Atherosclerosis: The Hidden Killer

Atherosclerosis is a common disease in companion parrots – one we must all take seriously. If you have ever heard of an older parrot who died suddenly, without apparent cause, there is a good chance that this progressive disease was a primary factor in the demise.

What is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is one type of arteriosclerosis.  The word atherosclerosis derives from the Greek words athero, which means “gruel or porridge,” and sclerosis, which means “hardness.” This is a fairly descriptive term for the disease itself, in which cholesterol is deposited onto the sides of arteries, creating hard plaques. Once build-up is great enough, plaques can dislodge; these cause blockages, which lead to heart attack.

It is primarily a disease of inflammation. The more inflammation, the greater the risk of atherosclerosis.Blue and Gold by Engin Akyurt

Birds are more susceptible to atherosclerosis than any mammal, with the exception of humans. “The reported incidence rates in avian species range widely from 1.9% to 91.9%.”(Powers, 2015)

A Confusion of Information

While much is known about atherosclerosis in humans, this information cannot be readily transferred with reliability to birds. Reading through scientific papers about the disease causes consternation and befuddlement. Undeniable conclusions are lacking, although more recent research does point to strong correlations.

Much of the research has been done on bird species other than parrots, such as quail, waterfowl, and chickens. Diagnosis on parrot species who have succumbed to this illness has been conducted on a very mixed population, particularly those kept previously in zoos, who have been maintained under a variety of conditions and fed a mix of diets.

Moreover, the studies that are being done on risk factors that exist for parrots are being performed on the known risk factors for humans and other mammals. There may, however, be other risk factors specific to avian species that may take longer to uncover, such as individual species’ genetics.

Thus, I will warn you that what I write today may well be something I will edit extensively in another five years.  The danger is significant and real for our parrots, so an examination now of what we know is important. However, I have every expectation that some of what you read below may be proved wrong in the future, while additional details will in turn come to light.

Which Parrots Are At Risk?

While we have a very good understanding of risk factors in mammals, this is not so with parrots. But, a few things we do know.

Speciesparrot-2005767__340

It is currently agreed that Amazon parrots, African Grey parrots, quaker parakeets, and cockatiels appear to be at greatest risk. While the disease has been seen in cockatoos and macaws, they are not believed to be quite as susceptible. Many avian species, though not all, have been found to develop atherosclerosis in captivity.

Age

Increased age is a significant risk factor. However, while more common in older parrots, Nemeth states that atherosclerosis has been found in birds aged 1 to 42 years. (Nemeth at al, 2016) It is most common in companion parrots over the age of 10.

Gender

Female parrots have been proven statistically to be at greater risk. Female birds in reproductive mode generally have elevated levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and lipoproteins, as well as calcium, creating greater susceptibility.

Diet and Nutrition

“The inclusion of cholesterol in the diet of birds that consume non-animal protein, even as low as 0.25% of the diet, dramatically increases plasma and serum cholesterol levels.” (Petzinger and Bauer, 2013).

Petzinger also mentions a 2003 paper by Bavelaar and Beynen that found that African grey parrots fed a high-fat diet containing palm kernel oil (saturated fatty acids) had increased cholesterol levels.cockatiel-1213758__340

Petzinger also reports on the findings of yet another study from 2012. In this research, a total of 47 cockatiels who were supplemented with fish oil had lower plasma cholesterol than cockatiels fed flaxseed oil. The conclusion? “Thus, dietary fish oil (and possibly dried algae products) may be more beneficial than oils high in A-linolenic acid on reducing risk factors and prevalence of atherosclerosis in avian species.” (Petzinger and Bauer, 2013)

Another nutrient capable of lowering cholesterol levels in birds is pectin. Pectin is the soluble fiber contained in fruit and some vegetables.

The overall amount of food eaten may also contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. Overeating and obesity are proven risk factors for mammals. This correlation has been studied in birds with varying conclusions.

Physical Inactivity

Every research paper I read reported a presumed link between inactivity and the development of atherosclerosis. However, I could find no evidence that any link between exercise and this illness had actually been researched in avian species.Conure2

Since such a strong link exists between the two in mammals, including humans, it would be foolish to ignore it here and the papers I read did include recommendations for exercise in companion parrots.

