When Cockatoos Become Cocka-Too Much

Madmen invade the quiet seaside town of Lorne on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. With their mohawks swinging, they travel in gangs, wandering for hours on the main strip and shouting obscenities at passersby. Occasionally, an especially daring specimen will approach a restaurant having lunch outdoors, lean over, and steal a potato chip off its plate. Signs warn against encouraging them.

These foul-mouthed ruffians are, well, birds. These are sulfur-crested cockatoos—popular pets in the United States—and corellas, a species of prima cockatoo that lacks that distinctive yellow plumage and appears to be suffering from a severe case of conjunctivitis. Pink-breasted galahs complete the cockatoo trio.

There’s a lot to love about these charismatic birds. They have character and are extremely intelligent. Natural problem solvers, they are known for making tools and, in rare cases, dancing to different tempos. They live for decades, mate for a lifetime, and love to play, twirling like aerialists on a string.

But you can have too much of a good thing. And in some parts of Australia, flocks of hundreds or even thousands of birds plunder places where they are not wanted, sometimes leaving a trail of property destruction in their wake.

Farmers despise birds for the damage they cause. Residents of the streets to which they migrated despair en masse with the constant screams. In Melbourne, they strut their stuff like a riverside owner. In Sydney, they took up residence on the gleaming waterfront. Although not migratory, they established a community in the far west of Australia, in Perth.

Of course, none of this is the cockatoos’ fault. Over the course of the 20th century, large areas of Australia were cleared for agriculture, robbing the birds of their habitat and forcing them to change their diet, which consisted mainly of native yams, to a combination of grains and weeds. Then, in the 1950s, the introduced myxomatosis virus wiped out the rabbit population, reducing competition for grain and helping cockatoo populations to flourish. More recently, flying pets joining the flocks and the abundance of human food scraps have further increased breeding populations.

It is difficult to know how to solve this feather problem. While their populations may be thriving, galahs, long-beaked corellas, and sulfur-crested cockatoos are native wild animals and, as such, are protected by law. Farmers may not try to scare, disperse or destroy cockatoos without state permission. Non-lethal methods generally didn’t work: Attempts to use drones to scare them off failed when the birds realized they weren’t under threat and proceeded as they were.

As councils shifted to gassing or trapping the birds, some citizens silently and illegally took matters into their own hands. This week, more than 100 corellas were found poisoned in northern Victoria. In 2019, dozens of corellas fell on Adelaide after a suspected poisoning. The previous year, more than 250 sulfur-crested cockatoos died from poisoning by omethoate, a chemical common on farms in northeastern Victoria.

Under certain circumstances, usually related to the amount of damage they are causing, they can be shot on sight, but ornithologists warn that this can disrupt lifelong partnerships and cause undue stress to birds that are simply trying to survive in an altered world.

“Destroying them could mean years of broken love relationships and really damage the species as a whole,” Gisela Kaplan, an ornithologist at the University of New England, told The Age newspaper. She suggested using birds of prey to scare them away or establishing “sanctuary areas” as more humane alternatives.

And now for this week’s stories.


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