The Education of Star Bare-eyed Cockatoo

By guest blogger and free flight expert Chris Shank

Like an eager elementary student, Star leans forward on the perch next to her mom waiting to touch the target stick that will earn her a treat. Star, a six-month-old Bare-eyed Cockatoo, is learning how to acquire treats from me by touching a target. She is a quick and enthusiastic learner.

Star is parent-raised. She lives with her mom and dad, Bebe and Flash, in a spacious outdoor aviary. My goal for Star is to have her become a trained free flying cockatoo like her parents. She is well on her way by utilizing every bit of the 40 ft. x 20 ft. confines of her aviary as she develops her flight skills and strength.

Time Line of Development

Let’s exam her progression from a youngster barely able to hold and crack a sunflower seed to the more masterful cockatoo that she is today. Before explaining the teaching goals I have offered Star, here’s a timeline of her development and accomplishments thus far:

  • Star hatched on May 26, 2019.
  • 8 weeks of age: Star fledges, leaving the nest box for the first time.
  • 9 weeks of age: Is becoming more comfortable with me near her aviary.
  • 10 weeks of age: Holds and eats an Avicake; flight and foraging skills are improving.
  • 11 weeks of age: Is becoming more comfortable with me in the aviary.
  • 12 weeks of age: Still is fed by her parents, but eats more often on her own; flight skills are progressing to an adult level.
  • 13 weeks of age: Comes down to the training perch on her own when I’m absent and eats from the attached bowl.
  • 14 weeks of age: Comes to training perch and watches as I hand feed treats to Bebe on the perch.
  • 21 weeks of age: Not eating from my hand yet, but eats willingly from a handheld bowl.
  • 22 weeks of age: Takes treats and an almond from my hand; whimpers endearingly while waiting for the treat.
  • 23 weeks of age: Targets and takes a treat!
  • 24 weeks of age: Eats mostly on her own while occasionally begging and receiving food from her parents.

From the timeline, notice that the more Star becomes self-sufficient with her feeding ability, the more engaged she becomes with me on the training perch. She still shows caution and is anxious if I move too fast or do something out of the ordinary, but she recovers quickly. This little one is on her way to learning what people are all about.

Star’s Progress

The family after a bath

A typical school day for Star consists of watching what her teachers – her parents – do.  From them, she learns where to forage and what foods to eat. She practices her preening skills on each of them and learns cockatoo etiquette, as well as proper Bare-eyed vocalizations. Crucially, she learns how to be a successful and well-adjusted Bare-eyed Cockatoo.

At six months of age, Star exhibits significant mental and physical confidence. For example, when I put up new foraging enrichment, she immediately tries to puzzle out how to get the goodies. She either figures out solutions on her own or watches closely as Bebe or Flash tackle the problem. Learning from observing her parents is immensely helpful for Star, as it is for youngsters of all species. She is absorbing skills and behaviors from them that help her become a normal and mentally- balanced cockatoo.

The following is a striking example of acquiring a skill through observation. I made foraging wood blocks with holes drilled in them to hold hidden almond pieces. I strung the blocks together and hung them from a perch in the family’s aviary. The blocks could be accessed either by climbing down the string or sitting on the perch and pulling the string up.

Star flew to the foraging toy the minute I hung it. I watched as she climbed down the string of blocks and struggled while it twirled around as she was trying to get the almond from the wood. She quickly let go and flew off.

Next, Flash came over to the blocks and nonchalantly pulled the string up with his beak and foot as he sat on the perch. He could now hold the block of wood and quickly tear into it for the almond. The entire time Star watched him intently.

What I observed next solidified for me the importance of parental influence. After Flash left the string of blocks, Star started to pull it up, just as Flash had. Of course, she wasn’t as physically coordinated with this new skill, but she was successful nonetheless.

People Socialization

Over the last weeks, Star has made steady progress becoming more people-friendly or at least tolerant and I attribute her advancing people skills once again to her parents. Both cockatoos were parent-raised and socialized to people here at Cockatoo Downs. They’ve had extensive positive training encounters with a variety of people who visit here or come to our training workshops. All their training has been with positive reinforcement.

Not raised to be ‘snuggly’ cockatoos, Bebe and Flash exhibit natural Bare-eyed Cockatoo behaviors while maintaining a positive connection with people. They’ve learned that interacting with folks will bring them good things to eat and they rarely pass up a training session opportunity.

Soon after Star fledged, I invited people to come and engage with her parents in short training sessions of targeting. From afar, Star observed Flash and Bebe’s training sessions, which set good examples for Star to emulate in the future.

Star’s Training

It’s impossible to rush Star’s training as she will respond simply by flying away. Flighted birds make us better trainers because we learn quickly that taking micro steps toward our training goals is essential. If we push or ask for too much, our student will fly off with an “I’m-outta-here” retort.

