The Inconvenient Truth About …Cockatoos

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.

Photo courtesy of Chris Shank

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.

The Reality

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.

Solutions

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!

Part Two: The Benefits to Them

Suggested Ground Rules

Before I begin my exploration of the many benefits of flight for companion parrots, I want to suggest something. My last episode on this topic has generated animated debate, especially on one site to which it was shared. A total of 55 messages (and still counting) illustrate perfectly what I have said before – that radical bias and lack of information play much too large a role in this discussion.

One of the reasons why we have not achieved more progress on this issue is that many people advise others, using information they are merely repeating after having read it elsewhere. Moreover, they have become inexplicably committed to this second-hand information. In addition, many who are knowledgeable in general about parrots feel compelled to also offer advice in areas in which they are not – such as this topic.

I suggest, going forward, that if you do not have years of experience living with flighted parrots in your home, then in this conversation you are a learner. Only by approaching with intellectual humility subjects such as this, will we create the more functional and truly informative discussion that is needed.

Let’s Get Straight About Definitions

For the purposes of this discussion, a fully flighted parrot is an unclipped bird who chooses to fly frequently as his primary means of locomotion inside the home. It does not refer to parrots with unclipped wings who do not choose to fly.

A free flighted parrot is one who is allowed to fly outdoors at liberty. That activity is not within the scope of this discussion. While I have trained companion parrots for free flight, this is not an activity that I advocate except for the rare few. For those of you interested in free flight, trainer Hillary Hankey has written an excellent article about this practice.

The Fledging Process and Brain Development

Fledging is the process through which young parrots learn to fly. The urge to fly is instinctive – every young parrot will at some point launch himself into the air if given the opportunity. However, flight skills must be learned through much practice.

Twenty years ago, it was common to read the statement: “African Greys are nervous, clumsy birds.” At the time I began breeding, I thought this was about the stupidest thing I had ever heard. How could this be? How could they survive in the wild with these qualities?

The truth? An African Grey parrot who was fully fledged is an entirely different adult parrot than one who did not. It is no different for any other species of parrot. Learning to fly impacts all aspects of the young parrot’s development.

“The fledging process itself contributes in many ways to long-term success for psittacine companions because during fledging, early behaviors culminate in a fully active animal totally engaged in and interactive with its environment, including human caretakers.” Further, fledging babies “does not result in cookie-cutter companions but the reverse. When raised in environments tailored to their growth, psittacine companions develop individual personalities, preferences and propensities.” (Linden, P. 2006)

The benefits of learning to fly, however, may extend beyond the coordination, confidence, and autonomy that result from the physical experience.

Development of the Senses

Steve Hartman of The Parrot University writes: “Babies learn best when multiple senses are stimulated simultaneously (i.e.; sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell). The best opportunity for a parrot to learn is when a combination of senses are experienced at the same time. The senses of sight, sound and touch take on a very different nature during flight. When a particular skill is being developed or experienced by different senses at the same time a different neuropathway is reinforced for each sense creating a much stronger neurocircuitry for that skill or knowledge being learned.”

“Each one of the senses, as well as mental and physical skills develop over a period of time, but not at the same time. Some of the development phases are symbiotic, meaning they need information being developed in another area of the brain for their own optimal development. For example, vision develops best when the baby can move around and see things from different angles and distances. Conversely, coordination develops best when the visual cortex can provide information on distance and perspective. Without this symbiotic relationship of vision and coordination, it is difficult to develop three-dimensional vision.” (Hartman, S. 2007)

“The faster he flies, the faster the visual ability needs to be and the faster the brain learns to process the information, and the faster he will be able to fly. Teaching the brain to process information faster and on higher levels, promotes faster decision-making and fewer mistakes in all areas of mental, physical and social competence.” (Hartman, S. 2007)

In Hartman’s piece, no research sources are listed. Such investigation through controlled studies has been absent to date. After all, why research the benefits of flight to companion parrots if we are dedicated to preventing this as a group of caregivers, as we have been previously?

However, evidence does exist for humans, as documented by the authors in The Role of Locomotion in Psychological Development: “The psychological revolution that follows the onset of independent locomotion in the latter half of the infant’s first year provides one of the best illustrations of the intimate connection between action and psychological processes. In this paper, we document some of the dramatic changes in perception-action coupling, spatial cognition, memory, and social and emotional development that follow the acquisition of independent locomotion.” (Anderson, D et al. 2013)

Were we to research further, we would find it true for all animals. The timely acquisition of a creature’s natural means of locomotion fosters more complete brain and personality development.

Benefits of Flight for the Adult Parrot

The fully flighted parrot enjoys physical, social, and psychological benefits far in excess of his wing clipped compatriot.

