Palm cockatoos are a famous and charismatic species found in Papua New Guinea and far north Queensland. Their most distinctive attribute is their unique and extraordinary courtship ritual in which males drum on the wall of their nest hollow. Fenner School researcher Professor Rob Heinsohn showed that the species may be in decline in Australia due to their extremely slow reproductive rate, poor nest success and changing habitat. Their current state level conservation listing of 'Vulnerable' and IUCN listing of 'Least Concern' does not reflect the imminence of this risk.
To refine their conservation status, the next step is to determine the degree of support that geographically separate populations are likely to receive via dispersal from other populations. Unfortunately, palm cockatoos are extremely difficult to catch and handle in a way that is ethically sound - traditional capture and banding methods of tracking dispersing birds are therefore inappropriate. This leaves researchers without important baseline population ecology information.
My research combines genetic and GIS methods to look for similarities and differences in cultural behaviours such as vocalisations and courtship ‘dance’ routines. This information will be used to determine whether, and to what degree, palm cockatoos are moving between geographically separate populations.
Fieldwork involves finding palm cockatoos at multiple sites around the Cape York Peninsula, and recording video and photographs of their behaviour. Analysis is yet to reveal whether the patterns in behaviour across the study area can show us how much palm cockatoos from separate populations intermingle and support each other’s numbers.
The Fenner School has provided tremendous support in allowing me to undertake this ambitious and exciting project in far north Queensland.