What is an Australian Cockatoo?
Text and Photos: Diana Andersen, Animalinfo Publications
The term ‘cockies’, a shortened version of ‘cockatoos’, is commonly used in Australia to refer to several bird species. But what type of bird is an Australian cockatoo? I have witnessed heated discussions online about whether a particular bird is a galah, or a corella, or a ‘cocky’, suggesting that many people don’t understand that both are cockatoos, along with several other Australian species.
Taxonomy of Cockatoos in Australia
Cockatoos are parrots who belong to the family ‘Cacatuidae’ in the Psittaciformes’ order with two other families, true parrots (Psittacoidea) and large New Zealand parrots (Strigopoidea). There are 21 species within the family. Australia is home to 12 species with additional subspecies. They vary tremendously in size, colour and plumage, but one characteristic common to all is a prominent movable crest and curved hooked bills. In addition, cockatoos are less colourful than other parrot families, predominantly black, white, and grey with smaller amounts of red, yellow, and pink.
The species and their respective subspecies are divided into genera based on their physical characteristics. For example, the sulphur-crested cockatoo belongs to the genus Cacatua, so the scientific name is Cacatua galerita (Genus + species). The different genera are sometimes re-classified by the scientists studying them. However, for this article, and to benefit a non-scientific audience, I will take a less scientific approach to describe the different cockatoo types.
Galah pair (Eolophus roseicapilla) male on the left.
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White Cockatoos in Australia
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. (Cacatua galerita)
Despite their association with Australia, there are four sub-species of sulphur-crested cockatoos, and only two are Australian. Cacatua g galerita inhabits large areas of eastern Australia from Cape York to Tasmania. A smaller population of C.g. fitzroyi, extends from the north of Western Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria. There is also an introduced population of the eastern species in the Perth region.
As the name suggests, sulphur-crested cockatoos are white birds with a bright yellow crest. They also have diffused yellow in their tail and under their wings. Large, noisy flocks inhabit many eastern Australian suburban areas and are considered pests in some areas. They are intelligent with powerful and destructive beaks.
Major Mitchell Cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri)
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita)
Major Mitchell cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri)
The Major Mitchell cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri) is white with a soft salmon pink head and chest and a deeper orange crest tipped with white, with or without a yellow stripe. In addition, the flight feathers have deep salmon pink, only visible below when the wings spread in flight. The genus Cacatua included the species for many years. However, recently it was re-classified in its own genus Lophochroa. It is also an iconic Australian species and one of Australia’s most beautiful.
There are several distinct populations of Major Mitchells in Australia, both in the east and the west, occurring in semi-arid inland areas. Birds in the north of Western Australia often have less yellow in their crests.
There are three types of corellas in Australia, the long-billed corella (Cacatua tenuirostris), little corella (Cacatua sanguinea), and the western corella (Cacatua pastinator), also known as the western long-billed corella.
There are two sub-species of western corella and four sub-species of the little corella. Little corellas are widespread throughout Australia, whereas long-billed corellas inhabit Australia’s south-east region from southern New South Wales to South Australia. There are two subspecies of western corellas, with Butler’s corellas (Cacatua pastinator butleri) occupying the northern and central Wheatbelt and Muir’s corellas (Cacatua pastinator pastinator) inhabiting an area in the south-west of Western Australia in the Lake Muir area.
The Muir’s corella is classified as vulnerable. It suffered a dramatic decline in numbers due to poisoning and shooting late last century and by the 1940s had dropped to less than 100 birds. Due to conservation efforts, it has recovered significantly and was removed from the threatened list in 2012. All other corella species are classified as secure and declared agricultural pests in some areas due to their damage to crops.
Description Common to all Corellas
All three corellas species are white birds with a characteristic patch of bare blue-grey skin around the eyes leading to the name ‘bare eyed’ cockatoo sometimes given to Corellas. In addition, there are small amounts of deep salmon pink at the base of the crest and head feathers and around the eyes. Apart from being visible around the eyes, the crest colour and head feather colour is hidden unless the crest raises or the head feathers are ruffled. The exception is the eastern long-billed corella with a reddish area visible on the neck below their bill. Corellas have diluted yellow in their tail and under their wings. They are playful, raucous, mischievous and quite destructive.
