The Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo

After living in Sydney for 6 months, it is impossible to think of Australia without the vast flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos that inhabit both town and country. Indeed, what the east coast lacks in snow it makes up for with the drifts of white plumage that settle on trees, lampposts and really whatever space is available. It is not hard to find these birds while walking around the city, but a popular viewing spot is in the Royal Botanical Gardens of Sydney. Here the flocks (some tagged for scientific research) wheel around the airy parks, providing a dynamic foreground to the spectacular views of the opera house and the harbour bridge.

Sulphur-crested cockatoos have adapted well to life in the city, and can be found in towns throughout eastern Australia, and even as far west as Perth, despite the huge desert separating this area from the rest of their range. These birds feed primarily on plant materials such as seeds and berries, along with the occasional insect, and so the city is not an obvious place to fulfil their dietary requirements. However, the cockatoo’s urban success lies partly in the hostility of this environment, which eradicates other birds with whom the cockatoo must no longer compete.

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A tagged cockatoo looks down from its perch

Human civilisation, as in the rest of the world, has been increasingly encroaching on Australia’s wild habitats, and it requires the special intelligence and hardiness of birds such as the cockatoo to survive these invasions. They, along with the Australian white ibis, are able to negotiate urban environments, seeking out parks to obtain their food. Both these birds have increasingly fraught relationships with humans, however, who often see their presence as undesirable and unhygienic. In these cases it is important to remember that these habitats were theirs first, and much harm has been done to their fellow species by our own presence.

Without these birds, cities would become increasingly sterile, further separating humans from the natural world of which they are a part. As it stands, the sulphur-crested cockatoo forms a valuable part of the character of cities such as Sydney, where they engage in raucous screeching competitions with traffic, peel the bark of the eucalyptus trees (which is beneficial both for nest building and ridding the tree of fungi) and offer wonderful views of their raised crests.

Some of my most spectacular sightings of sulphur-crested cockatoos were during morning drives into the outback. The miles of grey scrubland would be studded occasionally with the white dots of these birds as they searched for grubs. Suddenly they would take off together, whirling across the skyline in a flurry of lemon meringue feathers. I also remember how expressively their black eyes seemed to wink intelligence and even a sense of humour. They have a reputation for such characteristics, and watching them navigate branches using their beaks as a grasping tool is both wondrous and amusing. I met one with a fondness for the phrase “You’ve left your keys in the car!”, and it is believed that they can understand when to use phrases such as “Hello” and “Goodbye” correctly.

Any trip to Australia’s east coast is sure to feature these characterful birds, whether in the plazas of the city, the forests of the countryside or the beautiful beaches of Sydney. One of the country’s least elusive animals, they are a nonetheless a real treat for the nature enthusiast, adding colour to whichever scene they inhabit.

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A flock of cockatoos at Balmoral Beach

For more snapshots of our earth and its wonderful plants and animals, follow Earth to Us. I hope you will enjoy exploring the world with me as we listen to some of the fascinating stories that nature has to tell us.

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