On the Trail with the Wild Detective (Audubon)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Some time ago in the Australian outback, a man who made his name as a Roo shooter—that is, someone who shoots kangaroos for their meat—arrived in the town of Winton with a headless carcass. This creature was not, as you might expect, a kangaroo. It was a dead bird.

Robert “Shorty” Cupitt came upon this mangled ball of feathers on September 17, 2006, while driving along a fence in Diamantina National Park in western Queensland. The bird had apparently clotheslined itself on the barbed wire. He tossed it in his truck bed, where it baked in the sun until he made it to the home of Paul Neilsen. Neilsen is the proprietor of the Tattersall Hotel, a rowdy pub packed with curios including a case full of opals, a terrarium of fossils, and a poster featuring Australia’s deadliest snakes and spiders.

“Is this what we’ve been looking for?” Cupitt asked, plunking down the specimen on the kitchen table. Neilsen’s eyes went wide. The squat parrot resembled a budgie that had inhaled a lumberjack’s breakfast. Its wing feathers were dark gray with yellow and green along their margins. The tail was banded like a bumblebee. The head, well, there was no head. But that didn’t matter. “Oh my God, yes,” Neilsen said. This was it, a Night Parrot, and a young one to boot.

Neilsen was staring at a ghost, a bird that the world had written off as extinct. The fact that it was less than a year old meant that there were more out there and they were breeding. The last time anyone collected a living Night Parrot, Australia was still a British dominion and the primary mode of transportation in the Outback was the one-humped camel. That was in 1912.

There had been sightings since, tantalizing leads that sent sane men on insane quests. In 1979, a birding guide said he spotted four, but lacked photographic proof. Eleven years later, an ornithologist scooped up a corpse on a roadside. After that, nothing. The Night Parrot became the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Down Under. “Every young male ornithologist has spent their holidays going out looking for the bird for the last hundred years,” says Penny Olsen, an ecologist whose book Night Parrot: Australia’s Most Elusive Bird was published in September.

Neilsen envisioned stuffing the decapitated bird and putting it on display. Cupitt, who had traded in his hunting rifle for a job as a Queensland Parks ranger, claims he immediately notified his higher-ups. But the squishy truth is that instead of passing the bird on to authorities, Neilsen stashed it in a freezer while he contacted the one man whom he could trust: John Young, a.k.a. the Wild Detective. “He’s one of Australia’s leading ornithologists,” Neilsen told me. “Except he doesn’t have a degree.”

Young was then in his late fifties, the Looney Tunes version of a naturalist with a floppy brimmed hat, white mutton chops, and drawn-on facial expressions. An egg-collecting scofflaw in his youth, Young had such a knack for finding species others thought unfindable that David Attenborough sought his services when filming documentaries, airing a segment with him on The Life of Birds. Young also spearheaded conservation initiatives, assisted on research projects, made media appearances, and had his own nature film series.

By the time Neilsen contacted him, however, Young was in a dark place. He had long been dogged by allegations that he was a world-class fibber, a spinner of bush tales. Then, in November 2006, Greg Roberts, a reporter and accomplished birder, suggested in an article in the Australian newspaper that Young had manipulated photos to support his claim of discovering a new parrot. Young’s wife then walked out on him. When Neilsen called, he loaded up his Land Cruiser and drove to Winton, in single-minded pursuit of the Night Parrot.

It took six years of searching, 200,000 miles of driving, weeks-long stretches without bathing, close encounters with venomous snakes. In July 2013, Young returned to civilization and presented to an awestruck auditorium at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane a video of a Night Parrot bounding along the ground. “The equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an Outback roadhouse” is how the editor of Birdlife Australia described the find.

The rediscovery promised a fresh start for the Night Parrot and, quite possibly, for John Young. After all, he was the only person in the bird world who knew where to find it. For the moment, at least, the fate of the species was entirely in his hands.

Read the rest in the Fall issue of Audubon magazine