Cheeky and Curious: Australian Cockatoos

Sulphur-crested cockatoos are relatively large white parrots that live throughout northern and eastern mainland Australia and Tasmania, its island state. Colloquially called “cockies,” the novelty of these screechy natives can take visitors by surprise, but cockies are common in Australia, like squirrels in the United States! Since I lived in Australia in 2005-2006 as a grad student, I have loved sulphur-crested cockatoos. Although they have a reputation for being pesky and destructive, their intelligence, curiosity, and sheer brass make me love them anyway. Their brilliant white feathers, bold yellow crests that fan out in dramatic greeting or warning, and the way they strut around is just so… Aussie.

V and I have adored them in Canberra and are going to miss them when we leave. A lot. As my predecessor told me recently, “It’s hard to live somewhere with ‘normal’ birds after Australia.” I wanted to write a broader post about Australian backyard birds, but since time before our departure grows ever shorter, I will narrow it down to my long-time favorite. Here are some funny pictures and videos to remind us of cockies when we are gone and want to reminisce, and also to share with those who are unfamiliar with these entertaining rascals.

Cockies tend to be 18-22 inches tall, and live up to 40 years in the wild. (When in captivity, they can live a human lifespan of over 80 years.) Most of them don’t talk, but I have met ones who lived as pets for decades that imitated their owners’ speech and even made human coughing sounds!

Males’ eyes are apparently black and females’ eyes are reddish-brown, but in all my years of looking at them, I haven’t really been able to see the difference. All the eyes look black to me!

Sulphur-crested cockatoos live in tree hollows and raise their young there, usually a couple each year, in nests they make of wood chips.

Sometimes they are confused with Australian yellow-crested cockatoos or corellas, which differ slightly in size and plumage. Their main diet is nuts, roots, seeds, and berries, but every once in a while you will see one triumphant with a fry, chip, or hunk of bread.

If you watch cockies eat, you will notice that they always eat with their left foot – guess it’s a parrot thing. When we first moved into our Canberra house, we allowed them to eat on the back porch (or as Australians would say, the ‘verandah’). Gradually as the weather warmed and V added hanging flowers and railing flower baskets, we tried to make that area less attractive to them, and instead placed food in three spots around the yard – two on the fence and one hanging from the cherry tree.

I took the below video last year when almost two dozen cockies landed in the yard at once – it really shows how funny and loud they are:

It also shows how numerous they can be, leading many to consider them pests. In our experience, other birds such as crimson rosellas are more of a nuisance because they snip off rosebuds and thin tree branches, whereas the cockies mostly arrive to eat and make a lot of noise, and then leave.

These birds are very curious and social. Videos of them inspecting traffic cameras and articles about them chewing through tens of thousands of dollars of internet cable abound.

Sure, this behavior is costly and annoying, but I admit I also find it a little funny. Partly in a “cockatoos cockatooing around” kind of way, and partly in an ironic way: humans have been destroying the woodland habitats and tree hollows cockies need. To adapt, they have moved into urban environments, which they forage around in and explore to meet their basic needs. They aren’t “bad” – they’re wild animals!

They are also highly intelligent. In fact, scientists consider them the most intelligent among parrots. Scientific research has also shown that they are capable of synchronizing their movements to musical beats. Cockies engage in a number of activities to sharpen and trim their beaks, which never stop growing.

V and I many times have seen them on street lights trying to pop open the plastic light covering by working together: one bird wedges its beak in while the other hangs and pulls. When successful they chew through the rubber lining underneath.

Here’s a video V took in a parking lot of cockies trying to chew cables and rip the cover off a street light; it gives you a good indication of how they sound and can act.

If that one hanging from the light wasn’t a cheeky little bastard! I guess what is less funny is the damage they do to grain and cereal crops and people’s homes. They do seem to enjoy chewing soft timber and patio furniture. I chased some away last year who were trying to wedge their beaks under our roof tiles. There was also a close encounter between a cockie who snipped V’s hanging petunia and the business end of a broom, but fortunately they learned not to send us any more “messages” when we are not home to feed them.

I’ve also heard stories from Australians about cockies destroying their yards. One guy told me when his neighbor who feeds neighborhood cockies was away on a long trip, cockies chewed through the rubber around his porch windows and he returned to find them in his house! I have regularly seen them sharpening their beaks on our porch and in our apple tree.

They are also very demonstrative – they love attention, and will peek at you to see if you notice them. If we are in the kitchen, the ones standing on the railing would make eye contact with us. I will never forget the metal scraping sound their claws make and THUD of them skidding to a landing on our porch roof. “Cockies!” whoever is closest to the kitchen will yell.

Since the first time I saw these birds though, I thought they were beautiful. They make a godawful raucous call, but for some reason it makes me smile.

I used to sit in class as cockatoos would screech outside and grin as my Australian friends would roll their eyes.

One of my favorite parts of living in Australia has been introducing my loved ones to the native wildlife that North Americans find unusual, but that occurs here in abundance. When my family came to visit me in Sydney in 2006, they also found the cockies funny and cute, and were surprised that they just walk around in the city.

And of course, in 2016 when I received my second tour assignment to Canberra, I tried to explain to V how much I loved these birds but he didn’t fully relate until he came and met them himself.

Now they are best buds.

This one got very disturbed by us for some reason!

