THE FACE

GREG ROBERTS meets PENNY OLSEN SCI­EN­TIST and AU­THOR

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

PAT Rafter would be sur­prised at the sug­ges­tion that his evo­lu­tion as a ten­nis great was con­nected to the ex­tinc­tion of a bird de­scribed as the world’s most beau­ti­ful par­rot. Penny Olsen was cer­tainly sur­prised at what un­folded as she re­searched her re­cent book, Glimpses of Par­adise. It’s the story of the par­adise par­rot, the only species of bird to have be­come ex­tinct on the Aus­tralian main­land since Euro­pean set­tle­ment.

‘‘ I thought re­search­ing the par­rot’s story would be short and sweet,’’ Olsen says in her heav­ily clut­tered of­fice at Can­berra’s Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, where she is a visit­ing fel­low in zo­ol­ogy.

Out­side, the high- pitched whis­tles of king par­rots, more adept than their par­adise cousins in the art of sur­vival, pen­e­trate the win­ter air.

‘‘ It turned out to be a story of scams and scan­dal, of his­tory and true be­liev­ers, of beauty and tragedy. There were great mys­ter­ies to un­ravel. It had ev­ery­thing.’’

In­clud­ing Rafter, who has at­trib­uted his ten­nis suc­cess to prac­tice as a young­ster on the slip­pery sur­faces of Queens­land’s ant- bed ten­nis courts. Ter­mite mounds had the right mix­ture of sil­ica and clay for court sur­faces. Par­adise par­rots made their nests in the mounds and the birds’ demise — they have not been seen since the 1920s — was has­tened by the de­struc­tion of ter­mite mounds for ten­nis courts.

A stuffed wedge- tailed ea­gle lords it over Olsen’s univer­sity of­fice. The walls are plas­tered with posters and pho­to­graphs of hawks and fal­cons. Olsen is clearly rapt in rap­tors. ‘‘ If some­thing’s got a hooked bill and talons, it gets me go­ing. I think birds of prey are won­der­ful. Par­rots aren’t too far be­hind.’’

Her avian love af­fair be­gan when, as a teenager rid­ing her horse in the pad­docks around Can­berra, Olsen stum­bled on a wedge- tailed ea­gle. ‘‘ I rode over the hill and there it was, about 3m away. We just stared at each other. It was won­der­ful.’’

Olsen has a for­mi­da­ble rep­u­ta­tion as a zo­ol­o­gist. Her doc­toral the­sis on nest­ing fal­cons was ground­break­ing. She has writ­ten dozens of sci­en­tific pa­pers, sat on a mul­ti­tude of gov­ern­ment boards and been awarded the D. L. Ser­venty Medal for con­tri­bu­tions to or­nithol­ogy.

What sets her aside from fel­low nat­u­ral his­tory sci­en­tists is that she is also an ac­com­plished au­thor, with a string of ac­claimed books and lit­er­ary gongs to her credit.

Sci­en­tists strug­gle to ex­plain their work to a broad read­ship, Olsen says. ‘‘ We’re gen­er­ally not good com­mu­ni­ca­tors when it comes to the wider pub­lic. Writ­ing for science and writ­ing for the pub­lic are dif­fer­ent skills.’’ Few wildlife sci­en­tists man­age to blend a flair for the writ­ten word with in­no­va­tive re­search.

It helps that crit­ters have been in Olsen’s veins for as long as she can re­mem­ber. ‘‘ I al­ways had a close affin­ity with an­i­mals. When I was young, I was shy and viewed peo­ple with sus­pi­cion. I was just more com­fort­able with an­i­mals.’’

Olsen’s fa­ther was an Aus­tralian Army of­fi­cer whose job took the fam­ily to var­i­ous post­ings over­seas be­fore they set­tled in Can­berra when she was 11. ‘‘ We lived in Amer­ica and in Europe, but wher­ever it was, I would gather up sick an­i­mals and take them home to nurse.’’

Olsen’s aca­demic ca­reer kicked off in the CSIRO with a study of na­tive wa­ter rats. ‘‘ Ev­ery­one thinks of rats as dis­gust­ing, gross things spread­ing pesti­lence. What I found were beau­ti­ful, very smart an­i­mals ( that) were a plea­sure to work with.’’

She took a lengthy break from work to have chil­dren — ‘‘ the best thing I ever did’’ — be­fore re­turn­ing to study to com­plete her PhD. ‘‘ It seemed like a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion to go back to study. It wasn’t dif­fi­cult to do it again af­ter 20 years,’’ she says.

