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The Natural and Unnatural History of the Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo

The magnificent sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) is one of the most sought after of all bird pets.  It is also one of the most intelligent, and as such has become well known to TV and movie viewers the world over as an “actor”.  However, its natural history is less in the spotlight, and holds some interesting surprises.

Range and Habitat

Sulphur-crested cockatoos range along Australia’s north-central coast and throughout the eastern third of the continent and on New Guinea, its offshore islands and Aru Island.  Long-collected as a pet, it has been introduced and breeds in the wild on New Zealand, Palau and Indonesia’s Ceramlaut and Goramlaut Islands.

These cockatoos always live within flying distance of water, but otherwise occupy a range of habitats, including forest, open woodlands, brushy savannas and farms.  Favored roosting sites remain in use for decades, even if changes in food availability necessitate long-distance flights.

A Variable Feeding Strategy

Interestingly, cockatoos living in different habitats show widely varying defensive adaptations.  In eastern Australia, where flocks feed in open country on the ground, sentries are always posted in nearby trees.  These individuals keep watch for danger, rising high into the air and screaming as a warning to the flock.

In northern Australia, sulphur-crested cockatoos usually feed in trees at forest edges, where they are less vulnerable to predators than are ground-feeding birds.  Consequently, the sentinel system has not been developed by this segment of the population.

The World’s Most Magnificent Crop Pest?

It is difficult for non-Australians to imagine these fabulous birds in the role of “crop pest”, but a flock of several hundred descending upon a field can be devastating.  They also have been known to ravage harvested grain by ripping into bags held at storage sites.  The clever “raiding parties”, always forewarned of danger by “scouts”, are rarely caught in the act.

On the other hand, the important role of this species in consuming the seeds of harmful weeds and the larvae of crop-feeding insects is well documented.

Cockatoos as Pets

The sulphur-crested cockatoo’s sizable brain and body renders it a wonderful but demanding pet.  Its basic needs are similar to those of related large parrots – a healthful diet, full spectrum light and a large cage or outdoor aviary.  However, the social aspects of keeping such a bird are quite complicated…this is a species best reserved for experienced hobbyists.

Further Reading

Please see my article on Goffin’s Cockatoos  for more information on cockatoo husbandry basics.

Information on the conservation status of this cockatoo may be found at http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=1399&m=0.


Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by Noodle Snacks.

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