On our roof, where they would sometimes stash bread in the rain gutter – 2019

V started following a Facebook page called Cockatoo Wingtag a couple of years ago that I hadn’t known about. The group is a joint research project between the University of Sydney, Australian Museum, and Royal Botanic Garden Sydney that since 2011 has tagged over 100 cockatoos to study their migration and behavior. People use Facebook and the app to share sightings of the tagged birds in NSW, and many of the photos are quite humorous. Recently they asked for the public’s help to determine whether cockies were rummaging in rubbish bins and dumpsters. Obviously, hilarity ensued.

I was surprised a few months back to see the results of one yearlong study showing the movements of two urban Sydney cockatoos. The results (below) startled me and made me think differently about them: within a year’s time, these two cockies really stuck to a familiar small radius of a few city miles. I always assumed they traveled hundreds of miles, I guess because they are so large and there is so much competition for food and hollows, including with other species.

Photo: Cockatoo Wingtag Facebook page (for reference, the top middle of the blue is about where the Sydney Opera House is – March 2019)

Cockatoo Wingtag’s research is important, particularly to learn more about urban birds’ behavior around habitat, feeding, and people. Consider liking their page on Facebook if you want to keep an eye on the Wingtag project.

The video below is one of my favorites – V trying to coax a cockie in our front yard to take some bread instead of chewing up a bush.

In Canberra the nesting season is from August to January (late winter through the middle of summer) and that’s when we have tended to see the heaviest concentration of them in our backyard.

During fall and winter in Canberra, you can see large flocks of cockies foraging on the ground, usually with one or two perched overhead on a street light or in a tree keeping watch. This is where the Australian slang cockie for a “lookout” comes from.

Probably the saddest thing we have experienced here in relation to cockies is the way psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD) affects the parrot population. PBFD attacks parrots’ feathers, beaks, and claws, causing birds to eventually go bald and develop fractures in their beaks. An acute case can kill a bird within a year or two, but chronic cases can last for years and birds will eventually freeze, starve, or die of secondary infections.

Several months ago, we noticed that a couple of birds who would come to the backyard had really dirty feathers. It is easy to notice, because cockies are so white otherwise.

One in particular started to hang around every day and got our attention, mostly because of his sweet demeanor, and patience: where most cockies would crash-land on the roof and screech to alert us of their presence (a food demand), this bird would land on the fence by the feeding plate and wait silently for us to notice him if no seeds or bread were there. Presumably this sometimes took hours.

Our most beloved Beak – January 2019

Initially we nicknamed him “the pensioner.” Because of his appearance, we assumed he was an old bird. We shared the above picture with the scientists at Cockatoo Wingtag who gave us the bad news: this parrot has PBFD.

So we renamed him Beak, and stepped up our care towards him. Because PBFD is highly contagious and spreads through water and feeding sources as well as through their feather dust, we were worried that other birds might have gotten infected in our yard from Beak’s presence. But we will never really know.

As we earned this gentle bird’s trust, he allowed us to come much closer than any other cockie would. He eventually even ate out of our hands! This worried us and was a red flag about his health, but also allowed us to monitor up-close the fissures in his beak, which over the months became fractures and eventually some of his beak broke off completely. He usually seemed exhausted. Other cockies would try to keep him from eating, so when Beak was there we would chase the others away. Many times after eating a full piece of multigrain bread and drinking several long pulls out of the bird bath, he would go to the apple tree and sleep, literally all day.

Our embassy neighbors down the street reported similar interactions with him, which we found comforting, knowing that others were also looking out for him. They took the pictures below of Beak in their backyard.

Photo: RP

Photo: RP

Other birds did actively shun him; see the below picture in which Beak sits on the porch railing and the other cockies stay on the roof. They instinctively knew something was not right with him, and so they protected themselves. It’s nature’s way.

We are a little sad, because we have not seen Beak for about two months now, maybe a little longer. Although winter is not the prime time for cockie backyard visits, there was a period of months when we saw him daily. He knows he can be safe here, so I can only assume he would make it here if he could. The video below taken by V was one of our last Beak sightings, if not the last, in which he was obviously doing quite poorly.

It breaks my heart to watch how hard it got for him to eat, and how little appetite he had, but I feel better knowing that if he is still out there, or even if he isn’t, he felt our love and it eased his suffering.

Currently, the only cure for PBFD is euthanasia. V and I decided we would not alert ACT Wildlife about Beak unless we saw him totally incapacitated. As it was, we observed him drink, eat, and groom on a regular basis, so although he was clearly unwell, we didn’t think capture and euthanasia was right for a bird still capable of living. We just focused on trying to take care of him the best we could.

The husband of one of my colleagues and dear friends here works for the Australian Department of Environment and Energy, and they are looking at trials for a vaccine that could protect birds against PBFD, which would be so wonderful. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Check out these healthy-looking ones:

We did put our favorite tea towels and cloth bags featuring sulphur-crested cockatoos into our UAB, so we will have those things with us in Virginia while I’m in training. I know that whenever I miss them, all I have to do is imagine the next family to live in our house enjoying them as much as we have, or picture them screeching through the skies of Canberra, or re-read this post, and it will be all right. Whether you love them or can’t stand them, you have to admit they are a unique and special part of the native animal population here.

  6 comments for “Cheeky and Curious: Australian Cockatoos

  1. July 25, 2019 at 06:28

    Great post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. August 3, 2019 at 14:40

    The story about Beak was so cute but so sad!

    Liked by 1 person

    • August 3, 2019 at 15:56

      I know. We did not see him again after the video, and it makes us sad. We left him a Beak-sized birdhouse shaped like a tree hollow, in case he comes back and needs a safe place to rest.

      Liked by 1 person

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Sarah W Gaer

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