Inflammation

The literature on human health names inflammation in the body as a primary cause for the development of atherosclerosis. In fact, inflammation is currently being discussed in what is being called “a unifying theory of disease.” (Harvard Health, 2006) In other words, inflammation is now considered as a significant factor in the development of many chronic human illnesses.

Nevertheless, inflammation as a process “remains a mystery.” (Anft, 2016) However, scientists are beginning to agree that lifestyle choices like diet and exercise may increase (or reduce)  inflammation.parrot eating cracker

Common foods that cause inflammation, which are often fed to parrots, are fried foods and those containing refined carbohydrates (white flours and sugars).

Co-Infection with Psittacosis

The disease Psittacosis, also known as Parrot Fever, is more accurately referred to as Chlamydia psittaci. This disease is still relatively common among companion parrots, especially those who have come from large collections. While researchers disagree about whether there is a conclusive correlation between infection with Chlamydia and atherosclerosis, some studies appear to agree on this.

Signs and Symptoms

Sadly, the most common sign of atherosclerosis is sudden death. In the late stages, there may be symptoms such as weakness, lethargy, neurological  signs (including seizure-like activity), trouble breathing and exercise intolerance. However, these may be less observable due to parrots spending long hours in cages. It is easier to identify exercise intolerance, for example, in parrots who fly.

At this point in time, diagnosis is extremely difficult. Most people will never imagine that their parrots are ill until they lose them unexpectedly, well before their time. With better imaging techniques, as well as a better understanding of identifying factors in serum chemistries, this may change in the future.

What Can We Do?

Atherosclerosis in companion parrots is still not well-understood. Direct and specific correlations from the human health field may only be suggestive. Thus, we do not have well-defined risk factors that would allow us to target flawless measures for prevention.

FoodSkewerMoreComplexSuggested lifestyle changes reported in the literature include “increasing physical activity by providing more opportunities for locomotion and foraging behaviors and decreasing the stress level  in their captive environment. Limiting dietary excess and obesity also seem to be a reasonable strategy, but species-specific dietary needs should be considered.”(Beaufrere, 2013)

“Birds should be provided ample opportunities for exercise and activities such as foraging, and even flight, if considered safe for the bird. Excessive energy content in the food should be avoided, such as excess carbohydrates and fats. Birds should receive regular preventative veterinary care with periodic bloodwork monitoring.” (Powers, 2015)

Diets that contain relatively high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the prevalence of the disease. (Petzinger and Bauer, 2013) Nordic NaturalsNewer research indicates that fish oil may be more effective in this than alpha-linolenic acid, the type of omega-3 found in plants, such as in flax seed oil. Supplementation with fish oil may be an excellent addition to the diets of many companion parrots, but this should not be undertaken without the advice of your veterinarian.

Pectin in the diet has also decreased the occurrence of atherosclerosis. (Petzinger and Bauer, 2013) Pectin is the soluble fiber found in fruit. Too much pectin can result in a decrease in the absorption of nutrients from the intestine, however. Thus, fruit should be fed in moderation for most species.

Reducing the overall amount of food, i.e. not over-feeding, can also decrease the prevalence of atherosclerosis. This  information too, however, could be harmful if implemented to the extreme. Hunger and malnutrition do nothing to improve overall health. It is best to consult with your veterinarian about the quantity of foods to offer.

Suggested Action Steps:

After as thorough a review as I could muster with the research I was able to access, I think the following steps are prudent:

  • Identify an avian vet who specializes in birds and schedule annual visits.
  • If your veterinarian tells you your bird is fat, take this seriously and formulate a plan for gradual weight reduction.
  • Discuss with your veterinarian supplementation with fish oil. (The correct dose is important and should be obtained from your vet.) Nordic Naturals is an excellent choice.
  • If you have a female parrot, do everything you can to minimize triggers for the increased production of reproductive hormones. (You should do this for males too.)
    • Discourage a pair bond
    • Avoid cuddling and other highly affectionate interactions
    • Prevent cavity seeking (getting into closets, boxes, etc.)
    • Feed a low-fat, low-carbohydrate diet013
  • Do not feed foods high in saturated fat (fatty meats, butter, margarine, cheese, coconut oil, palm oil, fried food, or snack foods).
  • Do not feed pasta, white rice, or any foods that contain white flour or sugar and other sweeteners.
  • If your bird eats a seed mix as a dietary staple, convert him to a pelleted diet with supplementation of fresh foods.
  • Avoid overfeeding. Remember the size of the creature you are feeding.
  • Encourage foraging and try to incorporate some physical activity into this.
  • Encourage exercise.
    • Determine whether you and your bird might be a candidate for flight in the home.
    • If not, work to discover ways to encourage as much movement as possible.Green And Red Healthy Food
  • Do feed foods high in pectin, in moderation (apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, strawberries, guava, carrots and peas). Apples are especially high.
  • Do feed foods high in omega-3 fatty acids or that are otherwise known to reduce cholesterol (oats, barley and other grains, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, edamame, almonds, beans, tofu, salmon)
  • Do feed foods that fight inflammation (green leafy vegetables, blueberries, salmon, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, peppers, grapes, celery, ginger, tumeric)