The goal of Star targeting and taking a treat from my hand was accomplished in stages. First, she learned to eat from attached feed bowls on the training perches with her parents. This enabled her to understand that the training perch was a source of good things.

Step One: Star learns to come down and eat from bowls on the training perches.

Next she learned to stay on the perch while I was feeding her parents. She watched closely as her mom and dad took treats from my hand. When I offered my open hand chock full of sunflower seeds and pines nuts to Star, she responded with a big fat “No way!” and off she flew. It took several sessions for her to become desensitized to the scary hand.

Step Two: Star learns to stay on perch while I feed her parents from my hand.

I accomplished it by taking a step backwards and offering her a “safer” option which was to eat from a handheld bowl. That did the trick as she became comfortable with seeing my hand near her, but didn’t have to deal with the frightening (eek!) possibility of touching it.

Step Three: Star learns to eat from a bowl I hold in my hand.
Step Four: Star learns to take treats from my hands.

Soon Star was eating from my hand. She progressed rapidly to taking a treat calmly from my fingers to—ta da!—touching a target.

Step Five: Star learns to target!

Slow Going?

One could argue that, at six months of age, a hand raised cockatoo would be weaned, be super people -friendly, stepping up on the hand, learning recall, and other behaviors we expect in our companion parrots. I would counter that with, at what cost to the young parrot and her parents? Please read my previous blog post that compares hand-rearing vs. parent rearing and the impact of each on their offspring.

It makes me sad to think of the critically important education hand-raised parrots miss growing up without their parents. So much of what gives Star her success in life so far has been taught to her by Bebe and Flash. It’s because of hand raising’s short- and long- range detrimental effects on both parents and chicks that I have chosen to parent raise Star.

So what if it takes longer to socialize and train her? We have all the time in the world. It’s the journey I’m taking with Star and her parents and what I’m learning from them that makes this so worthwhile.

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.


Early Beginnings for Parrots

Phoebe Greene Linden was ahead of her time. Back in 1993, 26 years ago, she published an article that talked about Abundance Weaning™, a term she coined and trademarked. The latter fact is amusing today; it’s not like hordes of breeders since have tried to steal the term. They remain mired in their practices of force-weaning (also called deprivation-weaning) baby parrots.

Phoebe began a crucial conversation, one that remains unfinished today. She brought an ethical focus to the rearing of baby parrots that took into account also the well-being of the breeding birds themselves. Her concerns were both ethical and practical.

Her ideas flew in the face of the prevailing wisdom of the day. According to Phoebe, breeding parrots should have large enclosures and plenty of enrichment. Baby parrots must be fledged and allowed to develop excellent flight skills. Flight ability should never be removed from a parrot all at once. Fledglings needed to be abundantly supported as they developed their independent eating skills and provided with lots of enrichment to encourage their desire to explore.

I recently did a Google search for the term “abundance weaning” and found websites describing this method, without any reference or credit to Phoebe. In addition, they have bastardized the initial ideas that Phoebe developed. Unfortunately, a full description of this process is not within the scope of this post, but this is a word to the wise. Abundance Weaning™, as Phoebe developed it, incorporated a great deal more than simply allowing baby parrots to wean when they were ready. (Linden, 1993)

As Phoebe writes:  “Abundance weaning is a segment of a process of nurturing that begins with hand-feeding and should not end in this lifetime for our feathered companions. Abundance weaning contributes significantly to the well-balanced psychological development of the young parrot: it provides innumerable opportunities for owner and baby to bond deeply in a spirit of trust and plenitude, it encourages the development of physical skills in a non-threatening environment, it is the cornucopia from which springs fullness and peace. Would that every creature on this earth be given the abundance we can provide to our special feathery messengers.”

Phoebe was my mentor when I reared African greys back then. I emulated her practices with excellent results. The greys I produced were different from those of other breeders. They were bold, eager to engage, confident and coordinated.

I wasn’t the only one who put into practice what Phoebe taught.  There were other small breeders who bred parrots purely for the love of the species and the ability to do a really great job fostering their development.

However, our ethics got the better of us. We were all small breeders, a lot more in love with the birds than the money. Gradually, we came to see that no matter how well we screened adoptive homes, things often did not turn out as we might have wished for our offspring.

My own experience included babies who were lost forever outdoors, those who gradually spent more and more time in their cages and began to destroy feathers as a result, those who did not receive the guidance I had taught their new owners to provide, and those who suffered due to the insensitivity of those who adopted them. I learned that, when screening potential adopters, you never really get to see what is truly bedrock in the person.

Most of us who were colleagues back then stopped breeding as a result of similar experiences, leaving the field open to production breeders and those for whom the money is more important than the ethics.

