Black cockies make for a good day when they visit Canberra

Ian Fraser 6 July 2020 47
Female Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo

Female Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo (with white bill) munching on banksia seeds. Photos: Ian Fraser.

In a recent RiotACT column on banksias, I mentioned black-cockatoos in passing – and nearly all the subsequent comments focussed on them, not the poor banksias!

So, it seems that the cockies need a column all to themselves, and as a huge fan of them, I’m happy to oblige.

We get two species in the ACT. Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos are widespread, small flocks of huge birds rowing purposefully across the sky and descending to feed, such as on our banksia cones.

There are also, very rarely, smaller Glossy Black-Cockatoos which occasionally visit to feed exclusively on the dust-tiny seeds of casuarinas (she-oaks) especially on Mount Majura. They have red tails, which sometimes understandably lead to claims of Red-tailed Black-Cockies in the ACT, but those big birds are restricted to the tropics and parts of the dry inland.

Glossy Black-Cockatoo

The Glossy Black-Cockatoo, a rare visitor to Canberra.

Before 2003 the Canberra Yellow-tails fed and roosted widely in the exotic pine plantations of the south-western suburbs, but the fires removed the plantations and the cockies scattered throughout the suburbs.

Their slurred wailing ‘wee-oooo’ calls regularly drift down from Canberra skies. The folk name Wylah derives (via Indigenous languages) from this call.

There are persistent folk yarns about black cockies (among several other Australian bird species) being harbingers of rains, but sadly these are just stories. Bear in mind that black cockies are present here all year round, though many move into the mountains in summer, and it certainly doesn’t rain every day in the ACT.

I guess we tend to remember the times that such predictions work out (as of course, they must from time to time) and conveniently forget all the times that they don’t!

Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo

Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo ripping into sapling to extract grubs.

To watch them feeding – when they can often become absorbed in the task and allow us to watch – is first to be reminded of just how big they are, a good 60 cm long with massively powerful bills.

They easily crush the tough woody banksia cones, having nipped through the stem, and extract the seeds. We always know when they’re visiting even without the quiet ‘wee-oo’ contact calls, as the discarded cones crash onto our little balcony.

However, they have another, very different food preference which also relies on the mighty bills. They have a particular fondness for the big white grubs, like pale sausages, of cossid moths which chew through the solid wood of wattle and eucalypt trees. (That’s a story in itself, but one for another day.)

The grub-seeking cocky, usually part of a loose flock, has different strategies for the softer wattles and the hard eucalypts. For the wattles, they just bite into the soft trunk to see if it’s hollow, then rip straight into it.

Eucalypt timber, however, is a very different proposition.

The bird inspects the trunk to identify the holes through which the industrious grub ejects its sawdust droppings (‘frass’). So far it has been using its tail as a prop, but now it needs a firmer platform, so it chews and hauls a strip of timber out to a 45-degree angle and stands on it while it excavates with its great tool of a bill. The end result, which may take some time to achieve, is a fat wriggling protein prize.

A hollow suitable for black cocky breeding is only found in mountain eucalypts at least 200 years old. It remains to be seen what effect the calamitous fires of the summer just gone might have on the ability of the cockies to reproduce.

Raucously begging youngsters often accompany the flocks, but they may have come from as far away as Victoria or the NSW north coast – our knowledge of their movements is sketchy.

As far as I am aware there is only one breeding record from the ACT, a historic one and, tragically, from a tree cut down in the ranges in days long before the protection of Namadgi National Park.

For now, however, the black cockies are very much a part of our lives. Any day that they visit is a good one.

Ian Fraser is a Canberra naturalist, conservationist and author. He has written on all aspects of natural history, advised the ACT Government on biodiversity and published multiple guides to the region’s flora and fauna.


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47 Responses to Black cockies make for a good day when they visit Canberra
Paivi Spannari Bell Paivi Spannari Bell 8:00 am 07 Jul 20

Yellow crested make a mess each year eating the seeds out of our plum trees. They are amazingly large birds.

Angela Miller Angela Miller 6:10 am 07 Jul 20

I hear them and have seen them near my home in Fadden. Love their call!

Michael Watt Michael Watt 9:45 pm 06 Jul 20

Tess Stirling You see these cute birbs??

    Tess Stirling Tess Stirling 9:50 pm 06 Jul 20

    Michael Watt DUDE what I see is that when Robyn told me my assignment was in inaccurate because cockatoos only eat seeds and nuts... I’m legit emailing her this 😂😂😂

    Tess Stirling Tess Stirling 9:51 pm 06 Jul 20

    But yes those birds are super beautiful

Lyn Bliss Lyn Bliss 4:16 pm 06 Jul 20

There was a mob of about 25 yellow tails flew over my house last week I live in Bendigo Vic. Only saw about 5 last yr 2019 great site😍

Margaret Singh Margaret Singh 3:48 pm 06 Jul 20

They are making their presence felt across Canberra skies. 4 flew over our house in Downer recently. I was amazed to see the size of one at OConnor Ridge. First Nations people say it means good things spiritually if you see them.

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 9:18 am 06 Jul 20

The yellow-tail blacks are back, for sure. Never seen “glossy” or red-tail blacks in ACT, gotta look harder I guess. See ’em at the coast.

Phạm Quới-Chi Phạm Quới-Chi 8:51 pm 05 Jul 20

We spotted not just one , but three black cockatoos in Isabella Plains 😍

Sandy Gibbs Sandy Gibbs 5:19 pm 05 Jul 20

Kathy Little Suzy Obsivac these are the ones we saw on our walk today. Timely article!

Joanne Boyanton Joanne Boyanton 5:06 pm 05 Jul 20

Had some in our back yard

Kathy Tozer Kathy Tozer 3:40 pm 05 Jul 20

We have been seeing them around Canberra in the last couple of months.

Ellen Maree Ellen Maree 2:18 pm 05 Jul 20

Helen Crane we saw one today!!

Kath Sheppard Kath Sheppard 2:03 pm 05 Jul 20

Seen one last week in neighbours yard

Mary Cartwright Mary Cartwright 1:47 pm 05 Jul 20

We have them in our yard. They love munching gum nuts.

Gary Grady Gary Grady 1:41 pm 05 Jul 20

When the black cockatoos arrive it is a good sign good rain is on the way My father would say that back in the 1950/s and has all ways been right ever since

Leanne Guymer Leanne Guymer 1:00 pm 05 Jul 20

We have a pair loving the banksias. Such magnificent birds.

Yvonne Erett Yvonne Erett 12:31 pm 05 Jul 20

Yes I sure do. They visited us this year.

Peter Garlick Peter Garlick 11:33 am 05 Jul 20

Supposed to mean rain isn't it when you see them?

Paulina Leko Paulina Leko 10:59 am 05 Jul 20

We had 2 in our yard the other day. Amazing birds. So beautiful

Capital Retro Capital Retro 10:57 am 05 Jul 20

They will have a virtual smorgasbord when (an if) some of those exotic trees at the National Arboretum mature. May even have to cull them.

Kerri Hallas Kerri Hallas 10:57 am 05 Jul 20

Yes, I always feel blessed to see them, it does make my day!

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