Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Yellow-crested or Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. Part 1. Two birds in 1960s Hong Kong

This is the first of a series of articles on this once common but now critically-endangered species from the islands of Indonesia east of Wallace’s Line and of Timor Leste.

We had hoped to see a particular species of bird on an expedition cruise last September through the Lesser Sunda islands of East Timor and Indonesia. Although not a birding trip we could have been lucky, particularly on Rinca and Komodo, and seen what is now called by the nitwits who try to impose a common name, the Yellow-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea) but which was always known as the Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo*. But we did not see one, nor hear one either because the cry, once heard, is never forgotten.

We have found it difficult to believe that C. sulphurea has become critically endangered. They were once so common that in the 1960s they arrived for the pet and avicultural trade in Hong Kong in batches of tens if not hundreds for many months each year—and we learnt by experience that parrots are totally, completely and absolutely unsuitable as pets.

In the 1960s the birds shops of Hong Kong had not been brought together to form a bird market. Li Yuen Street East (but it may have been West) right in Central had a bird shop and shortly after our arrival we saw a single cockatoo housed in a standard parrot cage. He (it is easy to sex this species—the males have black eyes, the females hazel-brown to red) sat calmly alone in a cage. The price even without haggling was ludicrously cheap and soon he was sitting on the balcony of our flat overlooking the university compound. Given the full name of Polly-Ethylene and the short name of Polythene, he was a Citron-crested Cockatoo from Sumba, then as now considered a sub-species of the Yellow-crested Cockatoo (C.s.citrinocristata). His crest was not yellow but a fetching shade of apricot orange.

Polythene. Male Citron-crested Cockatoo on our balcony in Hong Kong.
Photograph taken very shortly after his arrival--hence the frayed feathers
and the scruffy appearance

Polythene, judging by his beak and legs, appeared to be an older bird. He must have been in captivity for some time because he had a ring and broken swivel on one leg which after a few weeks we removed with the aid of a large towel, heavy gauntlets and two pairs of pliers. At first, when approached, he would shuffle to the furthest point on his perch and slightly open his beak. Over a period of months my wife persuaded him to move slowly along the perch towards her and eventually to put his head down for a scratch around the crest. But he would only do this if there were no human males in the vicinity.

A few weeks later there was a small batch of cockatoos in the bird shop and another, this time a female with a yellow crest, was installed in the flat. Immediately, we had a mystery. This new, lively and apparently tame bird started to speak—in a broad Australian accent. She constantly informed the world to ‘git out of the way’. There was only one name for her: Didgeridoo. But how did this apparently young bird hatched in Indonesia come to speak Australian English? Did she learn it in Indonesia from Aussies living there or was she returned to the bird shop by an Australian family leaving Hong Kong and then put in with a batch of newly imported birds?

Didgeridoo. Female Yellow-crested Cockatoo (probably C.s.occidentalis)
enjoying a shower while hanging over Conduit Road in Hong Kong

We were lucky. A colleague, hearing of the batch of birds at the shop, bought one of the others. It seemed healthy but after a few days developed all the signs of psittacosis and died.

Didgeridoo was so tame that every evening she would fly between us the whole length of the flat time after time, landing on an outstretched arm with a whoop and a bow. That went on for many weeks until one night when I was wearing a white shirt she flew and attacked me with beak and claws. That was the end of her flights from arm to arm because if she saw me while she was free in the flat, her pupils would narrow and she would then launch herself at me. During these sessions I retreated to the balcony but if she saw me through the window she would try to get at me through the glass. Her antipathy developed further to the extent that if I gave her a choice morsel of food by hand she preferred to nip my finger than take the food. Being given a sharp nip by a cockatoo of any size is not a pleasant experience.

Both birds were fond of fruit cake as a treat (aren’t we all). My grandparents were married in 1916 and for their Golden Wedding had a cake made and iced by the locally renowned Mrs Edwards. My grandmother put a piece in a small box and took it to the post office to send to Hong Kong. Unfortunately, she sent it by surface mail as an aerogramme from my father explained. After six weeks or so on board a ship travelling through the tropics the box of cake appeared. My expectations were shattered by the discovery of a very large and fat live grub in the middle of the piece of cake. Risking a nip I offered the cake, grub and all, to Didgeridoo. She took it, carefully extracted the grub, and then discarded the remains of the cake while eating the grub with great relish. We never told my grandmother.