I have often quoted avian specialist Dr. Brian Speer: “Aviculture is the only farming industry that produces family members.” If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, I don’t know what will…that is if you love parrots like I do for their innate qualities.

We humans are incredibly slow sometimes to recognize the truth… slow to learn and slow to change. Chris Shank’s last blog post revealed some profound comparisons between what her fledgling Star is learning and the more typical experience baby parrots have today at the hands of breeders. Essentially, Chris brought up the same conversation that Phoebe began 26 years ago.

It always kills me that Facebook posts and those on other social media sites are so full of parrot love, and yet the manner in which we breed and rear baby parrots withstands no real scrutiny at all. No one seems to care how our baby parrots are produced, as long as they are there for our consumption when we want them.

The only exceptions to this come from a few like Phoebe, Dr. Speer, Chris, and others like them who occasionally toss out a verbal or written volley in hopes of keeping the conversation alive and refocusing our attention on what is most important.

Is the manner in which we rear parrots in captivity really important?

Do methods really matter?

There is abundant research that documents both developmental and behavioral abnormalities in a large number of hand-reared species, indicating that early conditions for animals are of critical importance. Feenders and Bateson discuss several conclusions previously reached by other researchers:

  • “In humans, poor parenting and adverse experiences during early development are associated with impairments in adult cognitive ability and an increased risk for developing psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression and psychoses.”
  • “In rats, Rattus norvegicus, maternal separation produces long-lasting changes in emotional behaviour and impaired responses to stress. Maternal separation induces reduced neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus and consequential impairments in learning and memory.
  • “In rhesus monkeys, Macaca mulatta, removal from the mother followed by peer rearing or rearing by mothers experiencing variable foraging conditions produces adults with more reactive stress physiology, increased anxiety, impulsivity and aggression and behavioural abnormalities such as motor stereotypies.”
  • “Adverse events during early development have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing abnormal behaviour, and specifically motor stereotypies, in a range of species. For example, animals removed from their mother at an earlier age, and animals born in captive as opposed to natural environments, show a higher incidence of stereotypic behavior.”
  • “In birds, there is some evidence that manipulations that involve elements of hand rearing affect the adult phenotypes similarly to the effects observed in mammals.”

Rebecca Fox comes to similar conclusions regarding parrots: “Abnormal sexual imprinting and a strong social preference for humans may cause behavior problems in pet parrots, which are probably more likely to inappropriately direct sexual behavior at their owners. Hand-reared birds may exhibit other behavior problems as well, most notably so-called “phobic” behavior.” (Fox, 2006)

Phoebe Greene Linden and Andrew U. Luescher provide a detailed comparison of observable behaviors exhibited by both hand-reared and wild Amazon parrots in Santa Barbara, California through all stages from hatching to fledging and the development of independent eating skills.

They comment upon the importance of fledging: “Sadly, the majority of psittacids raised for the companion market will not experience a true fledging process and may never actually fly because their environments are not provisioned for such development.”

“Space, time, and commitment limitations abound, and some aviculturists contend that fledging is unnecessary or extravagant. The question remains: Can a suitably developed psittacine companion who never flies remain a viable lifelong pet? That answer to that question depends, of course, on what environments shape the experiences during the time of development normally occupied by flight and after.” (Linden,P. 2006)

There you have only a taste of the research available, which documents the deleterious effects of hand-rearing on both mammals and birds. The conclusions are unanimous – the process of hand-rearing carries with it significant impact upon the developing young animals and will impact them throughout their lives.

Serving as companion to this body of science stands our own anecdotal evidence. Dogs and cats who were hand-reared are typically quite different, displaying abnormal and problematic behavior that often encompasses aggressive tendencies. I once had a bottle-fed black cat who would come up behind unassuming visitors and bite them hard on the back of the leg. That adorable bottle-feeding kitten evolved into an adult cat who caused a lot of problems.

So…yes. The manner in which our companion parrots are reared matters. It is critical to their entire life experience.

I often assist owners in locating adult parrots for adoption and during the transition once the parrot is home. I can state with certainty that well-reared parrots adapt very differently, and much more easily, to their new homes. (By “well-reared,” I am referring to hand-rearing that included Abundance Weaning™ and a full fledging experience, at a minimum.)  Further, if the previous home had included elements of deprivation, these individuals literally blossom when placed once again into more benevolent circumstances.

Further, I see behavioral similarities among the population of parrots who were weaned according to artificial time frames and whose wings were clipped before they ever learned to fly.  These include dependent and sexually-oriented behavior toward one person, a lack of foraging ability, and fearful behavior that is inappropriate to the environmental context.

I see these birds as permanently impaired and destined to a long existence in captivity that includes significant levels of stress. Often, the consulting process can improve their quality of life, but they will never be the birds that they would have been had they enjoyed a better beginning.

