FW: fig parrots

To: <>
Subject: FW: fig parrots
From: "Roberts, Greg" <>
Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2007 11:25:35 +1100

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 of them.

Greg Roberts

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