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Questions have been raised over the credibility of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s research about finding traces of rare bird

A drawing of night parrots.




A drawing of night parrots.
Photograph: Alamy

The Australian Wildlife Conservancy has had to retract research it published about the endangered night parrot after an investigation into whether sightings of the parrot were staged.

An independent panel investigated evidence that was used to support reports published by the conservation group that claimed to have found traces of the elusive bird at Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary in South Australia and Diamantina National Park in Queensland.

The reports were underpinned by fieldwork by ecologist John Young, whose work on the night parrot has been called into question, including by Penny Olsen, an associate professor at the Australian National University.

Young was employed by the AWC in 2016 and resigned last year when concerns were raised.

Young’s field work claimed to have found a night parrot feather in a zebra finch nest at Kalamurina in 2017 and to have recorded the calls of a night parrot at the sanctuary in 2018.

The independent panel investigating the research also examined claimed sightings of night parrot nests and eggs at Diamantina.

The panel was chaired by renowned ecologist Peter Menkhorst, and its other three members were the scientific experts James Fitzsimons, Richard Loyn and John Woinarski.

The panel concluded that a feather photographed in the zebra finch nest was a night parrot feather, but that the feather lodged with the South Australian Museum as evidence of the find was not the same feather photographed in the nest.

The scientists found that the audio recordings published by AWC were actually playback of publicly available recordings of a Western Australian bird and not actual calls of a local night parrot.

The panel approached nine ornithologists and a poultry farmer and bird veterinarian to examine evidence supplied of nest and egg sightings at Diamantina.

A majority of those experts concluded that the eggs in one photograph were not consistent with real eggs.

The other two photographs, they concluded, were “not inconsistent” with night parrot eggs, but the work was not robust enough to be considered conclusive evidence of a night parrot sighting.

The AWC has published a statement on the findings on its website but its chief executive, Tim Allard, said the organisation would not be releasing the full report of the investigation “because it contains sensitive information related to individuals”.

“I can understand where people might be concerned about that, but we’re being as open and honest and transparent as we can,” Allard said. “When the concerns were first raised in 2018 we commenced an investigation. We used a panel that’s above reproach, they’re world experts.”

The findings are a major blow to the credibility of one of Australia’s largest conservation organisations, which has run threatened species research and programs for more than a decade.

“It’s not ideal. You never want to be in a position where you have to retract information,” Allard said. “From a reputational point of view, we’ve been operating for more than 20 years delivering world-class science and we continue to do that.”

Olsen, who has also suggested in a book that a 2013 photograph by Young of a night parrot in Queensland was staged, said “the findings aren’t a surprise”.

“They’re good enough, without seeing the full report,” she said. “I think he needs to be investigated on other matters.”

Guardian Australia sought comment from Young but calls were not returned.

He told the ABC’s Background Briefing: “I have no interest in any criticism.”

“I wanted to walk away from conservation, I wanted to walk away from everything,” Young added. “I wish I’d never saw it, wish I’d never found it, wish I’d never had to do it.”

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