When Cockatoos Become Cocka-Too Much


Louts overrun the otherwise peaceful seaside town of Lorne, on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. With their mohawks bobbing, they travel in gangs, loitering for hours on the main strip and yeling screaming obscenities at passers-by. Occasionally, an especially bold specimen will sidle up alongside a diner lunching outdoors, lean over and steal a French fry from their plate. Signs warn against encouraging them.

These foul-mouthed ruffians are, well, fowl. They’re sulfur-crested cockatoos — popular pets in the United States — and corellas, a kind of cousin cockatoo that lacks that distinctive yellow plumage and appears to be suffering from a bad case of conjunctivitis. Rose-breasted galahs complete the trio of cockatoos.

There’s plenty to love about these charismatic birds. They have character and are hugely intelligent. Natural problem solvers, they have been known to make tools and, in rare cases, dance to music of different tempos. They live for decades, mate for life and love to play, whirling like trapeze artists on a wire.

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

Farmers despise the birds for the damage they cause. Residents of streets where they have migrated en masse despair of the constant screeching. In Melbourne, they strut with a proprietorial air by the river. In Sydney, they have taken up residence on the glittering waterfront. Despite being nonmigratory, they have established a community on Australia’s western edge, in Perth.

Of course, none of this is the cockatoos’ fault. Over the 20th century, large swaths of Australia were cleared for farming, robbing the birds of their habitat and forcing them to change their diet, which had consisted mostly of a native yam, to a combination of grain and weeds. Next, in the 1950s, the introduced virus myxomatosis razed the rabbit population, reducing competition for grain and helping cockatoo populations to flourish. More recently, flyaway 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 feathery problem. Though their populations may be thriving, galahs, long-billed corellas and sulfur-crested cockatoos are native wildlife, and as such are protected by the law. Farmers may not attempt to scare, disperse or destroy cockatoos without state permission. Nonlethal methods have mostly not worked: Attempts at using drones to frighten them away have fallen flat when the birds realized they were not under threat and proceeded as they were.

As councils have moved to gas or trap the birds, some citizens have quietly, and illegally, taken matters into their own hands. This week, more than 100 corellas were found poisoned in northern Victoria. In 2019, dozens of corellas plunged to the ground over Adelaide after a suspected poisoning. The year before, more than 250 sulfur-crested cockatoos died of poisoning by omethoate, a common farm chemical, in Victoria’s northeast.

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

“Destroying them can mean years of loving relationships broken and really doing damage to 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 spook them or establishing “sanctuary areas” as more humane alternatives.

And now for this week’s stories.

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