Polly wants a tracker: wing-tags shed light on Sydney's cockatoos
Friday, September 5, 2014 at 14:11
City Parrots in Cacatua galerita - Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Research, Urban parrots

Released: A tagged cockatoo is set free at the Botanic Gardens. Photo: Wolter PeetersColumbus is a real city slicker. Over six weeks, the sulphur-crested cockatoo has foraged in his regular stomping grounds of Woolloomooloo, Centennial Park and Cremorne. After dark, he prefers to roost in the Botanic Gardens, Potts Point or Rushcutters Bay Park – except for a one-night stand on the beach in Mosman.

Clive the cockatoo in Neutral Bay.We know this because Columbus is the first cockatoo to be fitted with a solar-powered GPS tracking device as part of ongoing research by the University of Sydney, the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Australian Museum. Since 2011, 100 sulphur-crested cockatoos have been fitted with wing-tags and have now been spotted more than 10,000 times by the public.

Although the data is still being analysed, project co-ordinator John Martin says the birds have shown immense loyalty to Sydney Harbour and surrounds. About 35 per cent are regularly seen at the Botanic Gardens, attracted by its large eucalyptus hollows and abundant food, while the remainder have dispersed to neighbouring areas. Tagged cockatoos have been sighted at Engadine, Allambie Heights and as far west as Glenhaven, but for the most part, they have remained within five kilometres of the inner city.

That took researchers by surprise. "Do they like the city life? Is it the fine dining or is it the lattes? Do they like the opera, is it the culture that they're after?" Dr Martin jokes.

The project aims to better understand the movements, habitat use and foraging patterns of a species which has been a common sight in urban Sydney for only about 40 years.

Columbus the cockatoo: Enjoying all the big city has to offer.Dr Martin says the cockatoos appear to be out-competing possums and owls for the limited number of large tree hollows around the city. "We don't really have a good understanding of what that means ecologically," he says.

Bird watchers and members of the public are encouraged to report any sighting of the birds, which have yellow or green numbered tags, using the iPhone app Wingtags or online.

Nurse Fiona Baker spotted Tristan, cockatoo number 85, eating pine kernels in Manly Park. As a "farm girl" who grew up in Come By Chance, near Coonamble, she is interested in how animals are adapting to the changing environment.

"Some birds that compete quite actively and successfully do well, while others become extinct," Ms Baker says. Her northern beaches balcony attracts many sulphur-crested visitors, who "bite off the wood on the balcony railing" if she doesn't feed them.

Researchers are also interested in learning how much the cockatoos supplement their natural diet of figs, flowers and grass roots with food given to them by humans.

Laurence the cockatoo is a creature of the urban jungle."When you're feeding animals, you can think of it a bit like feeding them junk food," Dr Martin says. He hopes to undertake similar research in environments outside the city to investigate whether the cockatoos' movements and foraging patterns differ.

Where to see the cockatoos

Henry Lawson gate at Mrs Macquaries Point

Twin Ponds in the Royal Botanic Gardens

Centennial Park, near the duck pond

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