Does anyone know the origin of the feral yellow crested cockatoos in central ?

Submitted by naomi elegant on Tue, 08/24/2021 - 15:19

Hi everyone, 

My name is Naomi Elegant and I'm a freelance writer in Hong Kong. I'm working on a story about the yellow-crested cockatoos (the white cockatoos) that live in the trees of Hong Kong park, some in Pokfulam, and elsewhere on the island. Many articles about these birds say that they're the descendants of the pets of British officers and the British governor, Mark Young, who released the birds right before the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. I've read this story in articles and also heard it repeated anecdotally, but none of the articles have cited a source for this story. 

I was wondering if anyone has heard this story or other stories about these cockatoos, or has come across any old photographs, letters, or other primary documents that link the birds to British officials at that time. 

Thanks so much! 




thank you for all your comments and insight, the article is up here if you're interested:



My aunt used to live in MacDonnell Rosd in the 1970s and I remember a regular flock of feral cockatoos would gather in the nearby trees making a racket every time I visited her. The story I heard as a kid was that they dated from WWII period and had been released by the Japanese. 

Some might consider the noise a nuisance (ironic for HK of all places) but glad to hear they are still thriving! 

Wil need to do some research into this question but interested in what you uncover when you finally write your piece! 

Hi David,


Thanks so much for sharing, that's a lovely story! I'd actually like to include people's impressions of the cockatoos in my article - I'd love to talk to you a bit more about this; if you're interested, please do email me at and we could arrange a time to talk (and this goes for anyone else too :) ) 

When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1981 I was told the Japanese invasion story of their existence and haven't heard a more convincing explanation! What I have observed is that over the last 40 years more colonies have been established going westwards. There are now well-established colonies around the Bonham Road entrance to the HKU site and around the HKU playing fields and sports facilities in Sandy Bay. Does anyone know if they extended their territory eastwards towards Wanchai and Causeway Bay, or further westwards to Aberdeen and Repulse Bay? Like many of us they are not indigenous and yet have thrived in Hong Kong!

As many others have pointed out, the correct name for this species is the sulphur-crested cockatoo and, of course, they are not native to Hong Kong.

The "smart money" really does seem to be on some of these birds being kept as pets by military personnel in pre-WW2 Victoria Barracks. (I'm not sure that pre-WW2 Colonial Governors went in for such activities)!

Ahead of the invasion of the Colony by the IJA in Dec 1941, the military decided that the birds would be better off being released from captivity. And as many people have pointed out, although endangered elsewhere (including their "native territory," e.g. Indonesia), their descendants have thrived in this urban jungle!




Sulphur Crested White Cockatoos are indigenous to Australia.

Might be productive if you follow up on leads about soil conservation and greening Hong Kong - between the wars and just after. Some eucalypts and other Australian trees and shrubs were introduced here during the period and you may find our hardy sulphur crested friends are related.

When I first arrived there were many especially in the old Victoria Barracks next to the then Murray Building (now Murray Hotel).

Almost certain some may have been kept as pets, especially  because they could be trained to copy repetitive speech ....quite embarrassing at times.

Our hillsides once bare are now green and increasingly verdant. 

Kevin Styles

Then why were the cockatoos not spotted by avid bird watchers  until many years after the war? All the evidence suggests the current population is derived from birds that escaped from the escape or release of birds imported in large numbers to the bird shops in the late 1950s/1960s and beyond. At that time what was then known as the Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (now Yellow-crested) was extremely common in Indonesia and being treated as an agricultural pest - hence the large numbers imported into Hong Kong. Even if some were released during the Japanese invasion - and I have been unable to find any evidence that this occurred with this species or indeed any other species - there is no evidence that any survived to breed and form part of the current feral flock. 

I have written several articles on the Hong Kong cockatoos. This is one of them…

Naomi is asking where the story of release in 1941 originated. At present I have it down as an urban myth but maybe the evidence is out there somewhere.

Oh dear, people are misidentifying the cockatoos in Hong Kong. They are not the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) of Australia and New Guinea, formerly called the Greater Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. The ones in Hong Kong, Cacatua sulphurea, are native to Indonesia. They were formerly called the Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo but that has been changed to Yellow-crested. So, confusingly and stupidly, the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo does not have the scientific name sulphurea but the Lemon-crested does!

On 17th May 1982 I received a detailed letter from Brian Wilson, Director of Urban Services, about the damage Hong Kong’s sizeable flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (nowadays called Yellow-crested Cockatoos) were doing to trees in the Zoological & Botanical Gardens and neighbourhood. He said that the cockatoos were wilfully biting off branches and accordingly proposed to ‘get rid of the birds’, which were ‘exotic anyway’. Before taking such drastic action, he asked for my advice as to whether there was any effective way of stopping the birds causing damage. If not, did I have any objections to the birds being destroyed by blocking up nest holes and shooting. I had little doubt that Dr Ken Searle, the Honorary Curator of the ZBG, was behind the letter. A few days later I replied outlining the history of the cockatoos in Hong Kong and warned that there would be a public outcry when the shooting began, as many people find these cockatoos exciting and even exhilarating.

Mike Webster entered the foray with a letter to the South China Morning Post on 29th September 1983 supporting the eradication of these exotics. I replied supporting the cockatoos right to exist and this led to a feisty exchange of letters with the overwhelming majority supporting the cockatoos. As far as I know, no shooting took place.

The issue did not die and Dr Ken Searle added considerable fuel to the fire with a vitriolic letter to the South China Morning Post on 11th June 1985. Of course, I responded in strong defence of the cockatoos, comparing them (tongue in cheek) to the ravens in the Tower of London. Other letters in support of the cockatoos were published and not one favoured Dr Ken Searle’s standpoint. Unfortunately, Fred Hechtel, a friend and former Chairman of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society who had seen the exchange, telephoned and said how distressed he was that I had, in his view, attacked Dr Ken Searle. He thought that any thinking zoologist would support him. I don’t believe that he realised that Ken and I were good friends and just had a different point of view on a matter that Ken choose to make public.

Members of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society were invited to vote on whether or not the cockatoos should be exterminated, culled or left alone. Eighty-five per cent of those that responded wanted the birds left alone and only six per cent wanted them shot. The remaining nine per cent favoured culling.

Dr Ken Searle did not let the matter rest and gave an interview on the subject to Vicky Wong, which was published in the South China Morning Poston 17th August 1986. That was the last I saw of the problem in print. According to the Hong Kong Bird Report 2017, flocks of over forty were still flying around Hong Kong and were much more widespread.

The just published Hong Bird Report 2018 (HKBWS) contains the following entry for the Yellow-crested Cockatoo Cacatua sulphurea:

All records (for 2018) from northern HK Island between Cyberport and Causeway Bay except one at … Peak count 65 going into roost on Lower Albert Road on 6th December is the highest count reported in Hong Kong.

The cockatoos seemed to have won the day.


Clive Viney

Author of The Birds of Hong Kong and South China (published by the Information Services Department)

6th September 2021

It would appear to me that Ken Searle was most unreasonable in his proposed treatment of these birds - no matter how destructive I understand they can be.


Love them, even wrecking the morning peace, but it hurts to see the way they strip the flame trees in HKP bare, constantly; it's a wonder they're still standing.