In 2015 I was lucky enough to take part in the annual count of the red-tailed black cockatoo (south eastern species) and I got to see and hear these beautiful birds in the wild. I also spoke with volunteers and staff involved in the recovery project for this endangered species. It was just the sort of project that I thought my character Ruthie and her family would like to get involved in.
You’ll find lots of information about the south eastern species of the red-tailed black cockatoo at www.redtail.com.au
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First chapter of 'Red-Tail Recovery'
The blue tongue of Ruthie’s pet lizard, Lulu, flickered towards the bus window. It was almost the same shade as the deep ocean, Ruthie thought, as she watched the waves crashing onto the rocks below.
Ruthie stroked Lulu’s scaly back, then offered the young skink the last piece of strawberry.
“Here, you take her,” said Ruthie, to her younger sister, Bel, “I want to look at this.”
Ruthie opened the ipad and stared at the image of a black cockatoo with a vivid red tail.
“Tell me again about our next job, mum,” asked Ruthie, looking up.
Ruthie’s mum, Kate, spun the wheel of the bus and changed gears as they followed the winding Great Ocean Road. She glanced up into the rear vision mirror and gave Ruthie a smile.
“Well, the coordinator of the Red-Tailed Black-Cockatoo Recovery Program, our old friend Gareth Tyson, is taking a well-earned break. He’ll be away for about a year, and he’s asked us to look after the program while he’s away. Gareth wants your dad and I to keep an eye on the birds and run the annual flock count, and do everything we can to help boost their numbers,” she explained.
“And I can help too?” Ruthie asked.
“Yes, of course!”
“And we get to live in his house while he’s gone?” Ruthie asked.
“We all have our own bedrooms?”
“And we’ll go to school?”
“Yes. And Gareth said the local basketball teams are keen to sign us up,” Kate added.
Ruthie closed her eyes and tried to imagine it. The green bus with the yellow roof had been their home for almost as long as she could remember. And her younger brother Liam and sister Bel were the only classmates she’d ever had. They had studied in remote campsites all over Australia, with lessons provided by the school of the air. Instead of playing basketball or learning karate, Ruthie had helped her parents with their wildlife research. That sometimes meant tagging wallabies, catching tadpoles, or even collecting lizard droppings.
She wondered if they’d all feel a little lost, rattling around inside a big old house, and missing the cramped cozy bus. What would it feel like to be the new girl at school, in a little country town where all the other kids had probably known each other all their lives?
Ruthie glanced down at the ipad again and scrolled through the gallery of photos. She saw a fat chick with bulgy eyes covered in nothing but fuzz, sitting at the bottom of a tree hollow. Then an adult with gorgeous yellow flecks around her face and down her wings, and a tail splashed with orange and yellow.
“The male is the one with the two red patches on his tail isn’t he? And the female has the orangey yellow tail?” she asked.
“Yes. The young ones all look like the mums until they are about three or four years old. That’s when the males develop the really red tail. Last count there were only around 1500 of the birds left,” answered her mum.
Ruthie handed Bel the ipad and lifted Lulu back onto her arm.
There weren’t many of these beautiful birds. Ruthie could feel a little knot of worry forming in her chest. Protecting them might not be easy.
Ruthie stroked the soft grey and brown scales of the young blue-tongue lizard, and laughed as Lulu fixed her with her beady eyes. She almost seemed to be smiling. Ruthie felt the flutter of anxiety die away. Patting the young lizard reminded Ruthie of all the people who were doing their best for endangered wildlife; the scientists, the wildlife carers, the volunteers, and all the other kids like her who cared about animals.
Ruthie glanced across to watch Bel studying a map of the red-tails’ habitat.
As Bel zoomed in she frowned.
“Why are there big green circles on the ground?” Bel asked.
Liam looked up from a book about aliens, suddenly interested.
“Maybe they’re crop circles. Let me see,” he said, leaning over them.
“There are heaps of them! That means UFOs have landed!” he said excitedly.
Their dad walked up the aisle and peered at the map too.
“They’re a clue,” Tom said. “About one reason our red-tailed cockatoos are endangered.”
“Uh, aliens are stealing them?” asked Liam.
“No. Good try, but no. I think I’ll let you guys figure it out,” he said, and winked.
Ruthie didn’t think it was UFOs, but she could see by the gleam in Liam’s eyes that he still liked the idea.
“Who’s hungry?” called Kate. “There’s a store here selling home-made pies.”
There was a chorus of approval from the rest of the family, and Kate parked the bus next to the general store. Liam, Tom and Kate stepped inside the shop, and Bel and Ruthie stopped near a large aviary which stood on the front porch.
A snowy white bird cocked his head and watched them with interest with his small black eyes. He clambered up from his perch to their eye-level, strong claws gripping the mesh of the cage.
The bird stepped onto another perch, and began to bob his head up and down.
“Hello cockie,” said Ruthie softly.
The bird raised his yellow head crest and gave a piercing screech.
The girls startled and Bel stepped back and covered her ears.
“Too loud!” Bel complained, glaring at the cockatoo.
The bird bobbed up and down again.
“Noisy cockie, noisy cockie,” he said, in a throaty sing-song voice.
“You’re right about that,” she said.
Liam stepped outside, munching on a pie smothered with tomato sauce.
“It wasn’t aliens,” he said, in between mouthfuls. “But what we saw on google-earth kind of were crop circles.”
“What do you mean?” Ruthie asked.
“Since dad wouldn’t tell us what they were, I asked the shop keeper, and she knew. They are irrigation circles. The farmers clear these big round areas to plant their crops, and then they have these massive sprinkler things that move slowly around like the hand of a clock, and water them,” he said.
“And what’s that got to do with the red-tails?” Ruthie asked, as her parents walked up and handed the girls their own pies to eat.
“Trees. The red-tails don’t have enough of their food trees, and they are running low on nesting trees too,” Ruthie’s mum Kate explained. “They only eat the seeds from three different sorts of trees, and they need big old trees with hollows to nest in. More tree clearing means less food and less chicks.”
“Well that’s easy,” said Bel, swinging her legs as she sat on a bench beside the caged cockatoo. “We’ll just have to plant more trees.”
“Good idea,” said Kate. “That will definitely help.”
Ruthie had a feeling the answer to the red-tails’ problems might not be as simple as Bel seemed to think, but she didn’t say anything.
A small flock of pink and grey galahs wheeled above the trees and landed nearby. Ruthie glanced back at the white cockatoo. He was pressed against the cage, silently watching the wild birds as they waddled across the lawn eating grass seeds.
“I feel sorry for that cockie,” she said to her mum. “Do people keep red-tails as pets?”
“No, not the ones we’re looking after. Although, there has been a bit of smuggling problem, so there are probably some kept illegally overseas,” Kate said.
Ruthie pictured the next few months: settling into a new school, planting trees, and keeping an eye out for wildlife smugglers.
It will be a new adventure, she thought, and smiled.