Chris’ blog post generated many comments on my Facebook page and a respectful discussion took place, although participants embrace many strongly-held and widely-divergent opinions. One breeder shared that she chooses to incubator-hatch her parrot eggs so that she can avoid the stress to the parents of having their babies repeatedly removed. Another disagreed with this approach because of the proven detrimental effects that accrue when babies are not allowed contact with their parents. My gratitude goes out to all who participated.

Chris Shank, in various episodes of her guest blog, has brought to our attention the necessary components to successful parent-rearing. However, she herself questions whether the time frames for taming and training the babies produced this way are realistic when breeding for the pet trade.

Co-parenting seems to be a more viable answer. This is the process during which babies remain with their parents, thus receiving all the benefits of a parent-reared bird, but also have regular positive contact with people for both play and supplemental feeding. For this to be a viable approach, however, the parent birds must themselves be friendly enough toward humans.

However, finding breeders who co-parent is next to impossible. Further, at this stage, just trying to find a breeder who is knowledgable about behavior, practices Abundance Weaning, and fledges her babies is also next to impossible. I know this first-hand.

Over the past two years, I have had several clients ask me to help them find a good breeder. We determine the species that they prefer to adopt and identify the geographical areas they can consider. We then identify potential breeders and I provide to the client a list of questions to ask the breeder to determine whether she really is a viable candidate. We then evaluate the answers together. Initially, I believed that to be an approach designed to ensure success.

I had a total of seven such experiences in the past two years and not one of them turned out satisfactorily. We found breeders who talked the talk, but that was as far as it went. One breeder agreed to fledge the baby parrot, but then clipped the wings without telling my client beforehand. She later explained that she was afraid the baby would hurt himself. She had said that she fledges her babies, but in the end clearly knew nothing about the process and did not understand the value.

Another breeder was unable to support the baby into becoming food independent and finally insisted that the owner come and adopt her unweaned baby parrot. (This bird was well past the age when independent eating skills could be expected.)

These experiences should never happen; yet, they are the norm.

The solution? If you really love parrots, then vote with your dollars. Simply refuse to purchase unweaned babies. Don’t purchase babies who can’t fly because their  wings were clipped before they ever had a chance to fledge. Don’t purchase a baby who is “weaned” at an age before they would have fledged in the wild. Don’t purchase a baby whose early beginnings are going to commit him to a life of dependence, fear, and behavior problems.

Educate yourselves and then drive this market toward improvement. We don’t want family members that have been reared by “farming industry practices.” That is the answer. You are the answer.

That will be solution enough until we can figure out an even better way of rearing baby parrots…until breeders realize that the market is demanding higher standards of them. My hope is that we will see a great deal more co-parenting and parent-rearing.

And in the meantime, consider seriously adopting an older parrot who needs a home. I can assure you that adopting a baby is no insurance policy against having behavior issues. All parrots will present you with challenges. There are so many adult parrots who need homes. If they come with problems, then get an experienced behavior consultant to help you. Problems can be solved!

Let’s keep this discussion alive, so that another 26 years doesn’t slip between our fingers, characterized by a lack of awareness and change. Captive parrots deserve better from us.

Addendum: If you are a breeder who co-parents or parent-rears and sends babies home fully-flighted, I would love to hear from you: pamelaclarkcvt@gmail.com.

References:

Feenders, G., & Bateson, M. (2013). Hand rearing affects emotional responses but not basic cognitive performance in European starlings. Animal behaviour86(1), 127–138. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.05.002

Fox, R. 2006. “HandRearing: Behavioral Impacts and Implications for Captive Parrot Welfare.” Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ed. Andrew Luescher. Ames: Blackwell Publishing.

Linden, P. G.  1993. “Abundance Weaning.” The Pet Bird Report.  Issue #13. September/October 1993. Volume 3, Number 5. Pages 18 – 21.

Linden, P. G. 1994. “Fledgling Stress Syndrome.” The Pet Bird Report.  Issue #19. Volume 4, Number 5. Pages 42 – 44.

Linden, P. G. 1995. “The Developmental Impact of Weaning.” The Pet Bird Report. Issue #20. Volume 4, Number 6. Pages 4 – 10.

Linden, P. G. 1995. “Eating Skills for Recently Weaned Chicks.” The Pet Bird Report. Issue #23. Date unknown. Volume 5, Number 3. Pages 38 – 45.

Linden, P, G. with Leuscher, A. 2006. “Behavioral Development of Psittacine Companions: Neonates, Neophytes, and Fledglings.” Manual of Parrot Behavior.  Ed. Andrew Luescher. Ames: Blackwell Publishing.

Meder, A. (1989), Effects of hand‐rearing on the behavioral development of infant and juvenile gorillas (Gorilla g. gorilla). Dev. Psychobiol., 22: 357-376. doi:10.1002/dev.420220404