Physical Health

The parrot who flies to get around the home enjoys far greater health benefits, including stronger musculature, greater resistance to disease due to improved immune function, and better function of cardiac and respiratory systems. There is simply no way that clipped birds can achieve the same level of exercise through walking, climbing, and flapping exercises. (Glendell, G. 2017)

“Birds were made to fly and when they don’t, they develop problems similar to humans who do not exercise; they are more prone to obesity as well as liver, kidney, and heart disease. More over, studies of the bones of the wings and legs of our companion birds are currently being investigated under the lead of Dr. Scott Echols at University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City. The bone density comparisons of birds that are “perch potatoes” are very poor in comparison to wild birds. This metabolic bone disease may contribute to other medical conditions, but the extent is not known yet.” (Orosz, S. 2014)

Improved vision

Hartman suggests that parrots who live with clipped wings may have poorer vision. “Flying birds quickly learn to process visual inputs faster as they develop and reinforce new and improved pathways for routing visual stimulus at high speeds in a three dimensional manner. This educational process cannot take place without flight. Parrots with poor visual skills take longer to assess visual stimulus which may cause the bird to need to react aggressively until the information is processed. For instance, a new person entering the room or someone reaching out to touch may provoke ‘a bite first ask later’ response while the circumstances are being processed.” (Hartman, S. 2007)

Dr. Kenneth Welle concurs: “The use of flight for mental stimulation is very important — birds were designed to fly and the scenery rushing past them stimulates the optic cortex of their brain.” (Orosz, S. 2016)

Physical Safety

While much has been written about the risks that exist in the home for flighted parrots, these are quite easily managed through both training and careful environmental arrangement. In reality, the flighted parrot may enjoy greater physical safety due to his ability to escape unsafe situations.

If a flighted parrot finds himself on the floor with other family pets, he is easily able to fly upward to escape unwanted interaction. If he discovers he is heading toward the stove or other unsafe surface, he can hover and change direction. (A clipped bird who launches himself into uncontrolled flight has no such ability.) If he lands on another parrot’s cage, he can simply fly off before he loses a toe or two.

Social Functionality

Companion parrots who fly are in general more socially adept than those who do not. They quite naturally maintain their autonomy, better able to make choices about when and where to interact with members of the “family flock.”

“The social interactions of clipped birds often land on the side of “overdependent” because, lacking their own resources for exploration, they depend upon human caregivers for entertainment, transportation, and to save them from less-favored persons.” (Linden, P. 2006)

Flighted parrots also are able to make that age-old choice between flight and fight. If able, a parrot who doesn’t like what’s going on will simply fly off. As Linden explains: “Flighted birds flee from unsolicited interest and so find biting largely unnecessary, but clipped birds, lacking escape, often bite to drive away perceived intruders and other annoyances.”

Psychological Benefits

Flighted birds are better able to exercise their own autonomy, making a stream of choices throughout the day and expressing their natural behaviors. For example, my flighted parrots will engage in foraging for hours throughout the day, since I have food placed in several locations around my home.

Parrots who fly are at less risk for developing fear-based behaviors. They are better able to cope with stressful situations and recover more quickly due to the generalized feelings of safety that they experience as a result of being able to use flight for escape.

Quality of life is directly tied to the number of choices that a captive animal is able to make. Flighted parrots are able to make an abundance of choices when out of their cages, since they can perch where they want, eat where they want, and interact with whom they want.

The Obvious Action Step

The benefits of flight to both developing and adult companion parrots are irreplaceable and undeniable. No matter how diligent a caregiver might be, there is no way to fully compensate for a lack of flight ability. I do not believe that it is possible for a clipped parrot to enjoy the same physical, emotional, and psychological health that the flighted parrot enjoys.

As Matt Smith states: “What parrots want is flight and flock – the two things they’re denied as pets in most homes.” In my experience, the one guarantees the other.

A discussion such as this does little to advance quality of life for companion parrots. What we need are action steps that will create the greatest impact.

No one should adopt a baby parrot from a breeder or pet store if that bird has not been fully fledged for a number of weeks. Not all adult parrots can regain flight ability after being deprived of the opportunity during that natural developmental stage for learning. This one single step would have a significant impact on quality of life for parrots going forward. Voting with our dollars creates change.

In my next blog post, I will explore the many benefits to the caregiver of keeping flighted parrots. Until then!

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Resources:

Anderson, D. I., Campos, J. J., Witherington, D. C., Dahl, A., Rivera, M., He, M., Uchiyama, I., … Barbu-Roth, M. (2013). The role of locomotion in psychological development. Frontiers in psychology4, 440. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00440 Accessed 03/19/2019.

Bergman, Charles. 2013. No Fly Zone: Denied their natural habits, millions of pet parrots lead bleak, lonely lives. The Humane Society of the United States. https://www.humanesociety.org/news/no-fly-zone. Accessed 03/26/2019.

Glendell, G. 2017. Birds Need to Fly. The IAABC Journal. http://spring2017.iaabcjournal.org/birds-need-fly. Accessed 03/24/2019.

Hartman, Steve. 2007. Thinking on the Wing.The Parrot University. https://theparrotuniversity.com/flight. Accessed 03/26/2019.

Linden, Phoebe Greene with Leuscher, Andrew. 2006. The Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ames, Iowa: Blackwell Publishing. Pages 93-111.

Moser, Dean. 2004. Parrot and Flight: Flight and the Companion Parrot.AFA Watchbird: Journal of the American Federation of Aviculture. https://journals.tdl.org/watchbird/index.php/watchbird/article/view/1841/1815. Accessed 03/27/2019.

Orosz, Susan PhD, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian). 2014. Is Your Bird Ready to Fly? Avian Expert Articles. https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/bird-ready-fly. Accessed 03/22/2019.

Orosz, Susan PhD, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian). 2016. Free Flight: Lessons from ExoticsCon. Avian Expert Articles. https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/free-flight-lessons-exoticscon. Accessed 03/22/2019.

Proctor, Noble and Lynch, Patrick. 1993. Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure & Function. Ann Arbor, MI:Yale University. Pg. 214.