Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Why there are no authentic Ground Parrot specimens from Perth

Ground Parrots were definitely in the Perth area in 1839 when the naturalist John Gilbert arrived in March, as he recorded the local aboriginal name for them:- Djar-doon- gur-ree. He spent the first three months collecting within 16 km of Perth.

In a letter to his employer, John Gould, dated 11 April, and sent on the Helen or Elen, he mentioned having obtained five species of parrot. There are six possibilities. The Red-capped Parrot is mentioned, and so is the Elegant Parrot. Additionally there could have been the Western Rosella, Regent Parrot, Australian Ringneck and Western Ground Parrot. He would not have been particularly excited by the ground parrot as he had previously collected some in Tasmania though doubtless he would have collected them in the Swan River area as he always strove for a comprehensive collection.

The first shipment of Gilbert's specimens out of Perth was on HMS Herald. Gilbert wrote to Gould on 20 May 1839 saying he had placed a box of birds on the Herald that same day in special care of one of the officers. Then she had departed before there was time to load on any mail. (She had arrived on 17 May so was in Gage Roads, Fremantle for only two days.) The box was probably addressed to John Gould in Hobart (or maybe Sydney) as the Herald was headed to Hobart and then Sydney before she embarked on a very adventurous voyage in the Pacific playing a key role in New Zealand history and taking part in the first of the Opium Wars.

Gilbert's letter of May 20 stated that the Box contained 203 specimens and 75 species of Birds, 2 reptiles, and a box with a nest of the Elegant Parrot (which proved to be incorrect.)

In a letter for Gould dated 3 September 1839, Gilbert states that he did not enclose any letter or paper in the box that was sent on the Herald, and he had not yet been advised that the box from the Herald had safely arrived. This letter was sent on the barque Elizabeth which was wrecked soon after leaving Fremantle. In the same letter of 3 September, Gilbert said that the list of specimens was to go on the Herald with the governor's despatches. These too missed the boat and were probably on the ill-fated barque Elizabeth.The mail was saved, dried out, and was to be put on the schooner Elizabeth. Not all of it would have been legible. Another letter from Gilbert to Gould written on 28 October 1839 was also to go on the schooner Elizabeth. By then Gilbert had 153 species of birds, some collected further inland than Perth.

If a Western Ground Parrot specimen had been amongst the collection placed on the Herald, and it very likely was, it would definitely be from Perth. Any Gilbert specimen dated between 6 March 1839 and 31 May would be from the Perth vicinity. In early June 1839, Gilbert had his first inland trip.  

Unfortunately, many of the original labels have been removed and the collection date and/or place lost.

Other specimens from other collectors with'Swan River' on the label are less likely to be authentically from the Swan River (Perth/Fremantle) vicinity.