Cockatoos Wreak Havoc on Australia's Beleaguered Internet

As recently discovered damage proves, Australia's billion dollar broadband network may be no match for the sulphur-crested cockatoo. . (Photo: Steve Bittinger/flickr)

Australia ranks higher than most countries when it comes to health care, financial development, per capita wealth, quality of life and number of adorable mammals.

But as far as broadband internet speeds go, the otherwise infallible Land Down Under's global ranking is embarrassingly bad. Per the Akamai State of the Internet Report, a total of 50 countries boast faster internet speeds than Australia. Bulgaria and Kenya, for example, offer connection speeds that on average are 50 percent faster than Australia.

Across the Tasman Sea in neighboring New Zealand, average speeds are 30 percent faster. (Australia trails behind Serbia and the island of Réunion, an overseas department of France near Madagascar, while Scandinavian and Asian countries and territories including South Korea, Norway, Sweden, Hong Kong, Denmark, Finland, Singapore and Japan all dominate the top 10.)

Turns out, cockatoos might have something to do with it.

OK, so maybe the cockatoo isn't the root cause of Australia’s notoriously sluggish broadband network, which was first rolled out to much fanfare in 2009. But the chatty and highly intelligent birds — a member of the parrot family — certainly aren’t making things for the beleaguered Australian National Broadband Network (NBN) any easier.

Cockatoo on a wire
Cockatoos are prolific gnawers due to their ever-growing beaks, which require constant maintenance and sharpening. (Photo: Samantha Hopley/Shutterstock)

A nibble here, a nibble there

As Reuters reports, cockatoos have inflicted roughly 80,000 Australian dollars ($61,500) worth of damage on the $36 billion network, which has been almost universally hated-on by the Australian public since the get-go. (This year, customer complaints spiked to an astounding 160 percent.)

As it turns out, the birds have demonstrated a particular fondness for the network’s steel-braid fiber optic cables and gnawed them into oblivion.

Gisela Kaplan, a professor of animal behavior at the University of New England in New South Wales, explains to Reuters that while cockatoos’ predilection for munching on broadband cables is indeed unusual, there’s also a likely explanation as to why they’re doing it.

“Cockatoos usually go for wood, or strip the bark off trees. They don’t usually go for cables. But it might be the color or the position of the cables that’s attracted them,” says Kaplan. “It would have to be an acquired taste, because it’s not their usual style.”

A sulphur-crested cockatoo in Sydney
One of Australia's most beloved birds is contributing to the country's slow internet woes. (Photo: DavidGeen/flickr)

'If spiders and snakes don't get you, the cockies will ...'

A large bulk of the damage to NBN infrastructure has occurred in agricultural regions of southeast Australia, where cockatoos, particularly the iconic sulphur-crested cockatoo, are already considered pests due to the damage they inflict on cereal and fruit crops. The birds also are found in great numbers in the suburbs of major cities such as Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne where they’ve demonstrated a knack at destroying decking, window frames and outdoor furniture.

It's anticipated that AU$80,000 is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the total cost of damage resulting from the native birds’ nonstop beak-sharpening activities. In an attempt to improve torpid broadband speeds, engineers have embarked on a telecommunications infrastructure overhaul only to find that existing power wires and fiber cables on eight different transmission towers have been gnawed to shreds. Roughly 2,000 fixed-wireless towers make up the entire network.

While the overhaul is due for completion in 2021, installing replacement cables and protective wire casing to prevent further cockatoo cable carnage has proven to be a formidable — and costly — setback. According to a recent blog post published by NBN Co, replacements for damaged power and fiber cables cost AU$10,000 (about $7,700) each.

NBN Co. elaborates:

It’s not just NBN Co’s infrastructure that is being ravaged by cockatoos. The birds inflict damage on telecommunications infrastructure all around the nation in what is a uniquely Australian problem that costs the industry millions of dollars in damages every year. Such is the destructive might of flocks of cockatoos that they have been known to gnaw through stainless steel braid to get to telecommunications cables.

Worth noting is that there's no evidence of the birds gnawing on plastic-encased active NBN cables. Rather, they've damaged spare cables “strung on the towers for future capacity needs." As the NBN explains, since the destroyed cables aren’t active “there is no way to know when damage has been caused to them until a technician is on site to upgrade or perform maintenance.”

“We’ve been going back to our sites and discovering all this damage on the spare cables we had been hoping to use on our towers. They were damaged to the point of not being repairable, which has forced us to rip out the whole lot and completely re-run new fibre and power cables,” explains project manager Chedryian Bresland. “You wouldn’t think it was possible, but these birds are unstoppable when in a swarm. I guess that’s Australia for you; if the spiders and snakes don’t get you, the cockies will.”

Despite their hand — or beak, rather — in adding to the woes of the Australian broadband network, the cockatoo was recently singled out by readers of the Guardian as being one of the country’s best-loved birds.