Environmental Enrichment and Learning

A pair of wild cockatoos going to nest encompasses a lot of work. They must find a nest cavity, prepare it, defend it, and after a bit of romance, eggs are made and laid. They then take turns brooding the eggs, feeding and caring for the chicks, which all leads, hopefully, to the successful fledging of the babies.

I let my pair of Bare-eyed Cockatoos go to nest in May so the chicks could be trained for free flight. Mr. and Mrs. Flash and Bebe Bare-eyed Cockatoo accomplished all of the prerequisites with success.

Their chick, Star, fledged at 9 weeks of age. With relief, I thought the hard parts were over for the couple. But, I was wrong. From what I observed from the parents’ behavior, having a youngster out of the nest can be stressful for them—at least it seemed so for Bebe, the mom.

While Flash was handing out cigars at the chick’s successful emergence from the nest box, Bebe fretted over Star. The first few days she stayed close at Star’s side as if to reassure her about her new world.  She persistently preened Star and touched her beak to keep her at ease. Star didn’t go exploring much and that seemed fine with Bebe.

Parenting and Contrary Behavior

Though Flash and Bebe appeared to me to be excellent parents, I noticed a behavior that I didn’t understand. It took the form of a power struggle before fledging over who was allowed access to the nest box to brood the eggs.

For example, if Bebe wanted to enter the box, sometimes Flash would chase her away, or vice versa. Once either of them claimed the box there was no more strife, meaning the “winner” was never made to relinquish the nest box once he or she was inside. It wasn’t a frequent occurrence, but it happened enough to catch my attention and cause concern.

Why would this behavior take place? This didn’t make sense. Do wild Bare-eyed Cockatoos do this in nature? To me it didn’t seem to be conducive to successful chick raising. Was this just a behavior imposed by captivity? I don’t have the answers.

One way I thought to modify or change this antagonistic behavior was to let one or both birds out to free fly when I saw the clashes happening. Since flying uses lots of energy, it did seem to help calm them down upon returning to the aviary after their fly-abouts.

Flash and Bebe Out for a Fly About

Typically, when they left the aviary giving each other the hairy eyeball, they almost immediately paired up and flew together in synchronicity, which helped them re-establish a compatible pair bond. However, with one especially hostile encounter in the aviary, I let them out to fly and they even argued while flying. That changed when they spotted a hawk in a nearby tree. They put their differences aside to band together to harass the hawk and all was well.

Star Talk

Let’s talk about baby Star. I admit that the morning Star made her appearance I was momentarily confused. I saw three birds instead of two sitting together on a perch. Did one of the neighbor cockatoos find a way into Bebe and Flash’s aviary? No, my slow witted brain figured out the third cockatoo was the baby!

After silently shouting for joy, I watched in amazement the little one taking in her new environment. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking, after growing up looking at four walls and not much else. When I first saw her, Star had already flown to the front of the aviary. Bebe was sitting securely by her side and she was not letting Flash close to Star.

Star was adorable. Her feathers were perfect. Her tail had yet to reach full length so she appeared smaller than her parents. (As of this writing, her tail has reached full length and she looks almost to be the same size as her folks.) She didn’t do much exploring the first few days and seemed content to stay by her mom’s side.

Flight Skills

Gradually, Star started taking control of her new surroundings. When I observed Star’s first flights, it was like watching a butterfly. She was kind of wobbly and there was not much umph in her propeller. Her directional flying was suspect. She’d pick out a destination, but sometimes didn’t accomplished her goal. That didn’t deter her as she would gather her determination and try again.

Star Practices Flying and Landing on Perches that Move

Of course, with each new effort she was more frequently successful in landing where she wanted. Behavior is a function of its consequences and Star was showing me exactly how that worked. Successfully landing on her goal perch was positively reinforcing for her so, of course, she’d attempt it again all the while becoming more competent in her landing skills.

From ten days onward her flight mastery greatly improved. Her progress was impeded by aviary living, however, and I’m sure if she were in the wild, her flight development would proceed more rapidly. During this time, the parents were acutely conscious of her movements and one or both would follow her everywhere in the aviary.

Learning in Action

One of the fascinating things about watching Star grow is the marvel of seeing learning in action. We sometimes take for granted or don’t even think about how we and our fellow animal friends learn. Of course, we learn every single day; and, watching someone, in this case, Star, learn about what works and what doesn’t work is thrilling to me. And, boy, she has lots to assimilate.

Star needs to learn flight, of course, but also proper Bare-eyed Cockatoo vocalizations, fine motor skills, foraging, social skills, and much more. Because there are so many things that affect Star’s learning progress, I’ll be focusing on only one influence in this article. I’ll start off with the importance of environment enrichment and its effect on learning.

Environmental Enrichment

As described by the website Why Animals Do the Thing, “Environmental enrichment is the process of enhancing an animal’s environment to increase their physical activity, fulfill their psychological needs, and encourage engagement in species-typical behavior.” This is exactly what Star needs to develop into a competent, resilient, and confident adult.

