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Carnaby's black cockatoo holding a banksia cone in it's beak, Southwest Australia © Keith Lightbody

Q&A with Denis Saunders the 'Black Duck Doctor'

30 Aug 2017

  • birds
  • black cockatoos
  • tree-clearing
  • western australia

Carnaby’s Black Cockatoos are truly a sight to behold. This species is one of just two black cockatoos with white tail bands that are endemic to southwest Western Australia. Dr Denis Saunders AM is an animal ecologist and conservation biologist whose love for these big, beautiful birds began back in 1968. He'll be speaking in Perth where he will trace the intriguing history of these remarkable birds from when they were once considered a pest, all the way to how they earned their endangered status.

If you’re in Perth, why not check out:

From Vermin to Endangered in 20 years; the tale of Carnaby’s Cockatoo
Date: Thursday 31 August 2017
Time: 3:30 – 4.30pm (AWST)
Location: CSIRO Auditorium, 147 Underwood Ave, Floreat WA

Q&A with Denis Saunders

1. You’ve been named the ‘Black Duck Doctor’. Why and when did your love and work with Carnaby's Cockatoos come about?

My interest in these wonderful birds started in January of 1968 when I joined CSIRO Wildlife Research in Western Australia to study the ecology and behaviour of what was then known as the white-tailed black cockatoo.

Back then the white-tailed black cockatoo was seen as vermin, and had a bounty on its bill because of the damage it caused to apple and pear orchards. It was also a major pest to pine plantations because of its love for pine seeds and damage it caused to trunks.

The initial study was aimed at establishing methods of control of the species - but things quickly changed.

2. What did your initial study reveal?

The study revealed that there were two taxa of black cockatoos with white tail bands in south-western Australia; these are now known as Carnaby’s and Baudin’s cockatoos. I concentrated my research on Carnaby’s cockatoo as its range took in the wheatbelt, which in those days was extensively and rapidly being cleared of native vegetation. By the late 1970s it was obvious that Carnaby cockatoo populations were radically dropping, and what started out as research to control the species became research to conserve the species.

By the late 1980s, the species had disappeared from more than 30 per cent of its breeding range, and was listed as endangered by the Western Australian and Federal governments, and internationally by IUCN.

Carnaby cockatoos are wonderful birds. It’s incredibly sad that in about a generation you could go from seeing flocks of thousands of the birds to now when a flock over a 100 is a sight for remark.

3. During your time studying these birds, what did you discover was having the biggest impact on population numbers?

These birds are under increasing pressure from loss and degradation of breeding and foraging habitat due to land clearing and urban development.

In addition, climate change is causing more extreme weather events which have the potential to severely impact population numbers. In 2011 Carnaby’s cockatoos were hit by a heatwave in the Great Southern killing at least 208 birds in Hopeton and Munglinup. Two months later a hail storm in Perth killed 57 birds and 24 other were taken into care. These were significant losses, but no one knows how many more were killed, but not recorded.

Carnaby Cockatoos are dependent on rainfall, it is a key factor when timing their breeding. If we see a decline in rainfall during the autumn months, breeding could be pushed back and survival rates of young could be impacted by the hotter summer days. Carnaby’s cockatoos can’t forage on really hot days, as they cannot shed excess heat when moving. It is ironic that as days lengthen in summer, the birds’ foraging time may be shortened because of really hot weather. If they can’t forage it will result in starvation of their young, as parents may not have time to forage for themselves and their offspring.

4. What has driven you to study this species for over 50 years?

They are a wonderful species to study. They are full of character and charm. The fact that you can see such an iconic species fly over the city of Perth is truly inspiring. But we need to know a lot more about these birds. We know they form very strong parental bonds, and they tend to take one mate for life. But we have no idea how old the birds are. From our studies we know of one female breeding when she was at least 30 years old, however the birds haven’t been studied long enough for us to know how long they live and how long they can keep breeding.

