Kaarak – The Red Tailed Cockatoos
Red tailed cockatoos look just like Elvis.
Tall, strong and with a huge coif of black feathers jutting out over their forehead, male red tailed cockatoos know how to strut their stuff.
This one had broad shoulders and slender hips, which gave him balance and style. His garb was all black with an occasional flash of brilliant red lining his coat tails!
He kept close company with his partner, although she seemed to be showing her age with her speckles of white. Their new offspring was clearly the apple of his eye,
Red Tailed Cockatoos are serious feeders
Red tailed cockatoos are serious feeders, unlike their white tailed Carnaby’s cousins. Those boys lark about, dropping big marri nuts from high in the trees, just for fun.
Kaarak dined well from marri, jarrah, she-oak and snotty gobble on my block.
The sound of their baby’s cry first drew me near and I was delighted to see how many there were. Delighted because we saw them so infrequently. On this day, nine magnificent red-tailed black cockatoos!
My father (Nono, or Bluey) did not share my admiration. He was forever complaining about the mess left behind each time “Elvis” and his friends called by. To me, it was a small price to pay for such exciting company.
Their huge beaks snip off the outer branches laden with nuts, and they draw the caches of fresh seed to their probing tongues. The distinct sound of their eating brought me under their trees. A shower of projectiles sent me away to a safer distance. The Red Tailed Cockatoos are certainly distinctive when it comes to feeding.
Telling husband and wife apart is pretty easy.
From the ground, it was easy to tell husband and wife apart as they flew in. His tail feathers with solid red blocks of colour underneath, and her’s more feminine with dappled stripes of orange/red and black. Moreover, she was not going grey with age, after all!
Her face, crest, shoulders and underbelly are all dappled with yellow specks, the badges of her role as the primary care-giver. Even so, these red tailed cockatoos possibly live to be seventy years old, and more.
It is not easy to identify the young baby bird, because both sexes have barred tails for several years (similar to the female) before the distinctive male colour is evident.
Breeding and hatching their babies.
It was mid-September, and these youngsters were early hatchlings. Most Red Tailed Cockatoos breed every second year and a study (published not long before September 2008) found that slightly more Red-tails are breeding in winter than in summer.
Their nest in the hollows of a marri, jarrah or karri tree, lined with woodchips, will hold one egg (rarely two).
After 29 days or so the diligent parents, who will
• mate for life,
• rarely bond with another bird if they lose their partner and
• reach sexual maturity at four years,
will get their reward. An almost bald baby, sparsely covered with yellow down.
Mother alone will brood the egg, while father forages in the surrounding bush and he returns to feed the female and young in the evening. It will be three months before the chick is in full fledge (has all its flight feathers) and leaves the nest on its awkward first flight.
Their babies are whingers. Truly! Whingers!
If pink and grey galah babies are “squawkers”, then red-tailed black cockatoo babies are “whingers”. For three hours, this juvenile did little else but sit and whinge for attention. With both parents close by, but being busy feeding themselves, it was completely ignored.
After several hours, I was laughing when I discovered that the three fathers had moved to a large tree fifty yards away. In this small flock of nine birds, they had left their wives to take care of the children!
Every father needs to get away from his whinging kid for a while, with his mates!
What do father Red Tailed Cockatoos talk about on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the last weeks of the Australian Football League finals? In 2008, probably the West Coast Eagles or, on the other hand, maybe the Hawthorn Hawks! Were the Hawthorn Hawks still a topic of conversation for them, in 2013? Perhaps the Magpies might rate a mention in 2017. Who knows!
Then, what a racket! At about three in the afternoon, the fathers started feeding their babies. Gum trees were thrashing with big black wings and red tails, and mothers were keeping out of the way. It is rare to see father Red Tailed Cockatoos feeding their chicks. It is even more unusual to see them in a group of three pairs, feeding their babies at the same time.
Where would they nest, these three pairs with their youngsters?
I wondered “where they would nest, these doting pairs with their splaw-footed youngsters?”
They would be nesting in large, old and decaying trees that began growing long before Captain Stirling sailed up the Swan River in 1827. Hollows suitable for black cockatoos do not begin to appear in eucalypts until they are around 150 – 200 years old.
The word Eucalyptus comes from the Greek language. “Eu” means “well” and “kalyptos” means “covered”, which refers to the cap that covers the flower bud. They have no petals, which are fused into the cap. It is shed when the flower is ready to open.
Some of these veteran and stag trees are estimated to be between 300-500 years old and are critical for the long-term survival of our beautiful black cockatoos.
