The rediscovery of the night parrot is one of the greatest achievements of modern birdwatchers. I had just returned to birdwatching when the news broke and was so excited. I followed the official announcements, had read the articles and thought I was pretty well informed.
Articles had referenced how the last living night parrot was sighted in 1912. Based on the lack of news, I presumed it was extinct. I didn’t think there was that much to learn about it.
I was so happy to be wrong. This book is one of those rare times where being new to birdwatching is a gift. The history of this elusive bird is really compelling. In this review, I’ll focus on the elements of the book that stood out.
Olsen is a meticulous researcher
I was impressed with the level of research that went into this book. Olsen scoured through old records to create a compelling narrative. It wouldn’t have been an easy task to explore the connections between the smattering of records that remained, let alone make it such an addictive read. I was hooked.
Occasionally, it felt like Olsen would go into unnecessary detail about some of the key figures. She’d unearthed some interesting facts about a persons history, but that history didn’t feel relevant to the night parrots journey. I would recommend skimming some sections if you find your attention wanes. You can always revisit those sections later.
Chapters were organized into States
The bulk of the book is devoted to the history of seeking and, in the rare case, documenting the presence of the night parrot. It does this grouping various chapters according to state and devoting each chapter to the key efforts in that period. For example, the Southern Australia section focused on the work of Charles Sturt, John McDouall Stuart and J. Harris Brown; Samuel Albert White and Ethel Rosina White; and Frederick Andrews .
I was initially against the idea of organizing the chapters into states. I wanted to learn more about the bird itself and read about the history chronologically. I was so glad to be wrong. The night parrot was always incredibly elusive, even in the areas it favoured. It’s habitat meant that searching for it was a huge endeavour that involved a lot of resources. Sighting reports did travel across states, especially as transportation became easier. Reading about these journeys as individual experiences did help me understand how all the sightings and discoveries were interconnected.I underestimated how fascinating it was. I didn’t know just how early cats were introduced to Australia, nor how early scientists would shoot the birds instead of observing them.
‘They say if enough are found’: Steve Murphy and John Young
This is the chapter I was most keen to read. John Young’s discovery of night parrot populations had caused a lot of excitement in the birding community – and also a lot of controversy. Olsen held little trust in John Young, something that was painstakingly repeated throughout the chapter. Later, it would be revealed that many facets his discovery of a population in South Australia would be fake. It is evident that Young has an interesting relationship with the truth, however this chapter still annoyed me.
After the book was published, there was a lot of commentary about whether John Young could be trusted. Peers and friends came out in support of his work and argued that the book didn’t accurately represent many of Young’s doubtful claims. As a casual birdwatcher, I didn’t know what or who to believe. This chapter explores past exaggerations and explores Murphy’s experiences of the work he undertook with Young. This was fascinating – it included information I wasn’t aware of – but it was also a bit disappointing. While I trust Murphy’s recollections, I felt like this section could have included perspectives from others who had worked with Young.
Olsen was also incredibly critical of many members of the birdwatching community – notable, considering as birdwatchers would be one of the key targeted readerships. She was incredibly critical of those who didn’t agree with the secrecy surrounding the rediscovery. I was, and still am, a member of several Facebook birdwatching groups and I felt this was an unfair representation.
The secrecy was a hot topic of debate, but the most critical were those who actually had the potential to discover other populations. They were concerned that the lack of calls to reference would mean that unknown populations would be subject to further risk. The topic was considerably more nuanced, something that went unacknowledged by Olsen. I was particularly annoyed at how she targeted. Mark Carter as a jilted twitcher. I was his Facebook friend before he abandoned the platform, and he was frustrated with the secrecy surrounding the birds call. At the time of their discovery, the reference calls were limited to those from Western Australia.
This chapter is fascinating and allowed me to learn so much more about the recent work with the night parrot. If you are active in online birdwatching communities, you may have similar feelings.
Would I recommend it?
I disagree with how Olsen approached the chapter on John Young and didn’t like some smaller parts of how the book was structured. It was still one of the best books I have read this year.
I’d recommend it for those who already have an existing passion for birds or conservation. It is accessible for beginners.