Cockatoos are one of the most consistently relinquished parrots, handed over to sanctuaries and rescue organizations with regularity, after being deemed just too difficult. Clients with cockatoos make up over 50% of my consulting practice.
What is going on? Are these parrots unfit for life as human companions? Are they just too difficult to keep as pets? Does it just take too much time to meet their needs, as some claim?
I don’t believe any of this is true. Cockatoos aren’t any more unfit for life as a human companion than any other parrot species. Instead, they suffer loss of their homes due to our perpetual misunderstanding of them as parrots and of their true needs.
The Cultivation of Urban Legend
For example, one popular website states:
“When hand-fed as babies and properly tamed, cockatoos tend to form extremely strong bonds with their owners that last a lifetime. They are also known to be one of the most affectionate parrot species and sometimes called ‘velcro’ birds.
These birds crave petting from their owners and prefer to be on or near them at all times. It’s very important that you’re able to devote the time this pet needs. That includes handling and socializing with them for at least two hours each day, if not more.
Some cockatoos can become depressed if they feel like they aren’t getting enough attention. This can lead to side effects such as feather plucking and destructive behavior.”
I’m not going to cite this source, other than to say that I lifted this excerpt word for word from what I would call an “authoritative” website – in that it is one that comes up very frequently when searching for anything to do with parrots. Because it comes up regularly, people assume that the information offered is reliable.
Unfortunately this, like many other similar sites, simply repeats the false information that has been published elsewhere. If everyone says it’s so, it must be true. Right? NO.
Online, there is more urban legend about cockatoos than trustworthy information. In fact, if you attempt a Google search, you will have to jump to page 5 before you find anything even remotely scientific. Get to page 8 and you still won’t find any scientific papers about their breeding behavior in the wild. Instead, you will find page after page describing cockatoos as loud, demanding, needy, and cuddly.
Anaïs Nin once said: “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” The italics are mine. This has never been truer for any subject than it is for cockatoos.
Falsehoods and Fabrication
The word perhaps most often used to describe cockatoos is cuddly. Needy comes in a close second.
The inconvenient (for us) truth? Cockatoos are not cuddly. We are cuddly. We are often cuddly to an almost compulsive extent. It is our perceptions of the cockatoo behavior we observe and misinterpret that cause them the trouble in which they often find themselves.
To understand how this misconception came about, we must examine two aspects of wild cockatoo behavior: (1) the manner in which baby cockatoos, especially the larger species, are raised by their parents, and (2) the ways in which adult cockatoos maintain their pair bonds with each other.
Cockatoo Parenting Styles
Each parrot pair cares for their young in a manner specific to their species. This nurturing style differs from one species of parrot to another. Not all parrots care for their babies with the same level of attention. For example, Amazons are known for their almost neglectful care in the wild.
Information about how cockatoo species care for their young comes mainly from breeders who allow their pairs to rear their own babies through fledging and weaning. The advent of nest box cameras has assisted in gathering this knowledge.
In her article “Weaning Sadie: An Observation,” published back in July of 2000 in the Pet Bird Report, now-retired companion cockatoo breeder Katy McElroy discussed the observations she had made of normal weaning time frames for cockatoo fledglings, as well as the manner in which the parents interact with their chicks.
Each parrot species has an innate time frame for becoming food independent. Quite obviously, this cannot occur until the baby learns to fly and can keep up with his parents on foraging expeditions. There is no food in the next cavity. Parent birds do not bring uneaten food into the nest cavity for their chicks. Instead, for the first few months of his life, until fledging, the baby is dependent upon regurgitated food for his sustenance.
This natural time clock to which wild cockatoos adhere for weaning is not changed when they are bred in captivity. When McElroy allowed her Moluccan Cockatoo pairs to raise their own babies, she made two critical observations.
First, the parents were frequently in the nest box, providing physical attention, preening them, touching their beaks, and feeding them. One Moluccan father visited his chick every hour. As the author describes it, there was a “nearly constant level of feeding and attention that parent birds lavish on their offspring.” They did not “wean” their chick until she was close to one year of age. Even when Sadie was eating well on her own, her parents would provide “comfort” feedings, if reassurance after a stressful event was needed.
Contrast this reality, however, with the manner in which cockatoos are raised in captivity for the pet trade. Large cockatoos like Sadie are often sent to their new homes between four and five month of age, long before they should be food independent. This means not only that their weaning was rushed, but that they did not receive the close physical nurturing contact that they instinctively need when young.
These babies then go into their first homes hungry for the nurturing that they missed in their abnormal breeding situations. And those adopting these birds do not realize that this hunger for close physical contact is because of these deficient rearing conditions, rather than because cockatoos need cuddling. Turning to the internet for information only solidifies this conviction that petting and cuddling are the correct activities.
As McElroy concludes, by ignoring normal time frames for weaning, we produce a “needier” parrot. And when we respond to this needy behavior by encouraging it, we create a dependent parrot who lacks living skills. Before long, all that bird wants is to be on a shoulder, lap, or chest. She becomes less and less likely to interact with enrichment. She screams for attention if we dare to ask her to perch somewhere by herself. She attacks the new boyfriend. She chases the children when she’s on the floor.
