Cockatoos are a branch of the parrot family, and are easily distinguished as they have crests and are usually larger than other Australian parrots – we don’t get the great big macaws here, which only live around Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. This explains why you rarely see a cockatoo on a pirate’s shoulder – although they can certainly talk.
Anyway, like parrots there are lots of types of cockatoo (I’ll do more later, including my favourites the black cockatoos), but the common ones around here and the subject of this post are the archetypal sulphur crested cockatoo. You’re as likely to hear one as see one – they are very loud and make a harsh squawk that can be heard for miles. I always think of Jurassic Park if I’m in the middle of the rainforest somewhere and I hear their shriek – birds are descended from the dinosaurs and I can well believe it.
All cockatoos have crests, and as the name implies the sulphur crested has a pale yellow one. They stick them up quite often – what’s the point of having a crest unless you do? However I found it a devil of a job to get a photo of one with it’s crest up – eventually I did only the other day at sunset:
I can get any number of shots with the crest down. People put out seed in the Dandenongs, and there are crowds of semi-tame birds that will climb on your shoulder at Grants Picnic Ground, like this one below. Taking pictures of these might be cheating, but you can get nice and close, there are also some nice rainforest walks around there, a reasonable cafe along with the obligatory souvenir shop, so definitely a good stop for visitors.
Cockatoos have become pests in some areas – they maintain their bill by chewing things – wood in the wild, but also external wiring, window seals and frames, television aerials, satellite dishes, all sorts. They can also become so accustomed to people they’ll fly into kitchens, grab nuts etc from the cupboards and flee. I haven’t seen this myself, probably because we live well outside the city itself, and there are plenty of other things for them to trash or eat.
One other thing that cockatoos are famous for is talking. As you might imagine they have a rather harsh accent, and of course it’s not really talking but mimicry – you can’t have a real conversation with them or any other bird. However their mimicry is good enough to form the plot of no end of books and films – how many times has some kind of parrot heard and later repeated who the murderer was, what the safe combination is, or even pretend to be James Bond when talking to the prime minister?
And maybe it isn’t just mimicry. On an intelligence scale of one to dolphins, birds rate pretty highly, and parrots and crows are up with the best of them. There’s controversy here, but there have been cases where actual communication is thought to have happened. However it doesn’t seem reproducible yet, so I think we’ll have to wait and see on that one. For now here’s my favourite shot of a cockatoo – I surprised it at a small park in Leura in the Blue Mountains and it flew right at me and past my head, squawking as it went…