AS THE COCKATOO FLIES
By Howard Ferris | Photo By David Cook via
A lot of people in Melbourne enjoy seeing brightly coloured flocks of parakeets, lorikeets and raucous “cockies” or cockatoos which fly around the suburbs. Every once in a while there may be a flock of large black cockatoos numbering perhaps 20 or 30 birds which seem to descend on part of the city from nowhere. These are quite unlike the White or Sulphur Crested Cockatoos which people in Melbourne see far more often, and when they do turn up suddenly people here may have no idea what they are.
These darker birds will almost certainly be Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos. They are a big type of cockatoo measuring from 55 up to 68cm in length and have never been a common sight in the city.
Their numbers have been going down for some time due to their woodland environment being broken up into fragments and the destruction of ancient trees with hollows which they depend on for nesting sites. Despite this the 2009 Black Saturday fires destroyed so much woodland near Melbourne that the Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos are believed to need the food supply in Melbourne parks more than before and reported sightings of them in the city have gone up slightly over the last 5 years.
You are now a bit more likely to see them in woody areas near your own home. The area with the most frequently reported sightings of them is Yarra Bend Reserve, they prefer areas with space and high trees and only come down to ground level to drink or investigate fallen pine cones and seed capsules. The species native to our part of Australia is Calyptorhynchus Funereus and they range through Western Victoria, New South Wales and part of Southern Queensland.
When a flock of them flies overhead they are sometimes mistaken for big crows because of their large dark shape and long wings. The dark feathers are a solid black-brown and got them the name “Funereus” when they were first described in 1794 by an English naturalist called George Shaw. He thought they looked sombre and austere, as if dressed for a funeral. You can tell them apart from crows in the air quite easily, the tails are longer than any crow and the flight pattern is often described as “lazy” with only a few slow wing-beats. Crows can be noisy birds with a harsh cry but Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos made a louder racket and are often heard well before they are seen. A flock of them keep up loud contact calls which are a strident and slightly grating noise with a shrill tone to it. People render it in Roman letters in different ways but it’s most often described as “Kee-Owww” and it is loud. Crows never sound like this so it’s easy.
If you can sidle up nearer to them for a better look you will see that they have a yellow cheek or “ear-mark” on the head and yellow panel feathers in the long tails. At closer range you observe a kind of yellow trim, the big dark body feathers have yellow-edged borders called “scalloping” and it makes them look really good. They still have the “Funereus” look to them but it’s in bold black and yellow colour contrasts which I wouldn’t personally wear to a funeral unless I wished to quietly celebrate the death of the departed in formal black and gold. If this description isn’t clear enough there is a range of recordings of them avallable on YouTube if you search under “Wild Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos”. There you can see our one and the other species called Calyptorhynchus Xanthanotus which is native to Western Victoria, Tasmania and part of South Australia. Their one has more distinct scalloping on the body feathers as you will observe if you watch the video. There is a recent video of our ones visiting a property in Emerald in early 2013 and segments showing them in flight, stripping pine nuts out of cones and eating different Banksia cones or seed capsules. You can also see features on conserving them and their nesting and breeding habits. Their contact calls and alarm screeches are clearly heard in these diverting presentations so you can write them down in biro in whatever letters you choose for yourself, there are no rules for writing down parrot and cockatoo calls. If you have heard them you will know why.
I must admit I have never seen these splendid cockies at Yarra Bend, I’ve only spotted the Sulphur Crested Cockatoos we seem to have everywhere else. However, I was in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens when a flock of about thirty Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos suddenly arrived making a lot more noise than in any of the YouTube videos. They are really loud so you generally can’t miss the fact that they’ve landed nearby. I was in a section of the Gardens dedicated to American Succulents, that is different kinds of cactus and yucca. The cockies landed in some gum trees to the south of this and began chomping up eucalypt seed in the branches, apparently they also eat Hakea nuts and the seed capsules of Casuarinas, mainly Sheoaks. While I watched they also stripped bits of bark off the tree trunks and some branches. They would worry away at the timber with their beaks while hanging on to shreds of bark with their claws. I didn’t realise at the time but what I was watching them do is a hunt for wood-boring insects. The Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoo eats more of these bugs in the timber than any of the other cockies, the others are all more vegetarian. The beaks are strong enough to get through the rind wood and tear parasitic crawlies out of heartwood further inside the tree. Watching all this has caused me to read up on these birds to clarify what all the commotion was about. I guessed it was about scoring a free meal in the Botanical Gardens but I didn’t realise what they were eating.
Many other birds visit Melbourne because of the huge range of Australian native plants being grown in the city so you have a sporting chance of observing quite a range of them just by strolling about the suburbs and parks.
Howard Ferris used to be in the New Zealand Ornithological Society and has taken to watching Australian birds in Melbourne parklands. Contact Howard via .