The challenges facing the city cockies

By Angela Heathcote | June 29, 2017

Six years and 138 cockies later we know more about these city cockies than ever before.

SINCE 2011, John Martin, a wildlife ecologist for the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, has been catching and tagging sulphur-crested cockatoos as a part of the Wingtags Project.

Before this, John and a colleague had been researching tree hollow availability and it came as no surprise that there was an enormous deficit in urban areas. Yet, despite this deficit, the sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) with their golden crowns, tended to conquer and occupy whatever hollows were left, which is why John equates them to school bullies.

This kind of behaviour is what inspired the Wingtag Project. People were encouraged to photograph cockatoos around the Sydney region and report whether they’d spotted any with the projects signature yellow tag. Along the way they were affectionately given names like Freckles, Burt and Cockatsu, all dotting the city scapes.

Very little research had been conducted on the urbanised sulphur-crested cockatoos prior to the Wingtag Project. But six years and 138 cockies later we know more about these city cockies than ever before. 

But six years and 138 cockies later we know more about these city cockies than ever before, because members of the community have reported greater than 15,000 sightings through the Wingtags app. “This is a long-term study, and we encourage people to continue reporting”

John says the most surprising thing he discovered was the lack of movement.

“They’re a big bird, they have a large distribution across the country…all the way up to Papua. I would have thought that they would be moving longer distances,” he told Australian Geographic.

All the birds were caught and tagged at the Botanic Garden in Sydney, and only a few of them have move as far as 30 km from the area.“That really strikes me as an unusual behaviour,” John said.

city cockies

(Image Credit: John Martin)

For cockies, breeding and food are the primary motivators for movement. “In the urban environment food isn’t a limiting factor as the cockatoos have trained people to feed them after just a few taps at a window.

“There is a lot of supplementary feeding by people,” he explained, adding that there is very little evidence to suggest that this is having overwhelming effects on the cockatoos health.

Although, John doesn’t advocate feeding birds he said that planting natives and providing natural foods was the best option such as lettuce or raw corn

However, the wildlife ecologist said that while the cockies have adapted new food strategies, breeding remains an issue.  Tree hollows are a limited resource, we’re observing only a small number of birds breeding per year, and we aren’t seeing tagged birds moving out of their area to search for alternate tree hollows to nest and raise offspring.

“We have five years of data and we can see that birds are consistently using their chosen patches,” John explained.

In light of the issues these city cockies face, John has begun the Hollows as Homes project, which expands beyond the Sydney region.

“Across Australia, the loss of hollows has been identified as a key factor in the loss of biodiversity. It takes a long time for a tree to grow and not every tree forms a hollow,” John said. It’s not a quick process so the moment you remove a tree with a hollow it might 50 to 200 years before it’s replaced.”

The project aims to circumvent these environmental costs by asking members of the public to report hollows in their local area, and the species of wildlife breeding and sheltering in the hollows. People can report tree hollows, nest boxes and wildlife through the website www.hollowsashomes.com.

With this information John hopes to create a map that will inform local governments and land care groups of key areas for conservation.

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Caption caption caption. (Image Credit)

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