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Hidden Hong Kong: Where do Hong Kong’s wild cockatoos come from?

By Catharina Cheung 31 March 2021

Header image courtesy of @arceciandrea (via Instagram)

Hong Kong Park is one of our favourite places to chill out at during a lazy day—after all, where else could you find lush greenery and a decent collection of animals in such a convenient location, and available to enjoy for free, no less? But how many visitors to the Central and Admiralty areas have also noticed some cheeky, feathered friends hanging around the area, perhaps squawking and dangling upside down from a far-up branch before flapping away on pure white wings? No, they haven’t escaped from the nearby aviary! These are Hong Kong’s wild cockatoos, and here’s why you should learn more about them.

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Cockatoos in Hong Kong

Here’s an interesting fact: There are only about 2,000 yellow-crested cockatoos left in the wild, and approximately 10 percent of them live in Hong Kong. Who would’ve thought that this concrete jungle, famous for being one of the most densely populated places in the world, could support a species of endangered bird? These birds naturally originate from the forested lands of Indonesia and East Timor, but have somehow made their way over to our little corner of the globe.

Urban legend and popular theory has it that these cockatoos were popular as exotic pets back during the colonial period. For those who could afford buying as well as maintaining such a pet—although the lifespan of a wild cockatoo ranges between 20 to 40 years, those in captivity can live to about 70—it was also a status symbol, and cockatoos were often kept by the British governors of the city, high-ranking officials, and successful businessmen.

When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in 1941, it is said that the British governor or his staff released his pet yellow-crested cockatoos kept in Flagstaff House, where the commander of the British forces resided. Now converted into the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, the building is situated within the leafy confines of Hong Kong Park. The freed cockatoos didn’t feel the need to migrate elsewhere since there was sufficient food and breeding grounds for them, and they are said to have resided around the park since then.

Subtropical Hong Kong has similar geographical and weather conditions to the cockatoos’ natural habitats, and they have rather flourished while sharing our urban spaces. From about 50 yellow-crested cockatoos in the 1970s, along with other pets released over the years, their local population has climbed to roughly 200 today, unexpectedly making Hong Kong one of this bird’s major habitats. These cockatoos can now be found in the area where the former Victoria Barracks used to be—which encompasses the Hong Kong Park to Pacific Place—as well as near St John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong University, Happy Valley, Pok Fu Lam, Sai Kung, and other small pockets of space.

Understanding yellow-crested cockatoos

The yellow-crested cockatoo’s scientific name is Cacatua sulphurea, and it originates from the Indonesia region, with habitats also in Sulawesi and along the Java Seas. They are very recognisable birds, with white feathers and bright yellow plumage on their heads. These crests normally lie flat on their head, like a modern hipster haircut with shaved sides, occasionally spreading up and out like a mohawk to make themselves look bigger and more impressive.

Instead of building nests on branches as many other birds do, this species favours tree holes, where they reside and lay their eggs. Of course, a tree has to be wide enough in order to accommodate families of birds living in them, and in Hong Kong, camphor trees are a top choice. Apart from being incredibly pretty, this sociable bird is also intelligent and can be trained to perform a variety of tricks, as can be seen in bird park shows around the world and in hundreds of domestic Youtube videos. Unfortunately, its many positive qualities are largely what has led to its downfall.

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Photo credit: @birdsofchina (via Instagram)

Cockatoos, endangered

At the height of their popularity as pets from the 1970s to the early 1990s, Indonesia exported 78,000 cockatoos all around the world, greatly diminishing their natural population, so much so that they now only survive in small clusters scattered around their home country. 

They were eventually listed as a critically endangered species in 2002, and trading wild-caught birds was made illegal, but the ban did not apply to cockatoos which were captured before the ban (remember their long lifespans?) and birds that were bred in captivity.

How does one tell the difference between a cockatoo that’s wild and one that’s been bred by people, you ask? That’s just it—you can’t really tell just by looking. There’s also the fact that poachers very rarely catch wild adult cockatoos; they raid nests for their eggs instead, further blurring the line between wild and captive birds. 

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), commercial trade of these yellow-crested cockatoos are prohibited and non-commercial permits must be obtained. But loopholes in the Hong Kong side of enforcement, where it can be ambiguous as to which bird the permit applies to, means that there have been sellers who have kept used permits and applied it to following sales.

What complicates things even further is that the yellow-crested cockatoo looks almost identical to the sulphur-crested cockatoo! This is a parrot species which is endemic to Australia and New Guinea, and is not endangered. The only difference between the two species is that the yellow-crested cockatoo is smaller, averaging at 33 centimetres, and some might sport yellow patches on their cheeks, while the sulphur-crested is larger at approximately 50 centimetres. 

Even with the two birds side-by-side, it would be difficult for the untrained eye to distinguish between them. Who’s to say that poachers and sellers dealing in yellow-crested cockatoos are not just passing them off as their twin-like cousins to the authorities?

Yellow-crested cockatoos being smuggled in plastic bottles. Photo credit: @utravel (via Instagram)

Despite their dwindling population, each year still sees hundreds of birds being smuggled out of Indonesia. This sort of excessive trade, compounded with environmental pollution, is steadily wiping out other species of birds as well. Even in Hong Kong, our wild cockatoos are not necessarily safe; a poacher made off with two chicks near Upper Baguio Villa in Pokfulam in 2015, and prices for these cockatoos this year are purportedly $6,000 each.

There are hopes that Hong Kong’s yellow-crested cockatoo population might one day be able to help repopulate Indonesia’s native birds, but as long as there is a demand for them, the scales can always be too easily tipped in favour of capitalist greed. In the meantime, we can spread the word about how special these birds are and promote their conservation efforts. Maybe the next time you’re in Hong Kong Zoo, you’ll keep an eye out for these cheeky fellas, and experience a new-found appreciation for these beautiful birds teetering on the brink of vanishing forever.

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.