New research from The Australian National University (ANU) shows palm cockatoos, renowned for their human-like musical drumming behaviour, are threatened with extinction. 

According to co-author Professor Rob Heinsohn, the “animal kingdom’s match for Ringo Starr or Phil Collins” is facing rapidly declining population numbers.  

“These shy and elusive birds, iconic to Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland, fashion thick drum sticks from branches, grip them with their feet and bang them rhythmically on the tree trunk, all the while displaying to females,” Professor Heinsohn said. 

“Sadly, palm cockatoos have one of the slowest breeding rates of any bird, and our study shows the population is not producing enough young to replace the birds that die.”  

The research used data from a long-term monitoring project together with new genetic information to work out how connected the scattered birds are on Cape York, and how well the good breeders compensate for those that fail to reproduce.  

“Even best case scenarios show that the overall population will go down by more than a half in 49 years, the equivalent of three generations for the birds,” lead author Dr Miles Keighley said.  

“This fast rate of decline means that the palm cockatoos qualify as ‘endangered’ under International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria.”  

ANU researchers will work closely with the Queensland government to change the official conservation status of palm cockatoos. 

The palm cockatoo drumming is part of the species courtship ritual that involves a lot of calls and movements to attract a mate. Video: ANU

“Long-lived birds like palm cockatoos, especially those that live in remote areas, are incredibly hard to study,” Professor Heinsohn said.  

“We have worked very hard for over 20 years to understand the population trends. We used computer simulation techniques that allow us to look into the future – it’s a bit like having a crystal ball. But it only works if you have good data that tells you how the birds are tracking here and now. 

“Palm cockatoos are very special birds. No other animal apart from humans fashions its own musical instrument, let alone creates its own rhythm.  

“This only occurs among the palm cockatoos of Cape York Peninsula, adding extra impetus for protecting them and reversing the worrying downward trend.” 

The research has been published in Biological Conservation. 

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