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Encounter – The Galah or Rose-breasted Cockatoo

A Galah, gorgeous in pink and grey, surveys the bush
A Galah, gorgeous in pink and grey, surveys the bush

Ever since I first laid eyes on it, as a nine-year-old, in a second-hand issue of Australia’s Wildlife Heritage (a stellar and encyclopaedic educational series published in the 1970s that is now really hard to find), I fell in love with the Galah (Eolophus roseicapilla). It boggled my mind that a parrot, a cockatoo, could occur in rose and grey. On my visit last month to South Australia and Queensland, I chanced upon galahs aplenty. In the flesh, they were bigger than I had imagined, and infinitely more attractive and personable. In flight, they appear to float through the air. They were also very common and, as my ten days in Australia passed, I began to take less and less notice of them. Well, actually, I did notice them all the while but I stopped scrambling for my binoculars as I did earlier. My love for the galah remains undimmed, though, and now that I’m back, I miss them.

Galahs flocking on a pasture
Galahs flocking on a pasture on Kangaroo Island, South Australia

Ron Swan, the excellent interpretative guide with Exceptional Kangaroo Island, one of the oldest adventure tour operators on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, told me that the clearing of mallee and bush on the island with the arrival of European settlers had created vast open pastures that benefited the Galah, a seed-eating parrot. Picking and crushing grass seeds with their specialised bills, the noisy and gregarious parrots thrived, often edging out other species such as the beautiful Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo.

A Captive Major Mitchell's Cockatoo at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
A Captive Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

Flocks as large as a hundred or more birds are now common in South Australia and Kangaroo Island, though on average a flock may comprise about thirty birds. In the wild they eat grass seeds, berries, young shoots and berries. Sheep stations and crop fields have created a bonus food stock for these opportunistic feeders, as have lawns in metropolitan areas of the big cities. I saw galahs aplenty in Brisbane, Adelaide and the Gold Coast and my reading informs me that they occur plentifully in other Australian cities across the mainland and in Tasmania as well, where they have been introduced.

Male Galah (L) with dark brown iris and female (R) with pink iris
Male Galah (L) with dark brown iris and female (R) with pink iris

Male and female birds are almost alike, though observant birders can tell between the dark-brown iris in the male and the pink iris in the slightly smaller female. Like most parrots, they make a great exhibition of their love and affection in public (PDA, as you might call it) and it’s all very heartwarming to watch. They are also known to mate for life — or until the death of one partner, whichever is earlier.

A flock of galahs takes wing lazily upon my approach
A flock of galahs takes wing lazily upon my approach

While bird enthusiasts I encountered did appreciate the galah’s beauty despite its ubiquity, I met farmers who didn’t think highly of these birds, considering them a pestilence for the destruction they wreak upon crops and fruit orchards. Imagine a hundred birds descending upon your newly ripened barley field and you might run out of compassion like a Samsung Galaxy S3 phone running out of battery power.

In now out-of-date Aussie slang, galah (pronounced gull-ah) means a loveable fool. That also sums up the Aussie attitude to this loveable pest.