Saving WA’s Black Cockatoos

 

 

 

As we watch a flock of Carnaby’s cockatoos descending on Norfolk Pines in suburban Cottesloe, it’s easy to forget these iconic birds are in grave danger.

After all, these majestic West Australian black cockies have never been more visible in the western suburbs; to the casual observer it looks like they’ve settled on a fine food source around these parts; what with all these Norfolk Pines. Sadly, not so.

Norfolk Pines, so readily planted around Cottesloe 110 years ago, are not on a Carnaby’s menu, unlike many of the native trees that were here originally. Now those natives have been cleared across the south west of the State, numbers of Carnaby’s and other Black Cockatoos, the Baudin’s and Forest Red-Tail, have plummeted.

While Red-Tails and Carnaby’s cockatoos have learned to adapt and eat from other trees in the metro area including pines, Norfolk Pines, from Norfolk Island, are not true pine trees (ie not of the Pinus genus) so were never an option.

 

 

Meantime, many of these plantations, e.g. Murdoch, are being replaced by housing developments, so it’s even harder for our Black Cockies, heading out each day to different suburban areas, scrounging to find the right food, before returning by night to their roosts that are close to native bushland, where they can drink.

There are only about 40,000 Carnaby’s left in WA.

The situation for Baudin’s and Forest Red-Tails is even worse. These two Black Cockatoos, which prefer Jarrah and Marri forest, are running out of habitat.

There are only about 12,000 Baudin’s and 15,000 Forest Red-Tails remaining

With fewer birds being hatched every year, little wonder their numbers are plummeting.

 

 

“Black cockatoos are having to adapt to living in urban areas. – but they surely can only take so much fragmentation and loss of habitat,” says renowned conservationist Margaret Owen, who was awarded an Order of Australia medal for services to conservation and the environment this year..

“Each piece lost makes life harder and harder for black cockatoos to survive into the future.”

From 2010 until last year, the number of Carnaby’s on the Perth-Peel Coastal Plain has plummeted by a massive 35 per cent.

 

WA Museum cocky expert Ron Johnston chatted with The Starfish

 

And Ron Johnstone, our State’s foremost expert on these majestic birds, (he has 2, 500, 000 records in his data base)  explains the numbers continue to fall as there are less new breeding sites for the birds every year.

“Numbers have gradually been declining since the 50s, due to habitat loss and large scale clearing in much of the wheatbelt and Banksia and Tuart woodlands on the Swan Coastal Plain, ” Ron tells The Starfish.

The gradual razing of the wheatbelt  – “one of the largest clearings on the planet” – in which so many native trees have been destroyed has meant, tragically, that the birds’ major breeding source has been hugely diminished.

 

 

The birds breed in hollows of old smooth-barked eucalypts including Salmon Gum and Wandoo. Also Tuart, Flooded Gum, Karri, Bullich and Marri.

Continued deforestation across the south-west and the disappearance of metropolitan pine plantations (which the birds had adapted to in recent years after the decline of Banksia woodlands), has meant it’s even harder for the birds.

“They’ve lost so much ground,” says Ron, at  his WA Museum office in Welshpool.

Climate change is another problem for the birds, Ron informs. And pesky introduced birds like the corella, and even some introduced bees, are competing for the fewer remaining hollows where they nest and breed.

 

Corella competition

 

Ron, who began working at the Museum in 1969 and has been studying these birds for decades, knows their movements across WA intimately. He can name various flocks, tell you how they’ve been affected by fire and deforestation, and even what foods they’re now eating in their struggle to adapt to what’s around. Some of the material they’re now eating is not so healthy for them.

(He has some depressing anecdotes about Carnaby’s standing on highways picking at grain that had fallen from a truck, or stopping to drink from puddles, with disastrous results.)

 

 

So what can we all do to help these precious birds survive?

Firstly, say Ron, planting natives in our yards will help supply food sources for the cockatoos within four years or so.

“Most people can grow things in their garden,” says Ron.

Black Cockatoo friendly plants include Slender Banksia, Firewood Banksia, Acorn Banksia, Parrot Bush, Urchin Dryandra, Lesser Bottlebrush, Marri and Jarrah (for large gardens) Fuchsia Grevillea, Honey Bush, Two-Leaf Hakea and Wavy-leafed Hakea.

Even nut trees like Macadamias can all make a difference.

Secondly, he says, ensure your yard has water for the birds.

“It makes such a difference.”

 

 

These days, he says, many cockatoos have been forced to flock to the local cemetery to drink,  “ Most seem to be Roman Catholics!”

And of course, councils could replace introduced trees with native trees. Cottesloe’s dying Norfolk Pines, are not a food source for our endangered Carnaby’s. (The birds can eat seeds from traditional pine trees, of the family Pinaceae, but the Norfolk Pines, endemic to Norfolk Island, are from the conifer family Araucariaceae.) Rather than being replaced with more Norfolks, maybe black cockatoo-friendly natives could be considered?

