Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ground Parrot collection in the American Museum of Natural History, New York

Image from Wikipedia commons

The museum holds seventeen Ground Parrot skins. Most, if not all of them, would have been part of G. M. Mathews’ huge collection of Australian bird skins which numbered 30,000. He had an additional 10,000 bird skins. The collection was acquired by the museum in 1931 to Mathews’ disappointment as although he had to sell it in the late 1920s due financial difficulties, he had hoped it would stay in Australia or England.

The seventeen skins are made up of one from Western Australia, two from South Australia, one from Victoria, twelve from New South Wales and one from Australia. Below is information about some of the skins, obtained from the museum’s website.

Skin 623806. Pezoporus wallicus flaviventris. A juvenile collected by F.L. Whitlock and G. M. Mathews at Wilson’s Inlet, South-western Australia on 20 November 1912.

This is the only specimen of a Western Ground Parrot in the collection. Presumably it was collected for Mathews, by Whitlock who lived near Wilson’s Inlet. This juvenile just might have been one of the WGP chicks that Whitlock had discovered on 20 October in the same vicinity. (See blog entry August 2013 ‘Finding Western Ground Parrot nests’.

Skin 623820. Pezoporus wallicus wallicus. Collected by G. M. Mathews at Tatanoola (Heath country) Glengelly River, South-east South Australia, 1903.

Ground Parrots have been extinct in South Australia since the 1940s.

Skin 623807. Pezoporus wallicus wallicus. A male collected by G. M. Mathews near Wollongong NSW, 1890.

Skin 623815. Pezoporus wallicus wallicus. A female collected by G. M. Mathews at Long Bay near Sydney, November 1895.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Many Names

The Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus developed the binomial nomenclature taxonomic classification system over many years starting with the publication in 1735 of the first of several editions of Systema Naturae. It was based on a scheme begun a couple of hundred years earlier by the Bauhin brothers but is attributed to Linnaeus because he refined and used it consistently showing that it can be used to effectively classify all the world’s plants and animals. The Linnaeus system is used to this day. After more basic divisions, each plant or animal is allocated into a class, an order within that class, a family and a possibly a sub-family, a genus, a species and maybe a subspecies according to its structure and apparent similarity to other species. The final division – species or subspecies is based on differences from others in the same genus. The name of the taxonomist who selects the species name and the date of publishing that name is recorded. For now the Western Ground Parrot is class Aves (Birds), order Psittaciformes, family Psittacidae, sub-family Psittacinae, genus Pezoporus, species flaviventris. (taxonomist North, date 1911). There have been several iterations before this name was arrived at.

Slow communication led to some confusion in early days of European settlement. The first Ground Parrot skins were sent to England from Sydney soon after settlement began in 1788.  A taxonomist, Latham, named the bird Psittacus formosus (Parrot beautiful) in 1790. As another parrot had been given the name formosus, another taxonomist, Kerr, renamed the Ground Parrot in 1792, this time wallicus, latinisation of New South Wales. In 1793, another taxonomist gave it the name of terrestris (of the ground), but it was too late and although that was an appropriate name, Kerr’s name had priority. Another taxonomist, Perry, published the name Psittacus viridis (Parrot green) in 1810, but he was far too late for the name to be adopted permanently.

The skins arriving at the Goteborg Natural History Museum in Sweden in 1864 were labelled as Pezoporus formosus (Latham). I am not sure when the genus name Pezoporus (Walking) first came into use.

Gregory Mathews (1876 to 1949) became a taxonomist specializing in Australian birds early in the twentieth century, and produced a major work in twelve volumes: The Birds of Australia. He became infamous for splitting species into subspecies, many of which were subsequently shown to be unwarranted. He accumulated a collection of 30,000 Australian bird skins and 5,000 books on birds. The collection of skins ended up in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in 1931, and the books went to the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Mathews allocated names for the Ground Parrot from different regions: Pezoporus terrestris leachii (Mathews, 1912)  Tasmanian Ground Parrot; Pezoporus terrestris dombraini (Mathews 1914) South Australian Ground Parrot; Pezoporus melanorrhabdotus (replacement name for P. wallicus, Mathews 1924). [This last name refers to the name given by Billardiere to the Ground Parrot - Black-spotted Parrot.] All of those names were reduced to Pezoporus wallicus wallicus (Kerr), when it was determined that all of the birds of the eastern side of Australia were one taxon. The Western Ground Parrot was named Pezoporus flaviventris (flaviventris means yellow belly which is a distinguishing feature) by Alfred North in 1911. Mathews made it a subspecies: Pezoporus wallicus flaviventris. In 2009, genetic work showed the Western Ground  Parrot to be a separate species in its own right and so the binomial name Pezoporus flaviventris (North 1911) has now been re-instated while the Eastern Ground Parrot has reverted to Pezoporus wallicus (Kerr, 1792).

