide, it was identified as a ground parrot.

To date, that is all the news to hand of Sydney's apparantley surviving, but quite cryptic, ground parrot population.

A call heard in 2009

On 16 July a faint ground parrot call was heard during an informal survey of the site. Similarly to the 2006 surveys, the rescued bird's call was played back. In contrast to the 2006 surveys, this survey took place between 10.45am and 12.30pm. Typically, this species calls at dusk and dawn.

By co-incidence, the 2006 survey results were not used in preparing for this survey. However, when the 2009 calling bird's location was cross-checked with the results of the 2006 survey, it was found to have called from the same location as the two strongest calls heard in 2006.

Two people were involved in the present survey and both heard the bird's call and identified it as matching a portion of the recording of the bird rescued in 2006.