by Rafael Silva do Nascimento
Long living pets that could go along with their owners for years have always been an attraction, as one can see by the popularity of turtles as pets, as well as psittacids, which are also vivid and interactive. Animals tend to live longer in captivity, not being exposed to the dangers of the “wild”. Some, however, exceed the expectations concerning longevity and become very curious characters. One of those was a cockatoo that lived more than a century in Australia, between the 18th and 20th centuries.
Called Cocky Bennet, a sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita), he stood out not by the age he would reach, but for its unusual physical features. Born in 1796 (according to Brisbane’s weekly summary, The Queenslander), near Sydney, he was removed from his nest on a eucalypt by a local farmer. As the years passed, he started to lose the feathers, looking like a plucked chicken with a wrinkled skin. Moreover, his upper mandible had an extraordinary long tip, so that he could only eat mashed food. Such abnormalities are typical of the psittacine beak and feather disease, caused by a circovirid virus, which also lowers the animal’s immunity against the effects of other viruses and bacteria.
The bird spent his first 78 years travelling the world with Captain Ellis, his owner. Following the death of the captain, he was bequeathed to a Mr. and Mrs. Bowden. With the death of Mr. Bownden in 1889, his wife soon married Charles Bennet, with the couple then moving to Tom Ugly’s Point, Blakehurst, in 1891, where Mr. Bennet became the licensee of the Sea Breeze Hotel.
Popular, Cocky lived in the hotel for most of his last 25 years. Talkative, his repertory included phrases like “one feather more and I’ll fly” and “one at a time, gentlemen, please”, when harassed by other birds. Cocky was more talkative and with more lurid language after being given a “sip of strong brew”. He received the visitors while moving and jumbling at the top of his cage in the hotel’s front verandah.
Despite being affected by the disease, he passed away only in May 1916, being the longest living psittacid registered in Australia. As there are no sources indicating in which month Cocky was removed from his nest, it’s not possible to determine if he was already 120 years old or still 119. Sulphur-crested cockatoos, in Sydney, breed from August to January and the eggs hatch after about 25 days. So, assuming that he wasn’t a newborn (for he possibly wouldn’t have survived if removed from the nest as soon as he left the egg), the farmer probably took him between about late September and late February. Back in the day, his age was estabilished by ornithologists counting the growth rings of his beak, concluding he was 120 years old, give or tak a year. The mean lifespan for his species is 70 years.
After his death, The Sydney Morning Herald published (in 1916) the following note:
A Venerable Cockatoo
“Cocky Bennet,” a sulphur-crested Australian cockatoo, died on Friday in his 120th year at Canterbury. This age is a record in longevity for an Australian parrot so far as the officials records are concerned. For many years this bird was in the possession of Mrs. Sarah Bennet, the licensee of the Sea Breeze Hotel, at Tom Ugly’s Point. When she left there, about 12 months ago, she transferred the parrot to her nephew, Mr. Murdoch Alexander Wagschall, at Woolpack Hotel, Canterbury. The old bird was absolutely featherless for the last 20 years, but it maintained its “patter” till the day before its death. “Cocky Bennet” was a great traveller, and is said to have journeyed seven times round the world. Mr. Wagschall has arranged to have remains of this historic parrot preserved by a taxidermist.”
Accordng to W. A. Easterling (The Sydney Morning Herald from July 9 1984), a distant nephew of Mrs. Bennet, the bird was stuffed and mounted by the firm Tost and Rohu and set in a glass case. It remained at the hotel until the late 1920s or early 1930s, when his grandmother, Mrs. P.Wagschall (whose husband operated the old Woolpack Hotel at Canterbury), left the hotel business. Then handed to his mother, Cocky hung in their dining room for more than 40 years, where it he became used for the family members but the visitor were unnerved by the baleful glare of the relic. His late wife once commented that she was in two minds about marrying him lest he inherit the old horror. After his family home was sold, his sister handed Cocky’s remains to the Kogarah Historical Society in their museum at Carss Cottage in Carss Bush Park, together with such documents that they had.
Easterling also notes that The Sutherland Council library held in May 1973 a feature display about the bird, and its researches brought forth much more historical information than was known to his part of the family. The matter was also thrased out in Column 8 (Herald, May 12, 1973), when the impostor specimen was displayed at the Sea Breeze Hotel, where he understand that it was acquired from a private museum at Kurnell and had been shown as Cocky’s alleged remains.
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Centre for Fortean Zoology Australia. 2011. From the archives: A Venerable Cockatoo (1916). Available on-line at: <www.cfzaustralia.com/2011/09/from-archives-venerable-cockatoo-1916.html>. Acess on February 13, 2012.
Grellis, A. 2008. Blakehurst: Cocky Bennet. Dictionary of Sydney. Available on-line at: <www.dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/blakehurst>. Acess on February 14, 2012.