Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) has received the findings of an independent investigation into the veracity of work on the Night Parrot undertaken by AWC between 2016 and 2018.
Following concerns raised by the AWC Board and a number of experts, AWC convened an independent panel to investigate the sufficiency of evidence to support the reported conclusions in relation to reports published by AWC that:
a Night Parrot feather had been found at Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary (South Australia);
a recording of a Night Parrot call was downloaded from an acoustic monitor at Kalamurina; and
Night Parrot nests and eggs had been found at Diamantina National Park (Queensland).
The fieldwork underpinning those reports was led by field naturalist John Young. Mr Young was employed by AWC in 2016 and resigned in 2018.
The investigation panel that reviewed AWC’s reports was made up of four eminent ornithologists and conservation scientists, Peter Menkhorst (Chair), James Fitzsimons, Richard Loyn and John Woinarski. The panel worked independently and in accordance with the principles of the Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (NHMRC and Universities Australia) which was adopted by AWC for the purpose of this investigation.
The panel investigated and reported on the following:
Kalamurina feather – AWC sent a feather that was reported to have been collected from a Zebra Finch nest at Kalamurina to the South Australian Museum to retain within its collections. The panel found that while the feather photographed in a Zebra Finch nest at Kalamurina in July 2017 was from a Night Parrot, the feather lodged with South Australian Museum was not the same feather photographed in that nest. Consequently, the panel concluded that the feather provided significant but, given some unresolved issues, not definitive evidence of Night Parrots at the site.
Night Parrot calls at Kalamurina – the panel concluded that the calls of a Night Parrot, published by AWC from recordings made at Kalamurina in September 2018, were the result of playback of publicly available recordings of a Western Australian bird, rather than the actual call of a local bird. The panel concluded that, at present, there is no reliable acoustic evidence for the presence of Night Parrots on Kalamurina. This conclusion may change as results from all deployed acoustic recorders are downloaded and analysed. The panel also found that it was prudent of AWC to remove the recordings (which were published only after being verified by a Night Parrot expert) from its website.
Diamantina nests and eggs – the panel investigated whether one or more Night Parrot nests reported by AWC, and the eggs located in them, were properly attributable to the Night Parrot.
With very few Night Parrot nests and eggs ever sighted as a basis for comparison, the panel approached nine ornithologists with wide experience on the nests and eggs of Australian birds, as well as a long-term poultry farmer and a distinguished bird veterinarian. Although not unanimous, a majority of these experts concluded that the observable physical characteristics of the eggs in one nest were not consistent with natural eggs.
The eggs in the other two photos were small parrot eggs and “not inconsistent” with the eggs of the Night Parrot, but do not constitute robust evidence of the presence of breeding Night Parrots. The panel concluded that the nests were inconsistent in structure and placement, and one nest was substantially different to the few confirmed Night Parrot nests and should be regarded as “unconfirmed” until a larger number of Night Parrot nests are found, and a greater understanding achieved of the variability in nest structure and positioning.
The panel made a series of recommendations regarding AWC’s protocols and procedures, including recording GPS data on photographs, more rigorous protocols for the use of playback and record keeping, referral of rare bird records to BirdLife Australia’s rarities committee, and having data already collected at Kalamurina and Diamantina verified by independent experts. All the panel’s recommendations have already been formally adopted and implemented by AWC.
AWC Chief Executive Officer Tim Allard said AWC is committed to correcting the public record.
“Due to the findings, AWC is retracting records of the Night Parrot published by AWC. The methods used in this work were not consistent with AWC’s usual procedures,” Mr Allard said.
AWC is also retracting other records that were obtained by Mr Young (but were not the subject of this inquiry), where there are similar concerns regarding the adequacy of survey and analysis techniques. This includes records of the Buff-breasted Button-quail.
“We are disappointed that our processes in relation to this work were not sufficient, and we are committed to ensuring that all of our staff implement and comply with appropriate standards for recording significant scientific data.” Mr Allard said.