A flock of twenty Red Tailed Black Cockatoos
At another time, we enjoyed the company of a flock of about twenty Forest Red Tailed Black Cockatoos, (FRTBC) (Calyptorhynchus banksii naso), for a week. They had decided our trees were a good place to rest, relax and feed their babies.
The white tailed Carnaby’s cockatoos were usually more prolific, noisy, and seen often. It was a real pleasure to enjoy the presence of the less abundant red tailed cockatoos for those six or seven days.
The litter of gum leaves and small branches soon surrounded our house. Gum nuts dropping on the shed roof provided a musical backdrop for an afternoon of weeding, gardening and bird watching.
The soft screech of young birds, inter-mingled with reassuring mutters from their mothers was a joy to hear. So too was their distinctive ‘kaarak’ as they moved from treetop to treetop.
On the Sunday afternoon I spent watching them, several pots of gerbera – in full spring bloom in my back garden – were neatly beheaded and the flowers devoured.
In one water garden bowl, three water lily flower buds were bobbing just under the surface of the water, before they opened their delicate pink and white petals. It was hilarious to see the ungainly young birds balancing on the edges of the water bowl, threatening to fall face first into the water as they nipped off the buds.
Their loss was a small price to pay for the company of these wonderful, red tailed birds. Like their white tailed cousins, they are partial to some fresh blossom.
Silence on a Sunday Afternoon
One of the most surprising aspects of these gentle giants is their silence – when they wanted to be quiet. A mother and child sat in one tree for about five hours, quietly eating, grooming each other and nuzzling. There was only the occasional twirling descent of a gum leaf to betray their presence.
Gentle calls from tree to tree kept the flock in touch while a soft Sunday afternoon was barely disturbed. Through the binoculars, it was easy to distinguish the males with their glossy black heads; the white speckles of the females, and the pale red-orange on the tails of young birds.
Harvesting Gumnuts and Timber
I often had to remind my “whinging” Dad that if “Elvis’s” families did not harvest their food crops each year, trees top heavy with gumnuts would surely topple over and crash into our house.
My block had some old trees but huge stumps bore testimony to the early settler’s need for timber: furniture, houses, railway lines and bridges. Even our genuine living needs impact on their habitat. We must make reparation to our Eucalypt forests now, to prepare for the future, and by that, I don’t mean the selective thinning undertaken by the FPC.
These red tailed forest cockatoos once were common but because of the destruction of forests, due to logging, mining and farming, their numbers have largely declined. They are almost entirely dependent now upon the publicly owned forests, particularly State Forest, and remnant bushland on the Coastal Plain.
In the forest, continued logging of “old growth” forest seriously threatens their habitat. They are trying to survive by extending their range, but continued clearing of remnant bushland seems to be an overwhelming threat.
Coping with the pressure of drought and fire
The red tail is essentially the cockatoo of the South West Marri and Jarrah forests. Marri is the primary food source for red tailed cockatoos. It is well known they have extended their diet in the suburbs of Perth to include Cape Lilac berries and the nuts of the spotted gum.
There have been two devastating “natural” happenings in recent years, to add to the pressure under which they now live: drought and fire.
Drought: More than 25 per cent of trees across 7000 hectares of jarrah forest in the Perth Hills, Western Australia died after the drought and heatwaves experienced in 2010-11. In the South West Forests, large sections of Jarrah forest were collapsing, due to the drought.
Bushfire: In just the Nannup forest area alone, the fauna were already under significant strain. By December, 2011, as a result of two other major fires in the previous thirteen months, more than 90 000ha has been burnt at high intensities. The red tailed cockatoos food sources were in dire straits from the drought and the fires made it far worse.
Is logging a real issue for Kaarak – our Red Tailed Black Cockatoo?
“The Government’s 2008 cockatoo recovery plan says conservation of feeding and breeding habitats of forest black cockatoos relies on the protection of marri, karri and jarrah habitats,” said Conservation Council of WA spokesman Mr McCarten
Both of these species (Baudin’s and Forest Red Tailed Cockatoos) are dependant on forest habitats, primarily of Marri, Karri and Jarrah, and have suffered substantial population declines due to timber harvesting and clearing for agricultural land use over the last century.
“If we’re clearing marri and jarrah habitat, which we necessarily are by logging, then we’re definitely going to be affecting cockatoo numbers. We’re coming out of a very big drought; the fires have devastated the cockatoos’ habitat, and they’re not doing well.” said McCarten
We must stop logging the old trees the cockatoos need for nesting. Their nesting sites have to be close to their food sources, especially for the new chicks.
