For a century, the night parrot stood as the enigmatic bird of Australian ornithology until a small population was discovered in Queensland’s far west in 2013. This finding, however, unveiled another mystery—the buff-breasted buttonquail, an Australian bird that has eluded detection for a hundred years. The last confirmed sighting was in 1922, making it a potential candidate for extinction, akin to the fate of the paradise parrot last seen in the 1920s.
Unlike its more famous counterpart, the buff-breasted buttonquail has never been photographed, adding to its elusive nature. This small ground-dwelling bird belongs to a family of polyandrous species known as buttonquail, which are not closely related to “true” quail. Distributed across sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Australia, buttonquail are inconspicuous, often living in grasslands, flying only when disturbed, and rarely observed.
The buff-breasted buttonquail, scientifically known as Turnix olivii, may lack the glamour of more visually striking species, and it did not even make the longlist for the 2023 bird of the year poll by Guardian Australia. Described as cryptic and unremarkable, the bird’s habitat in the scorching savannah of Cape York Peninsula makes studying it a challenging endeavor.
James Watson, the leader of the Research and Recovery of Endangered Species (Rares) team at the University of Queensland, acknowledges the difficulty in studying buff-breasted buttonquails, stating that one must be “mad” and truly passionate about them. However, graduate student Patrick Webster took on the challenge, recognizing the significant gap in scientific understanding regarding this virtually unknown bird.
For four years, Webster, assisted by Watson, ventured through the woodlands of Cape York, concentrating efforts between Mareeba and Mount Molloy. Despite early excitement and numerous encounters that seemed promising, they consistently found the more common painted buttonquail, a closely related species, instead.
Realizing the need to reassess their approach, Webster briefly shifted his focus to study another species, the chestnut-backed buttonquail, successfully locating it in the Top End and Kimberley. This shift raised red flags, leading to the unsettling conclusion that the buff-breasted buttonquail might be in deeper trouble than previously believed.
In response to their findings, the Rares team recommended upgrading the bird’s conservation status from endangered to critically endangered under state and federal legislation. The Queensland government accepted this recommendation in late 2022, highlighting the urgency of addressing the plight of the buff-breasted buttonquail, a mysterious bird facing the looming threat of extinction.