They have shaggy crests and bright scarlet cheeks. They bow, sway, stamp their feet and spread their wings in a Jesus Christ pose, justifying their status. They whistle and whoop. Males even use their enormous beaks to fashion tree branches into drumsticks, which they use to beat on tree hollows approaching the breeding season.
They are Palm Cockatoos: the largest cockatoo in the world, weighing in up to 1.2kg – lovingly known as “rockatoos” for their punk mohawks, vocal dexterity and percussive talents. And Birds Queensland has officially nominated them as the mascot of the 2032 Brisbane Olympic Games, pointing out that previous Australian Olympic mascots have mostly been mammals.
They say it’s time to give a bird a go – but it’s not the only one in the running. The Queensland tourism minister, Stirling Hinchliffe, has already proposed the humble and familiar “bin chicken” (Australian White Ibis). But the ibis’s dumpster-diving habits and distinctive odour doesn’t make it an easy sell to international visitors.
So, why the Palm Cockatoo? Unlike ibis, the cockatoos are unique to Far North Queensland in Australia, living in the remote savannahs of Cape York. (They are more widespread in New Guinea and the Indonesian Aru Islands, so Birds Queensland is encouraging the government to involve our neighbours in celebrations, using the cockatoo as a tool of soft diplomacy.)
For all the behaviours cited in the first paragraph, Palm Cockatoos are ridiculously charismatic. I’ve seen them for myself. Late last November, in the mind-melting heat of Kutini-Payamu National Park on northern Cape York, I watched a pair in full display for half an hour as the male showed off a prospective hollow to its mate.
They are an unforgettable sight. And they are super marketable. Dr Christina Zdenek, who has been researching the birds for over a decade, asks us to imagine the spectacle (not to mention cacophony) of a stadium full of people with big crested hats on their heads and drumming on the seats.
Which, yes, would probably mean everyone would have to stand up to see. Still, that’s got to be better than everyone conking the person in front of them on the head with ibis-billed projections on their noggins. Whatever: we are talking about a lot of plush toys here, folks. And Olympic recognition could spur immediate action for Palm Cockatoo conservation.
Because Palm Cockatoos need our help. Like many of our large arboreal birds, including owls and other cockatoos, the biggest threat is the loss of mature trees – at least 300 years old – containing hollows large enough to house the species. Land clearing and late dry-season fires are destroying the species’ breeding habitat.
The birds have a hard enough time breeding as it is. Though long-lived, Palm Cockatoos are especially slow to reproduce. Females lay just one egg every two years and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, have an extremely high nest failure rate: on average, only one chick successfully fledges (that is, leaves the nest) every decade.
Making, shipping, installing and maintaining artificial nest boxes on remote Cape York is unlikely to be economically feasible, and there’s no guarantee the cockatoos would use them anyway. So looking after the birds’ remaining habitat is, at this stage, the best way to look after them, with more research required.
The Sydney 2000 Olympic mascots included Syd the Platypus, Millie the Echidna and Olly the Kookaburra (as well as the unofficial Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat), while the Paralympics featured Lizzie, the Frill-necked Lizard. But Australia has the greatest diversity of parrots of any nation on earth. As a music tragic, bird nerd and Queenslander, I’m voting for Polly the Palmie to rock the games.
First published in the Guardian, 26 June 2022