Press Release: St. Mary’s University professor studies whether Australian cockatoos can anticipate cyclones

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA – St. Mary’s University (Calgary, Alberta) emeritus professor Glen Chilton, an ornithologist, author, and adventurer, is studying the behaviour of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos to determine whether they can anticipate approaching cyclones, and make adaptive responses.

Glen Chilton

Together with his wife Dr. Lisa Chilton, a professor at James Cook University in Australia, Glen has been studying the behaviour of these cockatoos since 2017. They have been observing cockatoos at their tradition nocturnal roosts. “Each night, year after year, hundreds of cockatoos gather to spend the night in the tops of a small number of eucalyptus trees.” This sort of communal roosting is not common in the bird world, but it is spectacular when in happens. “Our goal has been to try to figure out why cockatoos behave this way.”

Many people believe that some non-human animals can tell when a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami is imminent. “There is a perception in Australia that cockatoos sense the approach of a cyclone long before there is any apparent change in weather.” The birds are thought to abandon coastal areas and fly far inland to avoid damaging winds. Is there any scientific evidence of this sort of behaviour?

One of the difficulties with this type of research is that it is almost impossible to conduct. “One has to be involved in a long-term study of typical animal behaviours before the disaster strikes.”

When the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) announced that the 2020/21 cyclone season was likely to be a particularly active one, Glen and Lisa teamed up with their JCU colleagues Dr. Orachun Hayakijkosol and Jody Strickland to observe cockatoos at their night-time roosts before, during and after a cyclone. Unfortunately, not a single cyclone made landfall on that part of the Australian coast in that season. The same was true of the following three cyclone seasons.

The study is now in its fourth year, but the question of whether Sulphur-crested Cockatoos can anticipate cyclones may soon be answered. According to the BOM, Severe Tropical Cyclone Kirrily has developed in the Coral Sea and is heading towards Townsville. The cyclone is likely to move overland late on Thursday. Within the limits of safety, Chilton and his crew will be documenting the behaviour of cockatoos at their roosting sites before, during and after this passage.

About St. Mary’s University:

St. Mary’s University is an innovative teaching and research university that provides affordable, accredited and highly valued degrees in the Liberal Arts, Sciences and Education located on a historic site in Calgary, Canada. The students at St. Mary’s are inspired to combine academics with a passionate commitment to ethics, social justice, and respect for diversity of opinion and belief.