To that end, I have equipped Star and her parents’ aviary with a wide variety of enrichment. Let’s take the availability to forage, for example. I allow different weeds and grasses to grow in the aviary. These serve as foraging opportunities for the cockatoos.

I also harvest and install a variety of plant matter such as mustard seed pods, blackberry stems with berries, hawthorn berry branches with berries, ash tree branches with seed pods, barnyard grass, millet spray, crab apple branches with apples, and anything else that might be of interest to the birds.

Bebe Teaches Perseverance to Star

All of these foraging opportunities are everyday occurrences for Star’s parents who take full advantage of them. But to Star they are important learning opportunities. The parents are skilled and eager foragers and Star follows their foraging behavior by learning how to manipulate and eat the offerings.

Star Forages Up High on Mustard Seed

It was touching to watch Star learn to forage. While mom easily snapped a small stem of browse off a mustard plant and held it steadily in her foot while opening the seed pod to eat the seeds, it wasn’t so easy for baby Star.

This Isn’t As Easy as It Looks!

It would take her a while to zero in on a piece of the plant, get it in her beak, and snap it off. Then she’d take several attempts to hold it with her foot to munch on. In the beginning, she’d sometimes drop the plant stem and have to start all over. That didn’t deter her, however. She kept at it and kept getting better.

Perching is another environmental enrichment that gives Star chances to learn and practice motor skills. I have furnished the aviary with boings, orbits, rope perches, 2×4 wood perches, and natural branch perches. There’s even a small live birch tree available to perch in. Each helps Star develop skills such as balancing, landing, playing, all while developing her strength and confidence.

Look Hard to See Baby Star

Yet another environmental enrichment for Star is simply living outdoors in her aviary. Star learns all about the weather, the sun, the wind, the rain, the cold, the horse and donkey who walk by her aviary each day, her cockatoo neighbors and the cockatoos who free fly over her aviary, the vultures who soar above, the swallows swooping and swerving catching insects, the bats who come out in the evening to hunt those same insects, the bellowing of the cows at night, as well as the songs of the coyotes. These and many other wonders and surprises are available for Star to learn about while living outdoors.

I remember one instance when only a few days after fledging, we had a very strong late afternoon wind. Star had been sitting on the front perch of the aviary when the wind picked up. It got so strong that it made her wobble on the perch. She was very reluctant to fly to the back perch, which was out of the wind. Instead, with her mom by her side, she held on tight to the perch leaning into the wind and learning about balancing in the blustery air. Although it was a bit distressing to watch her seesaw about, I’m happy she had this important learning experience.

I found this quote while reading, Learning and Behavior, by Paul Chance: “Our environment exerts control over our behavior [by stimulus control or cues]. Paradoxically, that can increase control we have over our lives.” In other words, the more variety of learning options that stimulate Star to explore and learn what works and doesn’t work, the more control she has over which options with which to engage.

Providing Star with an enriched positive environment will build her behavioral repertoire that will aid her during difficulties or opposition. I look forward to watching her behavioral education expand her ability to function successfully in her new world and look forward to sharing that with you.

Latest News!

Ellie Bare-Eyed Cockatoo came to live with me over a month ago. In my last blog I described how we are learning about each other’s quirks, both good and bad.

I described how Ellie has the unfortunate alter ego that I call, The Flying Dragon Lady. The Flying Dragon Lady’s (FDL) job is to drive me from my home by flying at my head with her scary beak wide open, ready for the attack.

I told FDL that this behavior is not conducive to a friendly, safe home environment. She refused to listen. So I went about changing the environment to make it harder for FDL to function, which I explained in the last blog.

As Ellie’s and my time together continues, FDL has made minimum appearances, but she still exists. What is really cool is that I’ve worked everyday to have Ellie touch a target and get a pine nut for doing so. This is a miraculous training tool and I’ll give an example why.

FDL showed herself the other day. I took out the target and while FDL was sitting on her cage thinking about her next attack, I had her target the chop stick and then gave her a pine nut. Before my very eyes, FDL vanished and sweet, calm Ellie emerged. It truly was astounding. This episode shows the power of using a well-learned and consistently positively reinforced behavior to change an emotion. FDL is capable only of being harsh and discordant, so away she went allowing sweet Ellie to return.

Just for Fun!

I want Ellie to grow comfortable with the free flyers, so that she won’t be startled when they come to visit her aviary. So, I have been practicing her targeting in the aviary while another cockatoo remains outside.

The delivery of reinforcers to them both teaches them that good things happen when in the proximity of the other!

Chris Shank’s love of parrots and knowledge of animal training began several decades ago. Her professional experiences include a degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California, an internship at Busch Gardens’ parrot show, work as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara and later in Hassloch, Germany.

Her love for cockatoos came after a relocation to the Philippines. Once back in the United States, she established her aviary Cockatoo Downs, where she has regularly offered training and education to parrot owners for many years now. She is an internationally-recognized expert in free flight.

Published by

Pamela Clark, CPBC

I am an IAABC Certified parrot behavior consultant who successfully helps parrot owners to resolve behavior problems and train their parrots. I also help determine the best diet, social and physical environments to help that individual parrot flourish.

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