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Life in ‘The Land of Parrots’

So common are parrots to this island continent that they factored in one of the earliest European names for Australia.

Three centuries before Matthew Flinders, Portuguese explorers mooted ‘Psitacorum Regio’ (‘The Land of Parrots’) as a suitable name for the southern land they’d seen was replete with parrot life, and that name appears on the 1564 New World Map by Antwerp cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

Paintings by Michael Burge are for sale at

Everyone has their favourite parrot. After more than three decades living in the Blue Mountains, I fell early for the gentle call of the beautiful Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans) not least due to its bright defiance of mountain mist and rain.

Not long after moving to Coochiemudlo Island in 2012, I started to hear talk of another rosella that frequents this part of the world, one that has become more and more elusive – the Pale-headed Rosella (Platycercus adscitus) somewhat related to its crimson cousin.

But the Pale-headed Rosella eludes me to this day. Some of my neighbours recall seeing them here, but not for a few years.

Sporting a full spectrum of colours, including a flash of red under its tail, a magnificent pale gold crown, and the finest ultramarine blues across its cheeks, wings and tail, the Pale-headed Rosella managed to avoid definitive taxonomy for close to a century.

This was undoubtedly because early ornithologists either hadn’t seen more than preserved samples shipped to England, or mistakenly thought they were the first to encounter the bird in the wild. It was surely also because the Pale-headed Rosella had gotten busy interbreeding with very similar species such as the Eastern Rosella and the Yellow Rosella, producing an array of hybrids.

As one of the commonest parrots seen by early European settlers in the Brisbane region, the Pale-headed Rosella was known simply as the ‘Moreton Bay Rosella’ or ‘Parakeet’. Prussian explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt referred to it as such while traversing the region in 1844, and noted in his journal that it was “very numerous”, appearing with the same frequency as the Cockatiel and the White Cockatoo.

‘Pale-headed Parrakeet (sic)’ was the common name applied from 1848 by English ornithologist John Gould, although he was apparently unaware that the Pale-headed Rosella had already been named in 1790 by his predecessor John Latham.

Painting by Michael Burge

The ornithological establishment seems to have hedged its bets and let both men’s identification stand as two subspecies, with Latham’s Platycercus adscitus, a generally bluer-cheeked variety found in the northern zone of Queensland; and Gould’s lesser blue-cheeked Platycercus palliceps found in southeast Queensland.

Despite our abundance of walking birds like Curlews and Plovers, much of the bird life on Coochiemudlo Island, especially where parrots are concerned, lives high above our heads in the old-growth trees.

I’ll need to invest in a pair of binoculars to find one, but I’m on the lookout for a Pale-headed Rosella here on Coochie. It’s a bit of a bird-watcher’s paradise.

Michael Burge is an author, artist and publisher who lives on Coochiemudlo Island. Check out his website.

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