Shortly afterwards, we moved flat. During the day the cockatoos were put out on a narrow balcony overlooking Conduit Road at 1st floor level. Didgeridoo in particular took a great interest in passers by while keeping a wary eye on Black Kites overhead. The cheery man who sorted and collected rubbish each day was greeted by a squawk even though his appearance changed according to the clothes acquired from his gleanings. For the final few weeks we lived there he greeted all the amahs sporting my old deerstalker which the moths had been attacking with some vigour.

Cockatoos are noisy—very noisy, particularly at dusk and dawn but our two at the time were relatively quiet until they caught first sight of us walking from the University along Conduit Road. Then all hell broke loose until we were inside the flat, had greeted them and they had had their daily  shower from the laundry spay. Extra showers at weekend or even from heavy tropical rain beating in were their idea of heaven.

Over the two years, Polythene had become more friendly with Didgeridoo although he still kept his distance. When it was time to leave we decided to fly them back to UK a couple of weeks before leaving ourselves. The metal work shops in the area west of Hollywood Road would make anything and we soon had a travelling case to our own design. The day of departure started with thick towels and gauntlets and then a taxi to the Star Ferry. Carrying large parcels was not allowed in 1st class and so we had to go down the ramp to the bottom deck. The ramp was fairly crowded with coolies and without prompting, came the very loud cry ‘Git out of the way’. It certainly parted the crowds but could have been even more effective had she learnt to do it in Cantonese as well as Australian.

Then it was to the Agriculture Department for a veterinary certificate and on to Kai Tak and the B.O.A.C. cargo office. We even went up the the public gallery to see the plane take off.

In the meantime my father had acquired two parrot cages and he and Vic set off for Heathrow to collect the birds from the handling agents after clearance through customs. Within a few months we moved them to the freezing cold of Cambridgeshire. They now seemed friendly enough to live in the same cage and using the hardwood from the packing cases in which furniture had been shipped back to UK and some very strong weld-mesh netting I made a large cage. They started to snuggle up to one another and life together seemed to be going well. They had to put up with the dog who was inquisitive. A yelp and a sore muzzle suggested one of them had seen her off but a yelp some weeks later was followed by something more serious. The dog reacted badly; her skin erupted in urticaria and for several hours we worried we might see full anaphylactic shock. After several hours the bumps and itchiness started to subside and she never went near the cockatoos again.

But then number one son started to toddle. The proximity of cockatoo beaks and very small prying fingers is something best avoided and so my father converted an old aviary into a palatial cockatooery—not an easy job since conventional wood and wire and soon reduced to shreds. All seemed to be going well when one morning the male attacked the female and killed her in seconds. Around that time in the early 1970s, males killing females was becoming recognised as one of the main problems in keeping seemingly compatible pairs of cockatoos.

Rather than leave Polythene on his own, we moved him to a zoo where he lived in his cage surrounded by other birds and mammals keeping his old habits of retreating in the presence of men but coming forward for a scratch from the human females he knew or got to know. He died suddenly a couple of years later. He always had the appearance of an old bird but how old he was we had no way of finding out.

We were completely cured of the notion of keeping cockatoos or any of the large parrots other than for necessary captive-breeding projects. The later antics of private parrot breeders in producing hand-reared, imprinted parrots purely intended as household pets for the parrot-obsessed reinforced that view.

What we did not know in the 1960s was what the effects of collection and habitat loss would be on this species nor of its colonisation of Hong Kong—two topics for future articles.

*The name, Yellow-crested Cockatoo, is particularly crass. The older Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo at least reflects its specific name sulphurea (Gmelin, 1788). The Greater Sulphur-crested Cockatoo is now called simply the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo but has the scientific name Cacatua galerita (Latham, 1790).