Grey Cockatoos in Australia
Cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus)
Cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus), also known as weiros or quarrion, are the smallest of the cockatoos in Australia. Like their larger cousins, they have a long moveable crest, a slender body with a long tapered tail. Although there are many colour mutations in aviculture, the wild birds are predominantly grey.
The male has a yellow face when mature with bright orange cheek patches and dark solid grey tail feathers. The female is also grey with yellow striped tail feathers, but the cheek patches are duller due to the grey face. As the name suggests, the cockatiel is in the genus Nymphicus, and it is the only species in this genus. Fast flying flocks of cockatiels inhabit many inland areas of Australia.
Galahs (Eolophus roseicapilla)
Stepping up in size are galahs (Eolophus roseicapilla), also referred to as ‘Pink and Greys’. They are the only member of the genus Eolophus. Galahs have grey feathers except for their pale pink crests and deep pink chests, extending from below their eyes to their feet.
They are widespread in Australia though the species differ in appearance depending on where they reside. Eastern birds have whitish, shorter crests and pink skin around their eyes. Western birds have longer, fuller and much more pink crests with white skin around their eyes. There is a northern sub-species as well that is paler.
Females have eyes ranging in colour from musk pink to a more orange-pink, and males have dark eyes. These fast-flying agile cockatoos are noisy, bold, animated, and can be very playful. They can travel in pairs, small family groups or large flocks numbering 1000 plus birds.
Juvenile Galahs (Eolophus roseicapilla)
Gang-gang cockatoo (Callocephalon fimbriatum)
Around the same size, though a little stockier, is the gang-gang cockatoo (Callocephalon fimbriatum). Predominantly slate grey with lighter fringing around the feathers, the males have striking red plumage on their heads with a wispy red crest.
The females are plainer with a grey head, and chest feathers fringed with red and yellow giving them a distinctly barred appearance. One distinctive feature is their call which sounds like a creaky gate opening. Less widespread than many other cockatoos, gang-gangs inhabit an area on the southeast corner of Australia.
Gang Gangs have experienced a significant decline in numbers over the past 20years, compounded by the catastrophic fires in 2019-20. It is estimated that approximately 30% or more of their population was impacted by fires.
Australian Black Cockatoos
Unique to Australia is the genus Calyptorhynchus otherwise known as black cockatoos. Calyptorhynchus originates from Latin and roughly translates to ‘hidden beak’, which refers to the habit of ruffling their face feathers and bringing them forward to hide their bill.
There are five species in the genus with additional subspecies distributed throughout Australia.
They are as follows:
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo – Calyptorhynchus banksii (5 subspecies)
Glossy Black Cockatoo – Calyptorhynchus lathami (3 subspecies)
Carnaby’s Cockatoo – Calyptorhynchus latirostris
Baudin’s Cockatoo – Calyptorhynchus baudinii
Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo – Calyptorhynchus funereus (3 subspecies)
White-tailed Black Cockatoos in Western Australia
Both Carnaby’s (Calyptorhynchus latirostris) and Baudin’s (Calyptorhynchus baudinii), also referred to as white-tailed black cockatoos, occur only in Western Australia’s south-west region. Breeding in the Wheatbelt, flocks visit the Coastal Plains of the state’s southwest searching for food. Both have similar plumage, including a large white band in their tail. The most distinguishing feature is their beak. Baudin’s have a much longer bill with a different shape.
The conservation status of both Baudin’s and Carnaby’s is “Endangered.’ Threats include habitat loss, losing nesting hollows to competing species and feral honey bees, bushfires, vehicle collisions, and illegal shooting. Both Baudin’s and Carnaby have low reproduction rates and cannot replace the birds lost to these threats.
