GREG ROBERTS meets PENNY OLSEN SCIENTIST and AUTHOR
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.’’