In the far north of Australia, on a cattle ranch known as Artemis, a female golden-shouldered parrot burrows into a conical termite mound to build her nest. With her head deep in a narrow tunnel, she is vulnerable and relies on her mate, who guards the entrance, to sound the alarm. Without warning, a black-backed butcherbird swoops in, as if out of nowhere. The male parrot, a long-tailed bird with a vivid turquoise chest and bright yellow bands on his wings, flees and screeches in alarm to warn the female. But he barely escapes, and she doesn’t stand a chance.
The golden-shouldered parrot, one of Australia’s most endangered bird species, faces an unusual problem. In a country with one of the world’s worst records of extinctions, most threats to native species come from invasive feral predators, such as cats and foxes, or from non-native herbivores like pigs, camels and goats. But for the golden-shouldered parrot, the threat comes from native trees and shrubs.
The termite mound where the female was digging her nest would once have been surrounded by savannah grasslands, which allowed long sightlines for male parrots to see the predators’ approach. Instead, the savannah has become choked by native trees and shrubs, primarily the broad-leaved tea tree (Melaleuca viridiflora), which has thrived as a result of decades of harmful fires and grazing practices. With trees blocking the view, the male sentries can’t see predators—butcherbirds, raptors or large lizards called goannas—until it is too late. And with numbers of golden-shouldered parrots perilously low and declining, the species can ill afford to lose even one breeding female. The most comprehensive study of Australian bird species, the Action Plan for Australian Birds 2020, found that as few as 700, and no more than 1100, golden-shouldered parrots survive in the wild.
With parrot numbers in continuous decline, their survival depends on a fundamental, and at times complicated, reset of the landscape on Artemis, home to one of only two remaining populations of the bird. Unusually, it requires clearing not invasive vegetation but native trees in a bid to save the parrot. It’s the largest grasslands restoration project in the Australian tropics and one of the last chances for the golden-shouldered parrot, but no one knows if it will work.
In 1801, a botanical artist named Ferdinand Bauer drew the first image of the bird, but it was not until 1856 that naturalist Joseph Elsey collected the first specimen, near Normanton, hundreds of miles from Artemis. Based on this specimen, British ornithologist John Gould named the golden-shouldered parrot the following year. The next official record of the species came in 1913. “Even back then, the population was almost certainly collapsing,” says Stephen Garnett, an environmental scientist at Charles Darwin University who studies the interplay between threatened species and human communities. Even so, in 1922, bird collector William McLennan passed through an area north of Artemis and found that nearly every termite mound showed evidence of activity by golden-shouldered parrots.
In the century since, the range of the golden-shouldered parrot has contracted to a tiny fraction of its former territory. Two populations remain, one centered on the 483-square-mile Artemis in the north, the other at remote Staaten River National Park around a hundred miles to the southwest. According to Steve Murphy, an ecologist and leading authority on the species, “there were around 300 birds on Artemis back in the 1990s. There are now around 50.” On a neighboring property where ten years before lots of parrots lived, a recent visit found not a single nest. Current estimates suggest that no more than 500 birds make up the Staaten River population, with the remainder on Artemis and surrounding properties.
The thickening of native vegetation that is causing such difficulties for the parrots on Artemis occurs because of what Murphy describes as “a complex interaction between fire and cattle grazing.” Traditionally, Indigenous communities practiced controlled burning at the start of the rainy season, ensuring that moisture stayed in the soil and fires couldn’t burn out of control and wipe out entire ecosystems. In the areas that were burned, the grasses responded right away, and the lack of grazing allowed them to grow vigorously and shade out young trees.
Over much of the past century, cattle ranching took over vast swaths of the country, and many Indigenous communities were driven from their traditional lands. Without Indigenous fire and other land management practices, uncontrolled fires frequently took hold. When cattle then grazed on the burnt grasslands immediately after the fire, it created the perfect conditions for the trees to grow and take over from the grasses, which, without moisture in the soil, were unable to recover as quickly.“There are photos taken at exactly the same location 20 years apart at multiple sites through Artemis where the parrots live,” says Murphy. “They have become unrecognizable in terms of thickening.”
Surrounded by trees instead of grasses, the parrots are vulnerable when building a nest and are at increased risk when they feed, in part because they had also learned to rely on other sentries.
“The parrots used to find where black-faced woodswallows were feeding to go and feed themselves,” says Murphy. “They’ve got their heads down in the grass looking for grass seeds, and they’ve got their ears wide open listening for that first squeak of alarm from the woodswallows. This allowed the parrots to get a head start.”
The transition from savannah to woodland ecosystems drove the woodswallows away. It has also drawn in black-backed butcherbirds and other ambush predators that thrive in denser vegetation.