One of my most memorable stories from the field was when a female Carnaby’s cockatoo with a seven-week-old nestling was killed by a wedge-tailed eagle. Her male partner continued to feed the nestling by himself until it fledged. The male was seen a few months later along the Hill River, near Jurien, with both his new partner and his fledgling. The following year the pair and their newest fledgling were seen together with his fledgling from the previous union, evidence of a resilient parent-offspring bond.

5. What are the insights you have gained from the long-term study of the birds at Coomallo Creek in the Wheatbelt? What are the benefits of long-term research? How are the results of this study being applied to their conservation?

The breeding population at Coomallo Creek has been studied in detail since 1969. During the first visit we immediately realised the site was a significant breeding ground. For years I conducted surveys, banded birds, observed breeding and feeding behaviour and monitored movements.

It was in 2009 that myself, wildlife office Rick Dawson and zoologist Peter Mawson from the former Department of Environment and Conservation, discovered that many of the 200 or so breeding hollows discovered at Coomallo Creek in the period 1969-1996 were unusable or the tree had fallen over, been pushed over or had been burnt.

This inspired a new focus - to help restore the derelict hollows and to install artificial ones to provide greater breeding opportunities for these cockatoos.

To date we have installed 65 artificial hollows in Coomallo Creek. As a result of the repair of derelict hollows and the installation of artificial hollows, the number of breeding attempts by Carnaby’s cockatoo at Coomallo Creek has risen dramatically over the years; from 41 in 2009, 101 in 2014 and 128 in 2017. In the period up to 1996 I never recorded a bird younger than 4-years-old attempting to breed. Now we are seeing three-year-old females attempting to breed; in some cases successfully. These figures are indicative that breeding hollows are a limiting resource, and need to be augmented over their breeding range.

6. Do you see a future for these birds?

I do. I think there are indications we have cause for optimism. The birds found in the northern wheatbelt area are in reasonable condition, however we need to keep a very close eye on them and their habitats. We need to find out much more about Carnaby’s cockatoos breeding in the southern wheatbelt. We can’t afford to lose any more of the species’ breeding or foraging habitat. We must stop any further clearing of native vegetation, and revegetate to provide breeding hollows for the future. Failure to conserve these wonderful birds may mean that my grandchildren and their grandchildren may never see a flock of Carnaby’s cockatoos flying across our skies.

These is also a strong case to be made that if we conduct landscape-scale reconstruction for Carnaby’s cockatoos, we’ll also protect a range of other native species.

7. What can the government and individuals do to help ensure these birds have a future?

A significant proportion of Carnaby’s cockatoos breed on private land. If we can encourage more private landowners to maintain their native vegetation, and revegetate areas of their properties that are unproductive from an agricultural perspective, this could have a big impact on the number of places the birds can successfully breed and feed.

The government also needs to do their bit. The government should ensure that breeding and non-breeding habitat isn’t being cleared - both legally or illegally. There must be tighter regulations to prevent loss of vegetation.

Western Australians can help by building and installing their own hollows in breeding areas, or planting Carnaby’s cockatoo vegetation in their own backyards.

Governments should also be encouraging and rewarding those that provide stewardship of our natural resources.

8. What do west Australians need to do? Why should the people of WA care about this?

As above

Dr Denis Saunders AM is an animal ecologist and conservation biologist. He is a former CSIRO Chief Research Scientist, past President of WWF-Australia, and currently Chair of the Sara Halvedene Foundation, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, and an honorary fellow with CSIRO Land and Water. He has studied the ecology, behaviour and taxonomy of cockatoos, the ecology of island bird communities and the conservation of bird communities in production landscapes. From 1968 to the present he has been conducting an ecological and behavioural study of the endangered Carnaby's Cockatoo, an endemic of Southwestern Australia. He has been an editor of Conservation Biology (1994-2002), Landscape and Urban Planning (1994-2006), Biological Conservation (2002-2008) and Pacific Conservation Biology (current) and serves on the editorial advisory boards of: Biological Conservation; Nature Conservation; and Current Landscape Ecology Reports.