About 20 years ago, I took a series of parrot care classes from Jamie McLeod in Summerland, California at her store the Parrot Menagerie. I drove two hours one way on Saturdays to attend and it was well worth it. I learned a lot.
One day in the middle of a class, Jamie said something I have never forgotten: “Parrots are what you make of them.” This statement offers in a distilled version all you really need to know about living with parrots. And to illustrate, I want to tell you about Georgie Pink.
First Phone Call
Wendy called to talk to me one day when I was working as a veterinary technician for Oak Hills Veterinary Clinic in Salem, Oregon. We had never met and she was not a current client at the clinic, but someone had told her about me.
Wendy was seeking advice. She had never had a parrot before and she wanted to adopt a Moluccan Cockatoo. I spent the next 30 minutes explaining why that was a terrible idea. I do not consider Moluccan Cockatoos appropriate for first-time parrot owners and believe that keeping them successfully in your typical home is a difficult task at best. The number of cockatoos without feathers is testimony to that.
Second Phone Call
Wendy was undaunted. Two weeks later, I heard from her again. She had found a Moluccan Cockatoo that she wanted to adopt. He was a male, about two years old. He had been raised in a bird store, then adopted to a private owner, who then took him to a second bird store for boarding and never returned for him. He had spent a year at the second store before Wendy and her husband, Lee, came upon him.
After inwardly calming my own emotions, I explained why adopting this particular bird was a really terrible idea. Male Moluccan Cockatoos can be more challenging than females (in my experience) and this bird obviously had not had the ideal beginning, since he had so far spent his entire young life in bird stores.
On her end, Wendy was researching cockatoos and visiting with many species at the store. She listened to recordings of Moluccans screaming, talked to people who had experience with them, and realized that I was right – the odds of long term success were not good.
However, her thoughts always returned to this one bird. In her words, “I would see him again and realize I would do whatever it took to launch him successfully in life for the long haul.” Wendy understood that her best chances of success would be to have some professional guidance for this.
About two weeks later, she called again to say that she had adopted the male Moluccan from the store and wanted my help in creating a suitable home for him. While harboring some significant doubts, I agreed to help. Game on.
I gave her a shopping list designed to create a suitable physical environment for him – a King’s 506 cage, an Atom, an outdoor aviary from Corner’s Limited, and lots of suitable toys. A big bird like that needs a big life. As she remembers it, “I was on the internet with my credit card until 3:00 am, making as much happen as I could before bringing him home.” This amounted to several thousands of dollars in investment, about which Wendy didn’t blink an eye. Within a week, she had them all. I was impressed. This clearly was a woman who knows how to commit.
Wendy named him Georgie Pink.
When I asked her years later why she adopted him despite all of my advice, she had this to say: “Because I am crazy? Because I want to be deaf? Mostly because he was abandoned and I wanted to be the one to love him.” (You should know that this is a woman who once found a litter of field mice in a household drawer and hand-fed them until they could be released into the nearby pasture.)
Creating Appropriate Challenges
Once we had the physical environment in place, I made several suggestions aimed at creating an appropriate psychological and emotional environment for him. He would need learning opportunities, challenges, and a broad variety of life experiences.
We began with teaching him simple behaviors like targeting, then gradually created more difficult tasks for him. Wendy had never trained a parrot before, but she dove into the experience eagerly. At this point, Georgie knows 19 tricks which he practices regularly. Wendy says that he is only limited by her own imagination, in terms of thinking of things to teach him. He loves his training and learns quickly. He recently mastered a “rooster call” in one evening.
Georgie also has an inexplicable fondness for hats and models them eagerly. Wendy is happy to oblige. (She also throws him annual birthday parties.)
Creating His Social Experience
We talked at length about the importance of an appropriate social environment. Wendy closely followed my relationship advice, preventing the formation of a pair bond by not encouraging too much close time physically. To this day, Georgie interacts cooperatively and happily with Lee and many other people.
I frequently read on social media that “cockatoos need cuddling.” The opposite is true. Such activities appear to trigger increased production of reproductive hormones, which can lead to feather damaging behavior, aggression and increased noise. It’s a recipe for disaster in most cases.
Instead of focusing on physical affection, Wendy established and has maintained trust through consistency, respect, and the use of positive reinforcement. As a result, Georgie Pink is a good psittacine citizen with no behavior issues.
A Diversity of Experience
She took to heart the advice that parrots need diversity in their lives. Creating an interesting life experience for Georgie was the next challenge. This has taken a variety of forms over the past 14 or so years that she has had him.
During the lovely Oregon summers, Georgie spends most of his time outdoors in the three aviaries on the property. There he has lots to chew, a large variety of perch types, and the ability to forage for growing vegetables.