Olsen’s wildlife re­search calls for more than aca­demic nous. She is adept at ab­seil­ing be­cause there was no other way to get down steep cliffs to reach the pere­grine fal­con nests she stud­ied. Reach­ing speeds of 320km/ h, the pere­grine is the world’s fastest bird. The fal­cons re­sent hu­man in­trud­ers at their nests. It was nerve- rack­ing for Olsen to be sus­pended on a rope from a cliff as scream­ing pere­grines dive- bombed her mer­ci­lessly. ‘‘ You could de­scribe it as some­what in­tim­i­dat­ing,’’ she says.

Olsen’s doc­toral the­sis un­earthed ev­i­dence of the in­sid­i­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects of agri­cul­tural chem­i­cals, es­pe­cially DDT. She found chem­i­cals had caused the thin­ning of fal­con eggshells, caus­ing them to shat­ter be­fore chicks could de­velop. ‘‘ That was a wake- up call. It made me re­alise the ex­tent to which we hu­mans were stuff­ing ev­ery­thing up,’’ she says.

Her work also took her to Nor­folk Is­land to study a boo­book, a species of owl found nowhere else. She trapped a fe­male owl, mark­ing the bird’s tail with fin­ger­nail pol­ish so it could be iden­ti­fied again. It turned out to be the only owl left on the is­land and on earth; the bird had some­how sur­vived the depre­da­tions of in­tro­duced black rats and for­est- clear­ing.

A male New Zealand boo­book, a close rel­a­tive of the Nor­folk bird, was rushed to the is­land, where it bred suc­cess­fully with the fe­male, dubbed Mi­amiti af­ter a Poly­ne­sian princess. Thanks to Olsen, the boo­book was brought back from the brink — about 40 sur­vive to­day — but she is not crow­ing. ‘‘ It was a bit of a Pyrrhic vic­tory. Th­ese owls now de­pend on ar­ti­fi­cial nest­boxes and the good­will of gov­ern­ments. That’s a pretty sad state of af­fairs.’’

Olsen has re­turned to the wild hun­dreds of in­jured and or­phaned birds, mainly hawks and fal­cons. ‘‘ I’ve looked af­ter as many as 50 birds at once. It’s a fan­ta­sic feel­ing when you re­lease some­thing and watch it wing­ing away.’’

Her ven­tures as an au­thor be­gan humbly enough in 1992 with two chil­dren’s books: Ea­gles and Vul­tures and Fal­cons and Hawks. Soon af­ter, her first se­ri­ous tome, Aus­tralian Birds of Prey, was pub­lished.

Feather and Brush: Three Cen­turies of Aus­tralian Bird Art, prob­a­bly her best- known book, cel­e­brates the work of 93 nat­u­ral his­tory artists. Olsen’s books are ex­ten­sively il­lus­trated. Her great joy as the ed­i­tor of the Birds Aus­tralia jour­nal Wing­span is to ‘‘ bring th­ese sto­ries about birds to life with beau­ti­ful pho­to­graphs’’.

Re­search for the par­adise par­rot book was an eye opener, Olsen says. The rich­ness of his­tor­i­cal records was un­ex­pected. When nat­u­ral­ist John Gil­bert dis­cov­ered the par­rot on the Dar­ling Downs in 1844, he begged his em­ployer, cel­e­brated or­nithol­o­gist John Gould, to name this ‘‘ most beau­ti­ful of the whole tribe I have seen’’ af­ter him.

A few months later, Gil­bert was killed by Abo­rig­ines. A few decades later, the bird was what Monty Python’s John Cleese fa­mously de­scribed as an ex- par­rot. Ant- bed ten­nis courts aside, the par­rots were wiped out by the de­struc­tion of their wood­land habi­tat through live­stock graz­ing.

Yet those Olsen de­scribes as ‘‘ true be­liev­ers’’ refuse to ac­cept the par­rot’s ex­tinc­tion, just as peo­ple do not want to be­lieve that the Tas­ma­nian tiger, which van­ished at about the same time, no longer sur­vives. Eighty years af­ter the last con­firmed record of par­adise par­rots, re­ports of sight­ings con­tinue. Nu­mer­ous ex­pe­di­tions have been mounted in fruit­less searches for the Holy Grail of Aus­tralian birds.

Says Olsen: ‘‘ We’re a per­verse lot. We cling to the hope that the par­rot and the Tassie tiger are still with us, yet that abid­ing de­sire would be much bet­ter di­rected to­wards sav­ing what we have left of the nat­u­ral world.’’

Pic­ture: Kym Smith

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