            Condon, H.T. (1975). Checklist of the Birds of Australia. Part 1. R.A.O.U.
Robin, L. (2001). The Flight of the Emu: A Hundred Years of Australian Ornithology 1901-2001. Melbourne University Press.

Slater, P. (1980). Rare and Vanishing Australian Birds. Rigby.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Losing Habitat in South Australia

The Ground Parrot  was close to extinction in South Australia when the South Australian Ornithologist published an article entitled “ The Ground Parrot (Pezoporus wallicus) in South Australia” by H.T. Condon in 1942. He describes the difficulty of finding Ground Parrots by 1941, and the failure to persuade the powers that were to save some habitat suitable for them. Sure enough, the last record of a wild Ground Parrot in South Australia was a few short years later: in January 1945 (McGilp 1945).

We have reproduced here the photo of a Ground Parrot in Adelaide Zoo that was used to illustrate the article, plus the first page of Condon’s article. The entire article can be accessed on the link:

It includes notes on Ground Parrot habits, food, causes of disappearance, overall distribution, and a comprehensive reference list.

McGilp, J.N. 1945. South Australian Ornithologist 17:55

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

1918 photo in the wild

The photo within the article below could well be the first photo of the Eastern Ground Parrot and is almost certainly the first published photo of an adult bird taken in the wild.

Arthur Herbert Evelyn Mattingley was an enthusiastic amateur ornithologist and a pioneer of bird photography. Born in Melbourne in 1870, he was an inaugural member of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union, and a founding member of the Bird Observers’ Club. His photos were pivotal in the campaign to stop the slaughter of egrets for their plumes.

In the article below, his keen observation and enjoyment of birds shines through. Mattingley would be pleasantly surprised to learn that the Ground Parrot, though endangered, can still be found in Victoria.

Mattingley, A. H. E. (1918). The Ground-Parrot (Pezoporus formosus). Emu 17, 216-218.

The Ground-Parrot (Pezoporus formosus).


The Ground-Parrot
Photo by A.H.E. Mattingley C.M.Z.S.

These beautiful birds are to be sought where the Wind goes
alternatively sobbing, soughing, whistling, and sighing through
the harsh herbage, which renders the bird’s light-timbred call
difficult of segregation. This separation from other bird calls
and subsequent fixture of the position of the Ground-Parrot’s
voice is a requisite essential to successful observation and the
discovery of the bird and its place of abode without its being
startled by being forced to fly up to disclose itself, which act is
contrary to its desire and usual habit of comporting itself.

This interesting bird is local in habit, and can usually be found
in the same area of country - moorlands or coastal plains. To
seek out a bird, one should requisition the services of a well-trained
pointer or setter, which can help one considerably to find and
flush the bird when desired, or to “ point ” it out. These birds
have a “ scent,” and dogs can readily “ pick up ” their trail, run
them down, and “ set” them. As they go singly or in pairs,
and are sparsely distributed, a dog that “ ranges ” well will soon
indicate their presence or absence.

In selecting its home, the Ground-Parrot naturally frequents
a type of country that affords a close covert as a protection from
observation from above, and in harmony with its own colour;
and as well it chooses a class of growth that permits of the free
exercise of its habit of running rapidly through it, but free from
observation; and a place which also contains its food supply,
consisting mainly of the seeds of grasses and shrubs and tender
shoots of plants.

The Ground-Parrot has been occasionally encountered in
swampy places on uplands, and has also been found on open
plains and swampy areas on mountains. Like its congener, the
Night-Parrot (Geopsittacus occidentalis), the Ground-Parrot is
doomed to early extinction on the mainland of Australia,
especially in those parts whereon the foxes are encroaching, in
the course of the next few years, as will be shown later on.