Though many Cottesloe residents are sentimental about the Norfolk Pines, it’s perhaps worth remembering that the trees are not native and replacing them with the trees that traditionally abounded on the coastal plain would help save these endangered birds.

Says Margaret Owen, “A big increase in our urban canopy, particularly to link bushland and wetland areas and to link the Swan River to the Indian Ocean, is urgently needed. State and local governments are planting trees that provide cover and food for birds, and that cool our streets – but a lot more must be done. This is urgent!”

Margaret is an active member of a group formed to protect a 32 hectare area of Banksia/Jarrah woodland between Bold Park and Kings Park owned by the University of Western Australia, which Ron believes is suitable for both Carnaby’s and Red-tails to breed in.

 

 

The group, Friends of Underwood Avenue Bushland was formed in 1998 to try to prevent a proposed housing development on the bushland; the proposal remains an ongoing controversy.

Margaret believes the WA Government needs to ensure there are breeding sites throughout the State and tree corridors for the birds across every suburb.

Birdlife Australia works with Rob and his colleagues sharing data from its annual “Great Cocky Count”, a citizen science survey in which volunteers between Geraldton and Esperance count the number of birds they spot at hundreds of locations.

It’s how we know how swiftly our beautiful Black Cockatoos are disappearing.

Ron believes it’s quite possible that eventually the Carnaby’s cockies will be the only remaining kind of Black Cockatoo.

Here’s hoping we can all do more to help save these magnificent birds.

 

Photos: Margaret Owen, Peter Rigby, WA Museum

8 thoughts on “Saving WA’s Black Cockatoos

  1. So well written Jacq and such an important message to get out there i.e. the ‘Cottesloe Carnaby’s’ Starfish readers see are some of the very few that are left. They are in grave danger and how ironic that Carnaby ‘guru’ Ron Johnstone noted that they are often now seeking water in cemeteries….I’m assuming he’s referring to Karrakatta for the ‘Cottesloe Carnaby’s’. Best, BC.

  2. I am so pleased Ron Johnstone is so well informed and can provide sensible recommendations for future plantings. I love these birds and have watched a group of eight or sometimes four fly through Subiaco morning and night, presumably on their way to and from Kings Park maybe?
    Let’s hope the Councils listen to him.

  3. A very important and comprehensive article on the plight of these beautiful birds. I have a home in Dunsborough and see Black Cockies regularly but certainly not in large numbers.
    I have an idea that could result in carefully selected planting of hundreds, even thousands of the correct trees for both feed and habitat, in the south west region. Could you assist me in contacting Ron Johnstone or alternate experts in this field to see if the idea has merit. I am a member of Rotary Scarborough and we have experience in a long term tree growing and plantout in partnership with schools and using that experience half of the model is already developed.

    1. Hi Mike ,
      I work in bush regeneration around the Margaret river and Busselton shire and I also volunteer in bush regeneration.
      I have been wanting to do something similar to what you are doing , I think there is so much potential around this area for mass plantings of species specific to the area considering much of the cleared land that was originally cleared for farming has now been bought by people with no intention or need to continue using the land for livestock . I would really like to meet up sometime and talk about this important step to ensure the survival of the black cockatoos and so much more .
      Here is my number 0498640374 give me a call anytime

  4. Dear Star Fish, Thankyou Peter for a great article on black cockies. May I suggest a copy of Margaret Owens list of suitable plants, encased in a rigid plastic format be displayed adjacent to the till at various plant nurseries accompanied by a copy of Pete’s article.
    Landscape design architects and suburban councils should be looking at this list also.
    How about “Gardening Australia”? Maybe Margaret Owen on a programme as well?
    The ABC prog. “Australia Remastered” with Aron Pedersen on Cockatoos was a great accompanient to this article.
    Bravo and thankyou Star Fish
    Rosemary Hunter

    The

  5. I volunteer for WAFA West Australian forest alliance .
    I have been bearing witness to the destruction of critical cockatoo habitat in the south west state forests , these forests are being logged at a loss for products like charcoal , firewood and wood chips and mill waste with only 15 percent being used for superficial uses in houses , every product that is taken from these remnant forests can be replaced with plantation timbers , agro forestry and hemp .
    We are making a film called Cry of the forests to try and bring this to the attention of the public with the hope to raise the awareness needed to stop the destruction of this critical habitat needed for the black cockatoos and so much more to survive and thrive into the future !
    Please check out the wafa website and support us in any way you can .
    Thanks so much to everyone involved in such important work to ensure the survival of the majestic black cockatoos, my two year old daughter Alba absolutely loves these beautiful birds .

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