Back in November, Andrew Thelander wondered if I was "red-faced'' over a report
in The Courier Mail newspaper that John Young had discovered a new species or
subspecies of fig-parrot in southern Queensland.
I was a tad taken back - until then, I had never heard of Andrew Thelander. My
sin, it transpired, is that some time earlier, I had raised questions about
whether Coxen's fig-parrots survived in southern Queensland and northern NSW.
The fig-parrot saga has come a distance since then.
For starters, let's note what Dick Schodde, the leading authority on the
taxonomy of rainforest birds in Australia and New Guinea, has had to say about
this. Dick points out that there are no examples of two closely related bird
taxa occurring together in southern Queensland-northern NSW. So he considers
that for this reason alone, it is most unlikely for Coxen's and this "new''
parrot to be co-existing.
So are we expected to believe that in addition to Coxen's, there is a hitherto
unknown fig-parrot flying around that everyone except John has overlooked?
Some have suggested that his parrot is actually an adult male Coxen's. Their
theory is that there are no such birds in collections. However, the statistical
likelihood of this very low. Moreover, Glen Holmes, who knows more about
fig-parrot identification than most, has indicated that the bill of John's bird
is all wrong for Coxen's; it is the wrong size and of the wrong proportions.
We have John's photograph. That has generated substantial debate. As has been
reported, Gale Spring, a leading authority on forensic authority, has grave
doubts. They mostly concern marked differences between the texture of head
feathers and body feathers. There are problems with surface imaging, and Gale
considers that the head colours are too intense. Similar concerns have been
expressed by, among others, Jeff Davies, Andrew Isles and Mike Carter.
We come to the pin feathers which John says he collected from baby parrots for
DNA analysis. It seems they have disappeared. Queensland's Environmental
Protection Agency says that to its knowledge, "no genetic material, including
feathers, has been collected in the wild''. This is the same agency, by the
way, which just three months ago insisted that there was such material, and
that it would prove the existence of John's new bird.
We've been on this merry-go-round before. Back in the mid-1990s, John claimed
to have photographed either - depending on who he spoke to - a Coxen's
fig-parrot or a previously undescribed fig-parrot. Those who saw his pictures,
such as John Martindale, were not convinced. It's worth remembering also that
in the late-1980s, John claimed to have rediscovered the paradise parrot in
north Queensland - way out of its original range.
Now The Courier Mail reports that a Brisbane man with no birding experience has
had one of John's new parrots fly into his window. A cat has eaten the dead
bird. Is this what we've been reduced to?
That sort of stuff is not that far removed from the argument that because John
spends so much time in the rainforest canopy - filming riflebirds, looking for
sooty owl nests (now that's another story) or whatever - he finds things the
rest of us don't. That may be true of orchids or bugs, but fig-parrots are not
grasswrens. They may be inconspicuous when feeding but they are noisy little
blighters in flight.
The bottom line of this saga is a no brainer. John in recent weeks has been
given several opportunities to have his photographs (there are several, he
claims) examined by an independent assessor. Gale Spring offered to do so under
the supervision of John Young Wildlife Enterprises (a commercial company) so
there was no possibility of copyright infringement, or any other difficulties
from their perspective..
That would solved the matter quickly and unequivocally, but these offers have
been refused. No reasons have been offered. With so much at stake, why?
There are a few fig-parrot-related red faces about the place. Mine is not one
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