Along the way, Wendy adopted a second Moluccan and an Umbrella cockatoo. She has a close friend named Robin, who is equally as kind and savvy about animals. Robin adopted a Moluccan of her own several years ago. The presence of other birds has helped to augment Georgie’s quality of life. Conspecifics are important to companion parrots.
Wendy did meet with some significant challenges. Georgie hated to bathe. However, keeping her eye on the goals to which we had agreed, she continued to work to teach him to enjoy this. Wendy gradually exposed him to different types of bathing experiences, using positive reinforcement. And, just look at him now!
Wendy and Robin have established a cooperative rotation for the birds. Wendy’s birds have “sleep-overs” at Robin’s house and Robin’s bird comes to visit at Wendy’s. This exchange involves traveling in the car, different enrichment, and a slightly different schedule. This variety of experience serves to increase quality of life and keep things interesting for all the birds.
Georgie also enjoys visiting nursing homes with Robin. He engages happily with the residents there, always gentle and enthusiastic about making them laugh. In Wendy’s words, “He is a happy, boisterous, loving, funny boy.”
This is a cute, heart-warming, happy story. It also offers us some serious things to think about.
Cockatoos are over-represented in rescue organizations and sanctuaries. Many will tell you that large cockatoos should no longer be bred in captivity. Over 50% of my clientele are folks who have problems with their cockatoos.
Are cockatoos the problem? No. We are the problem. We are the problem because we don’t acknowledge the depth of life experience that they have evolved to need. They are not much different than we. They need space, the experience of the outdoors, the chance to go places and learn new things, and a healthy diet in order to be their best.
Moreover, this is true for all parrots. Our tendency has been to vastly underestimate the scope of life that each needs, while at the same time engaging in over-protective practices, often narrowing their life experience to sitting on a shoulder for hours a day.
I often hear owners talk about their desire not to “stress” their birds. There is stress and there is STRESS. We should never intentionally scare our birds. However, bringing them just slightly out of their comfort zone to teach them to accept new experiences through the application of positive reinforcement training is a life gift to them.
We have much to learn from Wendy. This incredibly caring woman set many things aside for Georgie Pink so that he could have the best quality of life possible. Her dedication to her parrots is unparalleled in my experience, surpassing my own. Many thanks to her for allowing me to share her story.
Independent Georgie Pink wishes all of you in the United States a Happy Independence day!
Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!
Please note: Jamie McLeod is also the founder of the Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary where she continues her extraordinary work with parrots and other birds. If you are able, please send her a small donation.
12 thoughts on “From Rags to Riches: One Cockatoo’s Story”
This is a great post and story about our need to step outside of boundaries. To step outside of expectations. I agree with the closing comments that we are too protective of our parrots and just, flat out, don’t let them out of the house much. Getting them out and about is so healthy and rehabilitative for them, I cannot express in our language how important it is for parrots to do exactly this. Vs. living a life solely in a home, solely near a cage and protected against all risk. There is risk to living. We all need safety, but just as much, we all need just a bit of that risk and a bit of that “experience” which can be stressful, but so worth it.
I love your comment, Debbie. I agree wholeheartedly. Let’s give them full lives, as we would wish for ourselves.
Wow!!! Another fantastically informative piece! My own almost 20 year old Grey girl…that I have had since 14 weeks old, leads a very sheltered life. She is very spoiled and I am her servant in every sense of the word. Since I started reading your posts I have let her flight feathers fully grow out, set up additional playgrounds that have “forced” her to be more active, and try not to “baby” her quite as much hoping to increase her independence so she can entertain herself. Baby steps of course. Thank you!
Thank you so much. Your comment put an immediate smile on my face. Please don’t ever hesitate to write to me privately if you have a question or two.
Thanks! Happy 4th!
I love this post! It illustrates beautifully that there are exceptions to every rule. I think you know that you and I see cockatoos in much the same way, and yet, there are those rare few, who do excellently by them. And yes, some of those people are rank newbies, but the best, most motivated learners ever!
I would still dissuade ANYONE from getting a cockatoo. But if like Wendy, they keep asking questions, and persisting, and then seek out great mentors, and are willing and able to spend all the money and time they will need, then yes, GAME ON!
It has got to be so satisfying to get the occasional Wendy and Georgie Pink as a client. Nobody is better suited to guide them, or deserves those great clients more, than you do, Pam!
Your comment made my day. Thank you so much, Dana.
This is a wonderful story! Cockatoos are VERY challenging to do right by. This one has the best life. I am inspired to work harder to figure out how I can enrich Gracie’s life with new experiences outside the home–even if it’s just to visit another home (not yours, don’t worry!)
Thanks for the comment, Pat! It is a great story and encourages us all to work harder to provide new, benevolent but challenging, experiences to our parrots!
Another fantastic article! Hopefully, it will inspire the changes you seek.
How kind of you! Thank you very much for the kind words. ~Pam