Rain birds return

Published 13 Apr 2020 

A special planting program in south-west Western Australia is helping endangered Carnaby’s Cockatoos to rebuild  their population.

Carnaby's Cockatoos, Ngoolark or Gnoomglark to Noongar people, feed in a Banksia tree. Photo by Martin Willis/Minden Pictures.
Carnaby's Cockatoos, Ngoolark or Gnoomglark to Noongar people, feed in a Banksia tree. Photo by Martin Willis/Minden Pictures.
Back in the 1970s, the skies over Perth used to blacken with the sights and sounds of Carnaby’s Cockatoos.

The big noisy parrots flocked across the horizon in their thousands, flashing their white tails and making their presence felt with that famous piercing call.

These days, this West Australian icon – dubbed the rock stars of the bird world – are few and far between. Scientists estimate that the Carnaby’s population has halved in the last 45 years, with habitat fragmentation, loss of nest hollows and lack of native food sources the main culprits. Since the mid 1980s, they’ve been classified as nationally endangered.

“Now you rarely see flocks above 20 or 30 birds,” says Bush Heritage ecologist Angela Sanders, who has worked across Western Australia’s south-west region for 20 years. “People are really concerned that we’re going to lose them in the next couple of decades.”

Healthy Landscape Manager Simon Smale with Ecologist Angela Sanders on Monjebup North. Photo William Marwick.
Healthy Landscape Manager Simon Smale with Ecologist Angela Sanders on Monjebup North. Photo William Marwick.
Carnaby’s are just one of two white-tailed black cockatoo species in the world (the other being Baudin’s Cockatoo) and are unique to south-west Western Australia.

Their range stretches up to Geraldton and across to Esperance, including the area between the Fitzgerald River and Stirling Range national parks, the aptly named Fitz-Stirling region, where Bush Heritage has been working on Noongar country for over 20 years.

Locals call them the Rain Birds, a throwback to the days when the beginning of the Carnaby breeding season coincided with the start of the Autumn rains.

The rain no longer arrives when it used to, but the name has stuck.

For the Noongar people, the Traditional Owners of southwest Western Australia whose culture incorporates a totemic system for flora and fauna, birds like the Carnaby’s Cockatoo – Ngoolark or Gnoomglark in Noongar language – have been revered for millennia.

Noongar Elder Aunty Carol Petterson says even the simple act of finding a Carnaby’s feather is a “good sign…a blessing for us”.

A pair of Carnaby’s in a tree hollow. Photo John Barkla.
A pair of Carnaby’s in a tree hollow. Photo John Barkla.
“Our everyday living practices ensured the Carnaby’s Cockatoos were protected,” says Aunty Carol. “We didn’t chop down trees, we didn’t clear the land. We made sure the streams were running, we made sure the Banksia flowers were there.”

Food can be hard to come by for the choosy Carnaby’s Cockatoos. As Angela says: “They’re quite particular in what they eat, and a lot of their food source has been cleared.”

An ideal Carnaby’s feeding site is full of proteaceous species (from the flowering Proteaceae family) such as Banksia, Dryandra, Hakea and Grevillea which provide perfect fodder for strong bills to rip seeds from.

Meanwhile, ideal breeding sites are found in mature Wandoo and Salmon Gum woodlands where there are plenty of roomy tree hollows for raising chicks.

Bush Heritage Healthy Landscape Manager Simon Smale examines a young plant on Monjebup North Reserve, WA. Photo William Marwick.
Bush Heritage Healthy Landscape Manager Simon Smale examines a young plant on Monjebup North Reserve, WA. Photo William Marwick.
The catch: these two locations need to be close together, with the sweet spot occurring when nest sites and food sources are within 12km of each other.

When they're not, the consequences can be dire; research conducted further north in Western Australia’s heavily fragmented Wheatbelt country revealed that the further Carnaby’s had to fly for food, the less the chicks weighed and the lower their survival rate was.

Enter Eva Palmer. A long-time Bush Heritage supporter, Eva has loved Carnaby’s Cockatoos since arriving in Perth from her native Scotland in 1971. She fondly recalls winding down the window of her car on hot summer nights to see great flocks of them high overhead.

“Carnaby’s Cockatoos are so intelligent, the way they look at you with their head to the side,” Eva says. “They’re majestic when they fly.”

When revegetation of Bush Heritage’s Monjebup North Reserve in the Fitz-Stirling began in 2013, Angela and restoration expert Jack Mercer were faced with a Carnaby-sized problem.

The only way to revegetate those delicious proteaceous species was through handplanting seedlings grown at a nursery offsite – which was expensive and time consuming.

Hakea seeds – perfect fodder for Carnaby's. Photo Katelyn Reynolds.
Hakea seeds – perfect fodder for Carnaby's. Photo Katelyn Reynolds.
However, a generous donation from Eva meant that Jack and Angela were able to do further work on direct-seeding of proteaceous species using tractor-drawn machinery to sow the seeds directly into the soil, making the revegetation process cheaper and much more efficient.

Seven years on, Monjebup’s revegetation has proven to be a resounding success, and last year, Carnaby’s Cockatoos made their long-awaited journey home.

“They were sitting on the cauliflower hakeas and tearing the fruits off, ripping them apart and getting the seeds out,” reminisces Angela. “It was heartening to watch.”

The best news about the Carnaby’s prodigal return? There's a breeding site within 12km of Monjebup North.

“For the last 40 years that particular patch of bush has been wheat and sheep country, so we weren’t sure if they’d come to the reserve for feeding,” says Angela. “Now it will be a really important food source for them as so much of the landscape around [Monjebup North] has been cleared.”

Surveying Revegetation on Monjebup North. Photo William Marwick.
Surveying Revegetation on Monjebup North. Photo William Marwick.
In December 2019, a mega fire raged through 40,000 hectares, or one third, of the Stirling Ranges. The ecological ramifications of this blaze are yet to reveal themselves but many Carnaby’s feeding sites are believed to have been burnt.

Bush Heritage’s protection of places like Monjebup North is ever more important in the hopes that one day, Carnaby’s may again blacken the skies.

The revegetation of Monjebup North was also supported by funding from the Western Australian Government’s State NRM Program. Thanks to a grant from Loro Parque Foundation, additional proteaceous species will be planted on Monjebup this year.