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!

Reading Parrot Body Language: An Essential Skill

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Why is it so important to be able to read your parrot’s body language? Because a finely honed ability to read body language is necessary to a relationship that works. Body language is the only way your bird has to communicate with you. You can’t just blunder along as you live with your parrots, not understanding what they are trying to tell you. If you do choose that route, you will be one of those people who post pictures of their most recent bites on Facebook.

A Complicated Art

Reading body language is an art, and is especially complicated with parrots.  Dogs may be different breeds, but they are all the same species.  This means that, as a veterinary technician, I don’t have much trouble understanding when a dog is friendly or thinking about biting me. The signs will be basically the same, whether a Chow or a Chihuahua stands before me.

Parrots, however, are all different species and come from many different regions of the world.  Moreover, they live differently, in terms of how they flock.  This impacts the way they communicate.  New World parrots that derive from the Americas, tend to have more overt, obvious body language.  Consider the typical Amazon who warns that a bite may be coming by fanning his tail, raising the feathers just slightly on top of his head and pinning his eyes. That body language is hard to miss.

These parrots often live in smaller family groups in mixed-species flocks. This overt body language they have evolved makes sense then. If a group of Orange-winged Amazons shares a hectare of land with a family group of Blue-headed Pionus, peace will depend upon mutual understanding.  Contrast this example with that of the African Grey. Aggressive grey

Generally speaking, these birds live in very large single-species flocks, even when breeding. Their body language tends to be much more subtle, which makes sense given how closely they flock together. Warning signs from an African grey may be only the look in his eye and slightly raised feathers across the shoulders and the back of the neck.

 The Value of the Talent

Please don’t come away with the idea that the only purpose of reading body language is the avoidance of bites. That is important, but reading body language accurately will not only allow you to avoid many other problems, it will improve the quality of your relationship with your bird. Let’s examine some of the benefits. Reading body language correctly can help you:

  • Know when a parrot is receptive to begin a training session.
  • Know when your parrot is showing signs of illness.
  • Identify the environmental conditions that help to relax your parrot.
  • Avoid the development of a biting problem.
  • Develop a relationship of mutual trust.
  • Identify when a parrot is too hot or too cold.
  • Recognize a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Avoid the development of a pair bond.
  • Prevent phobic or severely fearful behavior from ever developing.
  • Know when your parrot is about to have a dropping.
  • Identify problems related to a lack of compliance before the behavior really becomes a problem.

A Dearth of Resources

   I twice went through a fairly exhaustive search of Google Images, hopeful to fill this post chalk full of body language examples. I found not much worth including. Perhaps cataloging body language in parrots is such a daunting task that we have made little progress to date, in terms of developing resources for caregivers. After all, it takes an expert in reading body language who is also an accomplished photographer and can set up an environment correctly in order to elicit the desired photographic image.

Never mind.  I will describe to you what I know for sure and over time we will begin to build a collective understanding.

Simple and Positive Signals

    There are some simple, easy-to-read, examples of body language that might be a good place to start. I’m sure you have already observed them.  Have you seen your parrot wag his tail from side to side?  This has been described as a “happiness behavior,” a greeting, and a sign that the parrot is ready to go on to the next activity. No matter the exact meaning, it is believed to be a sign of well-being.

Another greeting is reflected when a parrot stretches out one wing and one leg on the same side. That is a sign of feeling good as well. Others will raise their shoulders just slightly and then bring them down again.  This too serves as a greeting and is a sign of well-being.

The Basics of Reading Body Language

    Let’s discuss the different components of body language. The signs observed must all be taken into account together when attempting to understand your parrot. These are the things I look for:

  • The look in the eyes. Parrots have very expressive faces, much like people. If you focus on the look in your parrot’s eyes, you will get important clues as to what is going on with him.  Observe and use your intuition and common sense.
  • Feather position is a very important clue. A scared parrot will have all feathers slicked down tightly against the body. A relaxed parrot will have a bit of air trapped in those feathers on the torso. A fanned tail can be a distinct warning. A parrot with chest feathers very fluffed may be either too cold or sick. A cockatoo with crest feathers raised is either excited or considering an aggressive move. A cockatoo whose facial feathers have moved forward to partially cover his beak is relaxing.
  • Beak movement is harder to read and understand. However, if a parrot is approaching one of your body parts with his beak open and neck extended, it is best to remove that body part until you can better assess his intentions. A larger cockatoo who clacks his upper and lower beak together quickly and repetitively, is either thinking of you with an inappropriate level of love or is thinking about causing you harm.
  • Stance and movement are major clues that parrots offer to help us understand what is going on with them. If a parrot is leaning away or moving away from you, that is a sure sign that you had better stop and rethink the interaction you were intending to have. That is a clear indication of a desire to avoid contact and must be respected.
  • Skin color can be another indicator of heightened arousal. Macaws are a good example of this, in that when aroused their facial skin may turn pink or red. While this is not usually an indicator intended aggression, it certainly does indicate heightened arousal. I would recommend caution in interacting with any parrot in such a state.

All of these indicators must be taken into account when reading body language. We must also take into account the environmental triggers present. Body language signals in one context might mean something different in another.

For example, my Moluccan Cockatoo will clack his beak together when interacting with me because he loves me a little too much. He had a pair bond with his first owner and would like to recreate that with me. However, when my friend Chris comes over, he also clacks his beak, but with a different body posture and intensity of facial expression.  He intends her bodily harm.

Simple Tips

   While parrot body language may be complex, the ability to read it is just a matter of developing further the skills that we already have – the ability to focus, observe carefully, analyze and use common sense.  We can all learn to read body language well and we must. Here are some simple guidelines:

  • Focus well, ignoring nearby distractions.
  • Closely observe your parrot and ask yourself: “What is he trying to tell me?”
  • Be open-minded. It’s easy to assume that you know what a behavior means. However, body language can be confusing. For example, we have all seen parrots lean forward and flutter their wings. Most folks think this means that the parrot wants to go somewhere else. I think this stems from the fact that for so long we have cared for parrots with clipped wings. However, fully flighted parrots will display the same behavior, without taking off in flight.
  • Set your own agenda aside. We must take our cues from the parrot. If you read body language that indicates your parrot does not want to interact with you at that time, honor that. Stop and rethink things. That might be the time to decide that additional training is needed.

Summary

    Your bird will develop a great deal more trust in you if you pay attention to what he is trying to tell you and honor that. Read all the signs together and take into account the environment in which the body language is being offered. Consider all possible meanings.

Always work hard not to scare your parrot or insist in having your own way. In the beginning, simply try to ready body language for its most practical applications.  Try not to get bitten. Be emotionally and intellectually present when interacting with your parrot.

I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say something very profound.  “If your parrot is aware of you, you must be aware of your parrot.” Parrots are always amazingly aware of us.  We owe it to them to be amazingly aware of them. Beyond that, we owe it to them to honor what they tell us.