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By Lynne Page
Drawing by Jeff Riebe

“Galahs Play in a Willy-willy in the Northern Territory” 
by Julian Reid, Emu Vol. 94, Part 3, Sept ’94, pg. 221-222

A Swinging Cockatoo

My bare-eyed cockatoo, Marshmallow, likes to hang by her feet from my hand while I swing her in a big arc. Occasionally a human spectator will question whether Marshmallow could really enjoy such treatment. Now I have a great response for these skeptics.

This short article and an early one to which it refers report a fascinating “play behavior” of some wild rose-breasted cockatoos (known as Galahs in their native Australia).

Flocks have been observed entering vortices (what I would call whirlwinds or dust devils and what Aussies apparently call willy-willies.) The birds spiral acrobatically, calling loudly, leave the vortex, and then catch up with it to take another spin. In this particular instance, the birds took their E-ticket ride in five or six short bursts spanning a total of 30 to 40 seconds.  The flock “flew leisurely back to a group of Ironwood” to settle in the trees as the willy-willy continued out of sight.

The author speculates that this behavior is “cultural” and may not be practiced by all Galahs. He notes that he has seen thousands of vortices and only once seen this parrot play.

Based on his observations of Little Corellas (bare-eyed cockatoos), he suggests that species “is likely to behave in this way.” He has frequently seen both Galahs and little Corellas engaging in the “more common form of apparent play behavior” of “hanging onto the blades of a windmill and spinning round and round with the revolving fan … (T)he corellas appear to be more enthusiastic … in their endeavors to hang on precariously and fall off noisily before regaining their position, often at the expense of another.”

Compared to this, a few swings from my hand seem pretty tame. 

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