Sulphur-crested cockatoos: Australian icon

By Australian Geographic August 19, 2021
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Here are three things you may not have known about Australia’s sulphur-crested cockatoos.

Sulphur-crested cockatoos may be ubiquitous in the landscape, but you’ll find very few people who can speak to their complex inner lives. 

Some say they’re the ultimate ‘jerk bird’ while others regard them as the genius parrot, and the truth is, they’re both. 

Ecologist Dr John Martin who’s spent years observing sulphur-crested cockatoos in Sydney – analysing everything from their social hierarchy, advanced cognitive abilities and how they operate in human modified environments  – is a witness to this.

John ran The Wingtags Project, now the Big City Birds app, which asks people to submit their sightings of bird behaviours, including individually wing-tagged birds, which are all named.

“We get reports from people who will say, ‘Oh, I love PartyBoy. He’s lovely and gentle and interacts with me. Brutus, on the other hand, he’s a pain in the neck and a bully’. Birds have different personalities.” 

Sulphur-crested cockatoos, like most parrot species, have demonstrated high levels of intelligence, which is most obvious in the ways they’ve adapted to live with humans. 

“In some areas cockies will land on your hand or shoulders,” John says. “How many other birds do this? They are a wild animal and they are showing a behaviour that’s extremely abnormal in the animal world. They’ve learnt that humans aren’t a predator and aren’t to be feared.” 

So, next time you see a sulphur-crested cockatoo, keep these three amazing facts in mind. 

(Video credit: Dani Griffith/@sydneycockatoos)

Sulphur-crested cockatoos have rhythm

Sure, you can train a sulphur-crested cockatoo to bob along to a song, but did you know that they actually have a rhythm of their own? Research published in 2019 revealed that cockatoos have a solid repertoire of dance moves that go beyond what they’re taught.

We met YouTube star Snowball, the dancing sulphur-crested cockatoo that synchronised his movements to the music of the Backstreet Boys, a decade ago.

Dr Gisela Kaplan, a leading expert in avian cognition believed Snowball’s initial behaviours were relatively unremarkable. 

“Why I initially thought the significance was overblown was because cockatoos bob their heads in their natural environment in several communicative acts such as play readiness and they may do so also rhythmically,” she says.

However, the new study found that Snowball may use his forebrain, known as the pallium, which performs similar functions to the human neocortex – the higher cognitive area – to inform its movements.

Snowball’s owner, Irena Schulz noticed that he was demonstrating new dance moves she hadn’t seen him perform before.

According to the paper, the diversity of Snowball’s moves, from body rolls, head bangs and down-shakes, suggests a “strong contribution of the forebrain regions to this behaviour”.

“By capturing Snowball’s movements frame by frame, you see whether the bird’s movements have anything to do with musical rhythm, or have resulted from a well-documented sense of  synchronicity that many birds have used in their courtship display,” Gisela says.

“But since they do not use dancing in courtship displays and are not even songbirds, the question is, why would they have a skill that doesn’t serve them in their natural environments.”

Gisela says it’s possible that a cockatoo’s brain power has far exceeded what it requires for basic survival.

Sulphur-crested cockatoos have learnt to opens bins

If you’ve ever seen a cockie opening a bin, you may have thought it was a classic move from the ‘jerk bird’, but what you’re witnessing is actually quite the phenomenon

Bin-opening by sulphur-crested cockatoos is a relatively new observation. First made in 2015, it took a long time for scientists to prove that it isn’t the result of genetics but rather passed on through social learning. 

In the scientific world, this is known as animal cultural transmission, and is considered to be rare and difficult to prove.

In early 2018, a team of scientists asked Sydney residents to submit videos and photos of cockatoos in their area opening household bins to scavenge food. The survey was then repeated in 2019, and 500 cockatoos across the suburbs of Sutherland, Helensburgh and Stanwell Park were marked with small dots of paint. This allowed the scientists to assess which birds were opening the bins and how they were doing it.

“We discovered different subcultures,” says Australian Museum ecologist Dr Richard Major, who is a co-author of the groundbreaking study published in July 2021. “There were slight variations in the way different groups were opening bins. Birds within one group would open the bins in a similar fashion, while another group from a separate area would use an entirely different method.

“It’s trivial things like whether it walks left when it’s sliding the bin open, and whether it holds the bin lid half open with its foot or beak,” explains Richard, “and because these techniques varied geographically but were similar among close individuals, it’s an indication that opening bins is socially learned.”

(Video credit: Barbara Klump)

Sulphur-crested cockatoos are socially complex

Through the Big City Bird app, we’ve gained important insights into sulphur-crested cockatoos and what their lives are like in Sydney. 

Most of the cockies reside in flocks of 50–100 birds, and surprisingly, don’t travel very far from this flock. “This is a big bird that could easily cover a huge distance in 15–20 minutes, but they choose not to,” John says. He believes this has something to do with food availability and the feeling of comfort and safety offered by being in a flock.

The flocks we’ve assessed have a dominant male and female, who are also a mating pair. Sulphur-crested cockatoos are speculated to maintain mating partnership, at least while their mate is alive. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of these “marriages” can last up to 60 years. “They’re the ones that have a tree hollow and are top dogs,” John says. “When they move through the flock, the others get out of the way.”

Dominant males are also more likely to be doing most of the bin opening. “There’s a dominance hierarchy in a flock and birds that were higher in that hierarchy were more likely to be bin openers,” says Richard. “That’s partially because they have more opportunity and they’re a bit more aggressive. Some would chase other birds off a bin.” The bullies or ‘jerk birds’ of the group, according to John, are usually the ones that have something to prove.

Sulphur-crested cockatoos also maintain close familial ties. According to recent genetic work, some flocks contain three generations of cockatoos, from grandparents to grandchildren. Exactly how long sulphur-crested cockatoos live in the wild is yet to be studied, but the ‘grandparents’ at these study sites were around 21 years of age. 

Citizen science projects dedicated to reporting sightings of urban birds have advanced our understanding of cockatoos, but John says there’s still lots to learn. Australians can assist with the research by participating in the Big City Birds citizen science program.

Help us learn about cockatoo bin-opening: whether you “have” or “have not” observed this behaviour is valuable to science, so please participate here.