Following the freeways to find Cape Lilac berries.
It’s early 2017. For the past ten years, I have watched them move further away from their natural habitat and on to the coastal plain. Their migration from the real South West forests, through the Darling Scarp, and onto the Coastal Plain has followed the major freeways – and the easily secured Cape Lilac berries.
In the mid-west, the primary diet of their wheat belt cousins are the seeds of the Double Gee and other weed seeds, rather than the gumnuts of the forest. The forests are long gone. I wonder how many farmers see them as their friends and are planting trees for food and nesting sites for 230 years hence!
We cannot remain idle and ignore the fate of ‘Kaarak’ – our Red Tailed Cockatoos.
I have idled away many an afternoon, sitting under a Stoneville gum tree, listening to their gentle ‘kaarak’ as the gumnuts fall like spring rain. But I have also slogged through the forests of the South West, where their nesting and food trees are being logged.
With friends, I have petitioned for their future. I have written extensively about their plight, asking Ministers for sanctuary for our wildlife.
“Our native animals need large areas of bushland to forage for food. Each mature cockatoo must eat 100 large marri gum nuts or 1000 small jarrah nuts every day just to survive. A solitary numbat can chew through 10,000 termites in a single day. Now, the combined impacts of logging, land clearing, recent bushfires and last year’s record drought mean that, in many places, there is simply not enough food to go around.
Tiny Phascogale, photographed here by David Patterson, are even more vulnerable to fire than the adult red tailed cockatoos.
Helm’s Forest, near Nannup, is home to a flock of cockatoos rescued and released into the area by the Department of Environment and Conservation. This area is also acting as a temporary refuge for a huge variety of species which escaped from the terrible bushfires of 2011. The refuge is referenced in this report, by WA Forest Alliance.
WA Forest Alliance Report on Margaret River Bushfires
Our native wildlife, on the ground and in the trees, need sanctuaries.
Our already highly threatened ground dwellers, the numbats, echidna, and tiny marsupials, which survive the logging, are then faced with devastating fires. Fires deliberately lit to clear up the unsellable ‘waste’ timber.”
I dream of them gaining sanctuary in places like Helm’s Block, near Nannup, where there will be no more logging. Where they will be free to raise their babies undisturbed by the ravages of bulldozers, chainsaws and clearing fires. A place for numbats and possums, kangaroos and goannas to share a gentle life.
If we continue to log in these beautiful forest areas, then there is a strong chance that we will lose our unique black cockatoos from WA’s skies forever, and those gentle creatures who live under them.
Logging – then and now – around Nannup
It’s true the 1920’s were very good years for logging around Nannup. Then, the logging was not done with bulldozers and chainsaws. Men used crosscut saws and a network of small gauge railways, feeding small mills with high quality trees.
In the forests, I found and photographed the remains of some of these, where the trees were loaded on to the trains. Some of the trees were actually felled to cut the sleepers on site.
True selective logging was practiced with minimal damage to the surrounding environment and there was very little disturbance of the overall habitat.
This is not the case today and now, eighty years later, the science of forests is proving the perceived time frames are deeply flawed. However, forestry practices such as clear felling and 80-year cut rotations may restrict the availability of nest hollows (Saunders & Ingram 1995).
Even worse, soil management science is proving the concept of “slash and burn” to remove surplus tree waste is damaging the environment. The loss of compostable material essential for soil regeneration and strong re-growth was not recognised nor expected. Yet, it is common sense citizen science, rather than being a supposed “fire management” system.
The FPC is failing to carry out its own requirements for habitat protection. They are failing to secure the future of our endangered species in the forest areas around Nannup, Bridgetown, and Greenbushes. I know, because I have seen where and how they are logging. Great, old trees clearly marked as habitat trees for red tailed cockatoos and other wildlife were not to be felled. They now lie abandoned.
My Grandparents and my Mother lived amongst these birds and trees.
I know a lot about this area because I have been there many times. My Grandparents had a property there and their name is historically remembered in Beaton Road. Right in the heart of the forest, where the FPC continues to log.
Watch the video about an existing sanctuary for our Red Tailed Black Cockatoos. YouTube Video – Jamarri 100% Black Cockatoos
If you hope to find yourself sitting under a gum tree with your children, and hear a Red Tailed Cockatoo call with a soft “kaarak”, don’t forget this story.
The book “Hey Dude! Who Moved My Gumnuts” tells much more of the story of our white and red tailed cockatoos. CLICK TO READ ABOUT: Hey Dude! Who Moved My Gumnuts?