In reality, evidence of the fact that cockatoos are not any more “cuddly” or “needy” by nature than any other parrot species is all around us.
Read Chris Shank’s recent blog about Star’s development. Now that she has fledged, she is not seeking out any more close physical contact with her parents than would any other fledgling parrot. All of her needs for emotional support were met by her parents while she was still in the nest box.
Or, read my recent blog post about Georgie Pink. Wendy could very well have turned Georgie into a “velcro” bird. Instead, she provided all the enrichment and training he needed to develop into the independent bird he was destined to be.
Further, those of us who have lived with wild-caught cockatoos, like my Moluccan Cyrano, can verify that these birds, who were reared by their parents before capture, are not particularly cuddly. Instead, they are powerful, resourceful, independent birds.
The reality is that we set cockatoos up to become cuddly, needy birds by breeding and rearing them in such a way that their early needs are not met and then by encouraging neediness their whole lives long.
Pair Bonding Behaviors in Cockatoos
As with their diverse parenting styles, different species display a variety of behaviors that create and maintain their pair bonds. The definition of a pair bond is a close relationship formed through courtship and sexual activity with one other animal or person.
Cockatoos engage in a great deal of close physical contact when maintaining a pair bond – frequent mutual preening and perching in very close proximity to each other. We could say that they cuddle with each other.
This means that, when we have an adult cockatoo and we engage in a great deal of cuddling and petting, we are conveying the message to them that we are their mate. This then is how a pair bond forms between the person and the parrot.
The Cockatoo Disaster Pattern
As well-meaning parrot lovers, we adopt cockatoos and then turn to the abundant on-line literature about how cuddly and needy they are, not realizing that all of this information is nothing more than misinterpretation of observed behavior and imaginative crap. And then, because we want to do the right thing, or perhaps because we intentionally chose a cuddly parrot in the first place, we provide a lot of close physical contact.
This certainly suits the young cockatoo, but more than anything else…it suits us. Most of us get pets to meet our own emotional needs. Many needy people are drawn to cockatoos especially. After all, the internet give us permission to pet those birds as much as we want.
So, we proceed, not realizing that this young parrot not only is growing up with a heavy measure of dependence, but that, as he matures, this will become pair-bonding behavior. Once you have a cockatoo who has formed a pair bond with you, your own quality of life often tanks rather dramatically.
This is about the time that the screaming, aggression, floor-chasing, feather destruction and self-mutilation begins. Physical problems, such as cloacal prolapse, occur as well. Avian veterinarians and parrot behavior consultants are well-familiar with this pattern and its causes.
There is usually crying too – ours. As parrot-loving people, we can’t believe that things have gone so badly.
And, I’m here to tell you that this very typical situation, in which the cockatoo has a pair bond with one individual in the family, engages in cavity seeking (which comes with the territory) and eats a high-fat, high-carb diet is a very tough problem to solve. It takes a great deal of consistent effort on the owner’s part to get hormone production under control and convince the parrot that she really isn’t his sexual partner, that he needs to be nice to her real partner, and that he needs to live relatively independently. Turning this around can take years of persistent, on-going effort.
It is made especially difficult because we don’t want to do it. I cannot tell you the number of times I have explained to a client that she really needs to stop cuddling and petting her cockatoo, only to have her react as if crushed. This news usually comes as an emotional blow, so dependent are we on pursuing this behavior with our birds.
It is also true that, by the time clients with problem cockatoos come to me, or are at the point of giving their beloved parrot up, they often feel victimized by the bird. Can we blame them? No.
After all, they have followed all the advice that they found in the first five Google search pages. They have cuddled the bird. They have provided hours of one-on-one attention. They have done everything they can think of to make the bird happy. And yet, the parrot’s behavior is making their lives impossible.
Who’s the Victim?
In reality, we are the ones who have victimized the cockatoos.
Every time we breed a cockatoo without understanding their innate developmental needs, we victimize them.
Every time we breed a cockatoo for money and wean it too early, we victimize them.
Every time we clip wings and prevent fledging, we victimize them.
When we bring them into our homes and allow them hours of shoulder and lap time, we victimize them.
When we cuddle with them under the covers and pet them down their backs, we victimize them.
When we keep them in our homes and make decisions based solely upon what they appear to want, rather than what they need, to live an independent lifestyle… we victimize them.
This disaster pattern is avoidable.
First, do not adopt a baby cockatoo from a breeder unless you can find one who either allows the parents to rear their own offspring, or encourages a full fledging experience and food independence that follows wild, innate patterns. And, that’s about impossible in the United States.
If you really want a cockatoo, please adopt one from a rescue organization. Believe me, there is no shortage of older birds available.
Then realize that there is a 99% chance that the previous owner interacted with the parrot in such a way that a pair bond formed. You will have verification the first time the bird lays his head on your chest and begs for petting. Birds who change homes usually do their best to form the same type of social bond with their new owner as they had with the last. So, be prepared.
When you see this, you will know that instead of responding in like manner, you must instead begin to reinforce this parrot for any independent behavior he displays. Now is his chance for a happier, more autonomous life. His spirit will respond over time. If you work on training him to perform new, and more functional, behaviors, he will begin to look to you for guidance rather than physical affection. The result will be a much greater quality of life for you both.
We owe them this.
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!