White-tailed black cockatoo tail feather
Baudin’s Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus baudinii)
Gumnuts left by Baudin’s Cockatoos are hollowed out with dents from the lower mandible.
Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos – (Calyptorhynchus funereus)
Similar in many ways to Western Australia’s Carnaby’s and Baudin’s cockatoos, yellow-tailed black cockatoos have yellow panels in their tail feathers and yellow cheek patches. Mature males have a dark beak and bare skin around the eye that flushes pink when courting females. The females have more prominent, brighter cheek patches and a light bone coloured beak.
Three subspecies exist, inhabiting woodland areas of Eucalypt and Pine.
Calyptorhynchus f. funereus – Central and south-eastern Queensland through NSW to Victoria
Calyptorhynchus f. xanthanotus – Tasmania
Calyptorhynchus f. whitei – Western Victoria, Eyre Penninsula and kangaroo Island
Like the other black cockatoos, loss of habitat and conflict with farmers threaten their populations.
Yellow-tailed black cockatoo tail feather.
Red-tailed Black Cockatoos – (Calyptorhynchus banksii)
As the name suggests, red-tailed black cockatoos are large beautiful black cockatoos with a red band in their tail feathers. In males, the band is solid red when they reach maturity at three to four years old. Females have black and gold barring in their tail feathers, gold spots on their plumage and gold fringing on their chest feathers. Juveniles resemble their mothers but often have only partial chest barring and irregular spotting. There are six subspecies of red-tailed black cockatoos.
Calyptorhynchus banksii banksii – Northern Australia from Western Australia to Queensland
Calyptorhynchus banksii graptogyne – South-eastern South Australia and south-western Victoria
Calyptorhynchus banksii samueli – Central Australia, south-western Queensland, upper Darling River area in Western NSW
Calyptorhynchus banksii naso – Humid and sub-humid zones in the south-west of Western Australia
Calyptorhynchus banksii escondidus – Western arid and semi-arid zones of the Pilbara, Midwest and Wheatbelt
The conservation status of three subspecies is ‘least concern’. However, the forest red-tailed (C. b. naso) is ‘Vulnerable’, and the south-eastern red-tailed black cockatoo (C. b. graptogyne) is ‘Endangered’.
Red-tailed black cockatoo tail feathers. Mature male on top, female below. Immature birds also have barred tail feathers.
Glossy Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami)
The Glossy Black Cockatoo is the smallest of the Calyptorhynchus genus at around 45cm to 50cm.
Males are black with a brownish head and front with solid red panels in their tail. The female has distinctive yellow patches on the head and neck and paler, more orange-red tail panels barred with black.
There are three subspecies found predominantly in eastern Australia.
Calyptorhynchus l. lathami – occurring from Gympie in Queensland through to the Gippsland area of Victoria. Conservation status is vulnerable in Queensland and New South Wales but threatened in Victoria.
Calyptorhynchus l. erebus – North and central east coast of Queensland
Calyptorhynchus l. halmaturinus – Kangaroo Island, South Australia, classified as endangered.
The species is reliant predominantly on Sheoak, Casuarina and Eucalypt for their food source. Pairs produce only one chick every two years, contributing to the decline of the species. Loss of habitat and suitable nesting hollows is also a contributing factor.
Palm Cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus macgillivrayi)
Palm Cockatoos also occur in New Guinea and the Aru Islands and are classified as least concern under IUCN criteria. However, studies on the elusive Australian subspecies indicate that the species is in decline. Threats include habitat loss through bauxite mining, loss of suitable nest hollows from bushfires and competing species such as the Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. Predation of eggs by reptiles is also a problem compounded by low reproduction rates. Studies suggest that Palm Cockatoos successfully raise only one offspring every ten years. The combination of these factors could lead to a rapid decline of Palm Cockatoos in the future.
The Palm Cockatoo is known for its unique use of tools. Males fashion a stick that they use to create a drumming noise on the side of hollow trees. The behaviour is part of their courtship ritual.
Researchers: Christina N. Zdenek and Robert Heinsohn from the Australian National University
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