Sad incident speaks to secret life of Australia's native cockatoo

The sorry sight in Sydney has shone a light on a key survival trait of cockatoos.

The cockatoo is an emblem of Australian wildlife, recognised as an exotic figurehead for our native animals, yet there is much more to this distinctive-looking bird than first meets the eye.

Last week an incident in Sydney's north laid bare the complex and often hidden behaviour these birds exhibit, regarded by experts as a key characteristic of the species.

Cockatoo flock reacts to bird hanging by string

A wildlife rescuer was notified of a cockatoo hanging upside down by a piece of string between the branches of a tree. Other than highlighting the dire repercussions of what littering can do to wildlife, as the piece of string tangled between the birds claws was responsible for it being stuck, the incident also revealed just how social the species are. The distressed bird was not abandoned — its flock remained steadfastly by its side.

"The cockatoos were so concerned and stayed with it trying to help," the wildlife rescuer told Yahoo News Australia.

"The poor bird died there and the flock left once it had perished."

The cockatoo can be seen hanging upside down hanging from a tree while other members of its flock are perched on branches beside it.
The cockatoo was stuck hanging upside down from a piece of string tangled around its claws in Sydneys north last week. Source: Supplied

Is this normal cockatoo behaviour?

Cockatoos navigate the world within large flocks, often sized between 50 to 100 birds, and "grandparents, parents and grandchildren" are known to be in the same flock, closely living together over several decades.

"They collectively fight off a predator and this is an example of the birds doing this, whether they were trying to help or keeping an eye on its relative," Dr John Martin, Ecologist from Western Sydney University, told Yahoo.

Cockatoo flocks are also known to establish hierarchal social systems to help such a large number of birds coexist.

"Birds will move out of the way of more dominant individuals and birds will challenge each other to establish hierarchy," Dr Martin explained.

"These subtle interactions are usually associated with primates, but they happen in the bird world."

Cockatoos can be seen holding open the lid of an outdoor bin while putting out a pretzel wrapper.
Cockatoos have taught each other how to lift the lids of outdoor bins to reach the food scraps inside. Source: Getty

Why are cockatoos so social?

It is unknown exactly why the birds are so social, however, it is believed to be an evolutionary trait that is hugely beneficial to the species, allowing the birds to learn from one another and distribute resources.

"If a bird knows it's place in the pecking order it can be interacting with different birds, learning from different birds and access different resources without incident," Dr Martin said.

Cockatoos' ability to learn from one another proved useful when the birds figured out how to lift the lid of outdoor bins lining Aussie streets, allowing them to rummage and source discarded food scraps. Despite their new ability being an ongoing nuisance to many Sydney residents as the birds leave a mess in their wake, it acts as a stellar example of how advantageous it for the species to be social.

As they say, birds of a feather flock together.

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