Visiting Healesville Sanctuary’s Native Australian Birds

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos

I did the tourist thing on the weekend. I live in Melbourne (Australia) and was entertaining an interstate visitor over the weekend. My friend just happens to be another bird person – so we thought it might be fun to have a look at Healesville Sanctuary while he was here.

Healesville Sanctuary is unusual because it focuses on Australian natives. They have some really worthwhile conservation campaigns and breeding programs. This is a fantastic place to visit if you have an interest in Australian birds. They have quite a few activities that centre around birds, the most notable being their bird show which runs twice day (weather permitting).

Wedge-tailed Eagle

The bird show has an educational theme. The trainers rattle off a stack of facts about how well a particular species is doing in the wild, and what traits they have which help them to survive. Most of the birds fly out over the audience, so that the audience gets an up close view of just how large their wingspan, pretty their colours are or how sharp their beak is.

Naturally, not everything always goes to plan and I happened to be there at a time when the birds weren’t being overly cooperative. I felt a little sorry for the trainer at times, particularly when he was trying to cue a kite to return ‘home’. The kite had absolutely no intention of going home and faked doing so more than once. The trainer would look relieved the bird had gone away (as it was supposed to) for about 5 seconds, during which he’d start to continue on to the next part of the show. Suddenly the kite would fly straight back over his head towards the audience having successfully eluded the trainer who was meant to be putting the kite away behind the scenes.

Extract from the flight show. 

The trainer informed the audience that: “It’s not funny – I’ll tell you when you’re supposed to laugh”. After about 10 minutes of this, it was almost disappointing when the kite finally accepted the idea of returning to its enclosure. On the same note, BirdTricks talks about how to put together your very own touring bird show in their total transformation series! A huge part of doing so is looking into unique parrot magic tricks you can teach your bird every month and developing entertaining or education routines to show off.

One of the trainers (Katrina) with a female Eclectus.

Aside from the bird show, Healesville Sanctuary has a stack of other events that it schedules throughout the day. If you’re lucky (or well enough organised to book in advance), you can arrange to be a part of what they call ‘magic moments’. At set times throughout the day, keepers will meet people at a designated spot and take you for a more up close and personal encounter with some of the animals.

These ‘magic moments’ are an additional cost, and do need to be arranged with the ticket booth either at the start of the day, or booked in advance because only limited numbers can do each session (or the animals are overwhelmed).

Magic Moment - feeding the emus

In terms of bird ‘magic moments’ there are a couple of options. The last time that my friend and I went to Healesville, we booked in for a ‘magic moments’ session with the emus, which was well worth the effort. We were taken out the back, given food and allowed to hand feed the emus. (Nothing quite like having live meal worms crawling around your hands!) The best part of the experience though, was actually having the keeper to yourself for a bit to ask some questions.

Emus trying to hatch the speaker box!!!

At the time, some of the emus had taken possession of a speaker box in their enclosure, having decided that the speaker was their egg. They were taking it in turns sitting on the speaker and the keepers were looking to replace the speaker with some infertile/plaster eggs. The concern was that the emus actually stop eating while they are nesting, so it was something the keepers were watching in order to make sure that their health didn’t suffer. I wouldn’t have known why they were behaving like that without attending this ‘magic moment’.

Rosebreasted Cockatoo/Galah guarding the emus' feeding station. 

On this weekend just past, we booked in for “Brekky with the Birds”. Being the type of morning person who swears at the first crack of sunlight while pulling a pillow over her head… I was a little wary of getting up at the time of morning that I’d need to in order to get my flock fed and watered and make the drive out to Healesville in time for this experience. Fortunately the promise of the included coffee and muffin was enough added motivation to get me out of bed. We made it on time. (Speaking of motivation, are you using the right treats to train your bird?!)
We met the keeper outside one of the parrot aviaries an hour before it opened to the public. Like the time we went behind the scenes with the emus, we were provided with food for the fun of a handfeeding experience. 

The crowd that was in the aviary a few hours later...

Admittedly, it wasn’t really the handfeeding side of things that I was particularly interested in. It was actually nice to see the birds relaxed and out and about before they had a chance to become wary of a large crowd of people. At this time of the day, people = treats and positive interaction. There were no screaming children, or people trying to leave the designated paths, going into the birds’ safe spaces in an attempt to get a closer look at them. At this time of the day, the birds come to the people.

Meeting the Red-tailed Black Cockatoos

They’re not just any birds either. Currently there are some of the endangered subspecies of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos housed in this aviary. So it was a pretty special opportunity to see these birds up close. Three of them were handraised, so the birds have a tendency to jump on the nearest human. The adult male is a former pet that was surrendered to the sanctuary, (as the endangered subspecies is no longer allowed as a pet under a wildlife licence). His former owner was a male and the bird tends to actively seek out tall men. The other 2 hand tame birds are still too young to be conclusively visually sexed and still look for food from humans (any humans), and if no food is available they’re happy to tug on jewellery or any jacket zips.

Fighting over a jacket zip!

If the cockatoos aren’t enough to excite you – there were other birds around including some tame Eclectus parrots and some nesting Honey Eaters. There was also a Potoroo (a small mammal) that was continuously trying to trip everyone up in an effort to get us to feed him. Wow was he angry when the cockatoos broke into the container of vegetables that had been brought into the aviary for him! He wasn’t prepared to eat anything that a bird had touched and ran off to sulk in the corner.

Me with a male Eclectus parrot (does this make me a traitor?!?)

We didn’t actually get the full “Brekky with the Birds” experience because strong winds had sent a large Eucalyptus tree crashing into one of the aviaries only a couple of days before. The aviary was badly damaged and was obviously closed for repair. Many of the birds had escaped and not all of them had returned yet. Apparently the Musk Lorikeet flock had returned voluntarily for their meal as had most of the other birds. It might take them a while to complete the repairs, so it meant we got some extra time with the cockatoos. 

Me with one of the juvenile Red-tailed Black Cockatoos 

There are plenty of other aviaries and other enclosures to check out at Healesville. I was squatting down low on the ground, staying very still, trying to get a clear photo of a King Parrot in one of the other aviaries when a Lyre Bird decided to come up to me. I got a bit of a shock, because they’re normally a very shy bird and he came up to me and peered right into my face. His beak was 2 inches from my nose.

Lyre Bird

It made me chuckle because he was the feature of the aviary and I knew the other humans that were in the aviary were frantically searching for him down the other end. When he seemed to finish counting my freckles, he turned and disappeared back into the undergrowth before the loud tourists at the other end could come and find him. There is something to be said for being quiet in these situations!!!

Bobby, the male red-tailed Black Cockatoo

So if you ever get the opportunity to visit Healesville Sanctuary – I’d recommend it. It’s worth the effort.

Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.

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