“We’ve got more predators, they’re hunting more successfully, and they’re doing so in the absence of sentries,” he adds. “It’s amazing there are any parrots left at all.”
With parrot numbers falling and time running out, finding a solution to help the parrots is complicated in part because of the number of stakeholders involved and the different approaches each proposes.
In 2016, the traditional Indigenous custodians of the region, the Olkola People, began the Bringing Alwal Home project; “alwal” is the Olkola name for the golden-shouldered parrot. “The mud, the earth, the soil of Olkola Country is central to alwal—alwal was created from that earth, and belongs to that place, just like Olkola People belong to Olkola Country,” says Mike Ross, an Olkola elder and knowledge holder. As part of the project, Indigenous rangers and other members of community have been involved in monitoring parrot populations and have removed cattle from Killarney, an Indigenous-run property adjacent to Artemis. Murphy supports this removal because it reduces the pressure on grasslands and allows them to recover after fire.
In other respects, the way forward is less clear.
The Olkola and some conservationists disagree over the role played by the dingo—a wild dog species that has been present in Australia for around 3,500 years. For the Olkola, both the golden-shouldered parrot and the dingo are “cultural totems,” says Ross. “The dingo has been able to keep the predators away.” For Murphy and other conservationists, dingoes are just another nest-raiding predator and potential threat.
A government-funded Draft Recovery Plan for the parrot, which is currently open for public consultation, also restates a commonly held view that a return to Indigenous fire practices and other traditional land management techniques is central to saving the species. Such a strategy has been successfully applied elsewhere in Australia and will certainly be a part of the solution going forward. But too much damage has been done on Artemis for these practices to work on their own, Murphy says.
“It’s a lovely idea,” he says, “but the landscape has moved on. No amount of Indigenous fire management is going to restore these systems to their open state. We need to reset the system.”
More radical steps, such as land-clearing, may be needed before traditional land management can again play a part. This solution is complicated, because clearing the native vegetation can be both difficult and potentially illegal.
In order to clear native vegetation and restore the grasslands on Artemis, Murphy and Sue and Tom Shephard, whose family has owned Artemis since 1911, needed permission from the local Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. Although broadly supportive of the efforts to restore the grasslands and help the parrots, the department didn’t want to set a precedent that would allow farmers and cattle grazers to clear native vegetation elsewhere. In July 2021, two years after the initial application, the department approved the land-clearing request. .
Murphy’s team began by removing the vegetation from selected patches of former savannah, carrying out the reset that he believed was a precursor to restoring the grasslands habitat the parrots needed. Because the tea trees are adapted to Australia’s harsh cycles of fire, flood and drought, the trees are extremely difficult to remove once they gain a foothold. Garnett remembers burning some chest-high trees to the ground using an acetylene torch, only to see them recover. “They’re just so hard to bring down,” he says. So the team used chainsaws and clearing saws to remove roots and branches, then sprayed the entire site with an herbicide called Graslan, which killed everything except the native grasses. Although it’s too early to know whether the strategy has worked, Murphy is hopeful that the grasses will once again take over.
The Shephards support these efforts to save the parrot. Sue Shephard has monitored the parrot on Artemis since the 1990s, and she was one of the first to raise the alarm. “I used to go out and find 100 nests,” she says. “Now I’m lucky to find 20.”
The Shephards run 3,500 to 4,000 head of cattle on the ranch, and they acknowledge that their own actions have contributed to the problems the parrots face. By building fences around Artemis and its paddocks, the Shephards kept their cattle under control, but that concentrated the areas where the animals grazed. The livestock’s consumption led to the disappearance of native grasses and led trees to emerge in their place.
The Shephards understand that helping the golden-shouldered parrot could benefit their cattle operation, and Murphy and other conservationists agree. Both livestock and the parrots will depend on the restored grasslands—the parrots for cover while feeding, the cattle for food. If managed properly through controlled burning and strategies such as rotational grazing, the two can live together.
The Shephards and Murphy know that the battle to save the parrots has reached a critical stage. “This breeding season just gone was a shocker,” Murphy says, after many of the parrots’ breeding attempts were unsuccessful. “A few more of those and we’ve lost the battle.”
Having begun to restore the parrots’ habitat, Murphy and the Shephards face an anxious wait to see whether the clearing has been successful in allowing the parrots to thrive.
“It could just be that we’re too late, and this should have been done ten years ago,” says Murphy. “But we know what we need to do to save these parrots.
“If we can’t get this right and turn these parrots around here, then holy hell.”
But if they do get it right, the partnership between Indigenous communities, cattle ranchers and conservationists could have lasting effects. Says Ross, “If we look after it for our future generations, in 50, 100 years to come that little bird will still be there.”