When cockatoos become too many cockatoos

Louts flood the otherwise peaceful seaside town of Lorne, on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. With their bobbing mohawks, they travel in gangs, hang out for hours on the main strip, yelling obscenities at passersby. Every once in a while, a particularly daring one pulls up next to a diner having lunch outside, leans over and steals chips from their plate. Signs warn against encouraging them.

These dirty-mouthed villains are, well, chickens. They are sulfur-crested cockatoos — popular pets in the United States — and corellas, a species of cousin cockatoo that lacks that distinctive yellow plumage and appears to be suffering from a severe 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 extremely intelligent. They are natural problem solvers and are known for crafting tools and, on rare occasions, dancing to music of varying tempos. They live for decades, mate for life and love to play, whirling like trapeze performers on a thread.

But you can also have too much of a good thing. And in some parts of Australia, flocks of hundreds or even thousands of birds prey in unwanted places, sometimes leaving a trail of property destruction.

Farmers despise the birds for the damage they cause. Residents of streets to which they have migrated en masse despair at the constant screeching. In Melbourne they parade along the river with their own air. In Sydney, they’ve taken up residence on the glittering waterfront. Despite not being migratory, they have established a community on the western edge of Australia, in Perth.

This, of course, is not the cockatoos’ fault. In the 20th century, large parts of Australia were cleared for agriculture, depriving the birds of their habitat and forcing them to change their diet, which consisted mainly of native yams, to a combination of grain and weeds. Then, in the 1950s, the introduced virus myxomatosis razed the rabbit population, reducing competition for grain and thriving cockatoo populations. More recently, flying pets have joined flocks and the abundance of human food scraps has further increased breeding populations.

It is difficult to know how to solve this feathered problem. Although their populations are thriving, galahs, long-billed corellas, and sulfur-crested cockatoos are native wildlife and as such are protected by law. Farmers should not attempt to scare, disperse, or destroy cockatoos without state approval. Non-lethal methods have mostly failed: Attempts to use drones to scare them away failed when the birds realized they were not threatened and moved on as they were.

While municipalities have moved to gas or capture the birds, some citizens have quietly and illegally taken matters into their own hands. More than 100 corellas were found poisoned in northern Victoria this week. In 2019, dozens of corellas collapsed over Adelaide after suspected poisoning. The year before, more than 250 sulfur-crested cockatoos died in northeast Victoria from poisoning from omethoate, a common chemical on the farm.

Under certain circumstances, usually related to the amount of damage they do, they can be shot by sight, but ornithologists warn that doing so could disrupt lifelong partnerships and create undue stress on birds just trying to get by in an altered world.

“Destroying them could mean breaking up for years of love relationships and really wreaking havoc on the species as a whole,” Gisela Kaplan, an ornithologist at the University of New England, told The Age newspaper. She suggested using raptors to startle them or establish “sanctuary areas” as more humane alternatives.

And now for this week’s stories.

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