The call of the Ground-Parrot is issued in a somewhat warbling
fashion, harmonious withal, but conveying a sense of sadness
well befitting the nature of its environment. On windy days
the note is rarely heard, no doubt on account of its want of
fulness and carrying capacity. It appears to be used solely in
calling to its mate. As far as could be ascertained, it uses its
call as infrequently as possible. The following is the call set to
music, and is repeated softly by the bird two or three times
generally :—

The notes, therefore, of the last remnants of the Pezoporus are not
easily detected.

Ground-Parrots lead a terrestrial life solely, and are never found
in trees. 1 have seen a bird, however, climb up to the height
of about one foot on a shrub after some seeds growing thereon.
When flushed they fly rapidly away, somewhat after the whirring
manner of a Quail, but not so direct, since they zigzag in their
course. No fright screech is uttered either when rising from the
ground during flight or on capture. When handled, the birds
bite savagely in defence of their liberty. When flushed, they
mount up in the air about 4 or 5 feet—usually a foot or two above
the herbage—and proceed from 3o yards to even as far as
200 yards should the intervening ground flown over be too open
or otherwise unsuitable to alight on as a covert. The late Mr,
A. ]. North records that on one occasion he noticed birds that he
had flushed alight on a fence.

I am informed by an old Quail-shooter who lived by hunting
that his retriever dog used, years ago, when the Parrots were
plentiful, to run down these birds and frequently capture them.
This evidences the fact that it is a difficult matter to flush the
birds. I have noticed, once birds have been flushed, if there be
plenty of cover available, the Ground-Parrot will not flush again,
expose itself, and fly away, but it prefers to trust to its powers
of running to place itself beyond danger. They sleep on the
ground at night, and are therefore easily caught by prowling
foxes, since the strong scent emitted by them attracts the wily
animal. As they nest on the ground, the fox and other predatory
creatures, such as domestic cats gone wild, dingoes, native cats,
snakes, and lizards have little difficulty in obtaining their eggs
or young.

An old correspondent of mine, Mr. Percy Peir, a well-known
aviculturist, of Sydney, has kept a pair of these Parrots alive for
some years in an aviary where the conditions were more suitable
than in the ordinary bird-cage, and where they could run about
on the ground.

Ground-Parrots are exceedingly active and graceful in contour,
and the colour of their plumage is as distinctive as the livery of
many other Australian Parrots is gaudy. The adult plumage of
both sexes is similar, being dark grass-green, or, to be more
correct, a bright Rinnemann’s green, barred alternately with
black and yellow, on the upper surface, and a yellowish~green,
barred also alternately with black and yellow, on the lower and
abdominal surfaces. The forehead is surmounted with a distinct
scarlet-tinged nopal red patch. The feet (which are somewhat
large, and have four toes) and legs, adapted for running, are of a
fleshy-pink colour tinged with blue-black.*

Their food consists largely of grass seed, such as that of
kangaroo-grass (Anthistiria), fruit of the tea-tree (Melaleuca),
wattle (Acacia) seed, and tender shoots of grasses, I am informed
by a Quail-shooter that the flesh of the Ground~Parrot is excellent
eating, and equal to that of Quail.

The breeding period ranges through the months of September,
October, and November. The eggs usually number three or four
to a clutch, are round in form like most Parrots’ eggs, and of a
glossy white colour, with a shell of fine texture. It is somewhat
remarkable that the eggs are not coloured, like those of most
ground-nesting birds. Coloured eggs afford some modicum of
protection from the prying eye of an enemy. This fact is all the
more noticeable when we know that the nest of the Ground-
Parrot is simply a somewhat deep hollow in the ground. The nest,
which is composed of grasses, is placed in a grass tussock or in
a mixture of heath and coarse grass, which, overlapping as a
rule, forms an overhead canopy.

Three varieties or sub-species of the Ground-Parrot are
recorded for Australasia, viz. :— P. formosus, (Latham) - range,
South Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia;
P. flaviventris, (North) — range, Western Australia; P. leachi,
(Mathews) — range, Tasmania.
*Little seems to be recorded with reference to the immature plumage of
Pezoporus. The red patch on the forehead is missing in the immature birds
during their infancy, but is represented as they develop by a small dull yellow
patch, visible in both sexes. The plumage of the ventral surface generally is
more suffused with yellow, whilst the dark marking of the feathers of the
throat is much more pronounced.