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

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

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

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

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

“Even best case scenarios show that the overall population will go down bymore than a half in 49 years, the equivalent of three generations for thebirds,” 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 theofficial conservation status of palm cockatoos.

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

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

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

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

The research has been published in Biological Conservation.

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