The poem, White Cockatoo, by Banjo Paterson starts
Now the autumn maize is growing,
Now the corn-cob fills,
Where the Little River flowing
Winds among the hills.
Over mountain peaks outlying
Clear against the blue
Comes a scout in silence flying,
One white cockatoo…
Of course, one white cockatoo is joined by clouds of cockatoos, descending like snow upon the ripening corn-cobs, and I guess that’s it for the crop…
Common across all of eastern Australia, these noisy birds can form huge flocks, resting in regular roosts close to water during the heat of the day and generally heading out to open country to feed either earlier in the morning or later on, when it is a little cooler.
Luckily, the pair of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos that stopped by my garden recently didn’t presage the arrival of a huge flock, but they did provide a few moments of pleasing entertainment.
Contrary to the way it may seem, I have a bit of a soft spot for these raucous natives. They are the clever clowns of the garden and are not immune from playing practical jokes. We had a large old pine tree in the garden of our house in suburbia where a small family of cockatoos used to congregate to break open the pine cones and eat the nuts.
No worries there.
Not so sure about the pine cones they used to drop on unwary gardeners and small children.
No. I’m not kidding. They used to wait until someone was passing underneath and then, basically, throw a pine cone at them. And laugh. True.
Or they would fly a low pass overhead and screech at the top of their voices from just behind their chosen victim. Believe me, they are loud. Does wonders for getting the heart pumping.
Whilst I had no objection to them eating the pine nuts, I was a little less pleased when they got stuck into our almonds. There was no keeping them out either. They generally found a way into or under any netting we put over our young trees, and looked at us with scorn if we tried to chase them off. They just laughed at the dog, who would stand at the base of the tree, barking, knowing full well that there was nothing that she could do!
Of all the birds, I think that the cockatoo has the most developed sense of humour.
When we moved up from Melbourne some years ago, our new neighbours had a pet cockatoo that lived on a perch on their front verandah. Our cat was a keen birder, despite our best efforts, multiple bells and water spray therapy. She took one look at Cocky and you could see her eyes light up. Heaven. On a stick.
I was chatting with our neighbour, Anne, at the time and spotted her (the cat, not the neighbour) stalking across the garden. With huge apologies, I went to prevent what I thought would be a disastrous introduction only to be stopped in my tracks.
“No, watch this,” Anne said, grinning.
A little reluctantly, I watched.
My feline friend continued her soundless approach, while the ‘unsuspecting’ cockatoo completely failed to notice. I nervously explained that our cat was a very efficient hunter.
“Trust me,” Anne countered.
Cocky was by now preening his feathers peacefully while the Great Hunter bunched up her muscles, poised for the pounce.
And pounce she did.
I swear she was already in flight when Cocky suddenly exploded in size, fluffing up his feathers, extending his wings and opening out his beautiful yellow crest, giving an ear piercing, blood-curdling screech.
The Great Hunter turned in mid-air (against all the laws of physics) and disappeared under our deck, from whence she refused to return until Cocky went to bed.
Cocky bounced up and down on his perch, while Anne explained that this was his normal way of greeting any visiting cats.
I would like to say that our cat was cured of her hunting tendencies as a result of that event, and, indeed, it did cramp her style for quite a while (nor did she ever approach Cocky again), but we still had to perform the occasional rescue over the last few years of her life.
Meanwhile, Cocky’s favourite idea of a joke was to call out to passer’s by, usually inviting them to go to the pub with him, in a voice so realistic that people unfamiliar with him would be looking around for their erstwhile new friend.
Cocky was one of many pet birds around Canberra that were released as the 2003 fires raged through the suburbs. By then we lived elsewhere (and our Great Hunter had passed on to the Great Hunting Ground in the Sky), but I often fancied that Cocky came to visit us, nonetheless, perhaps throwing pine cones at us from the tree in our backyard. Perhaps he was the ‘scout’ that led all the others in their mischief…
The visitors to our garden the other day were, by comparison, quite benign. Although they did spend some time investigating our weather station. And I’m not saying that they wouldn’t have attacked our fruit trees if the wallaby had left them anything to attack.
Still, I’m happy for them to be occasional guests, stopping by once in a while… just, please, not in clouds, descending like snow.
Post Script: Also, just in case you were wondering, here’s a settler’s recipe for cockatoo stew:
Take one cockatoo and pop it in a billy of boiling water with a rock and a handful of root vegetables. Boil until rock is tender then throw away the cockatoo!
I gather they are a bit on the tough side. Never felt the urge to find out, personally, but there you go.
Post Post Script: the collective noun for these comedic birds is recorded, variously, as a chattering, clattering, cluttering, crackle, or cacophony of cockatoos. My vote is for the cacophony.
Post Post Post Script: if you are keen to encourage these delightful birds into your garden by feeding them, I’m given to understand that they are partial to all kinds of seeds, nuts and fruit. They are also partial to eating any wood that your house or garden structures may be made from, bird netting or shade cloth, and the occasional TV aerial.