parrot-2960562__340Atherosclerosis is a scary prospect, given what we now know about the susceptibility of our companion parrots. However, I suspect that we have in our hands the tools for prevention, just as people do. Granted, risk factors outside of our control exist, such as age and gender. However, we do have enough information to take action and keep our parrots as healthy as absolutely possible.

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!

References:

Anft, M. 2016. “Understanding Inflammation.” Johns Hopkins Health Review. Volume 3, Issue 1. https://www.johnshopkinshealthreview.com/issues/spring-summer-2016/articles/understanding-inflammation

Beaufrere, H.  Dr. Med Vet, PhD, Dip. ECZM, Dip. ABVP. 2013. “Avian Atherosclerosis: Parrots and Beyond. Topics in Medicine and Surgery.http://dx.doi.org/10.1053/j.jepm.2013.10.015https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1557506313001754?via%3Dihub

Bavelaar F. J. & Beynen, A.C. (2004) “Atherosclerosis in Parrots: A Review. Veterinary Quarterly, 26:2, 50-60. https://doi.org/10.1080/01652176.2004.9695168

Nemeth, N.M. , Gonzaliz-Astudillo, V., Oesterle, P.T. Howerth. E. W.  “A 5-Year Retrospective Review of Avian Diseases Diagnosed at the Department of Pathology, University of Georgia”. Journal of Comparative Pathology. Volume 155, Issues 2–3, August–October 2016, Pages 105-120. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcpa.2016.05.006

Harvard Health Publishing. April 2006. Harvard Medical School. “Inflammation: A Unifying Theory of Disease. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Inflammation_A_unifying_theory_of_disease

Petzinger, C. PhD, Bauer, J, DVM, PhD, Dip. ACVN. 2013. Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine. Volume 22, Issue 4, October 2013, Pages 358-365. “Dietary Considerations for Atherosclerosis in Common Companion Avian Species. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.jepm.2013.10.013

Petzinger,C BS, Heatley, J DVM, MS, DABVP, DACZM, Cornejo,J BS, Brightsmith, D. PhD; Bauer, J DVM, PhD, DACVN. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. March 1, 2010, Vol. 236, No. 5, Pages 523-528. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.236.5.523

Powers, L. DVM, DABVP. 2015. “The Silent Killer: Atherosclerosis in Pet Birds.” CVC in Washington, D.C. Proceedings.  Published on DVM 360. http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/silent-killer-atherosclerosis-pet-birds-proceedings.

Socializing Young Parrots

Why do young parrots need to be socialized? Aren’t they snuggly, compliant, and cooperative from the get-go? Unfortunately, they are not.

Parrots are only a generation or two away from their wild counterparts. They have not been altered by generations of domestication. They come to us fully packed with all the instincts, mental tools, and patterns of behavior that help them navigate and survive successfully in nature.

Typically, this exquisitely developed system for survival does not serve the parrot well in a home environment. Hence the practice of hand-raising parrot chicks, which tames them before they realize they are “wild”.

Hand-rearing assists in making parrots pliable and adaptable to living with people; but, is it the easiest and best way to accomplish this goal?

The Complexities of Hand-rearing

Possibly not, as the caretaker must know and understand a multitudinous number of important concerns and responsibilities such as: (1) Feeding a correct diet to the chick every few hours, (2) keeping its environment clean and at the correct temperature for comfort and optimal growth, (3) giving the chick appropriate physical attention, (4) allowing him to grow up with conspecifics, (5) providing unforced weaning, and (6) most crucially, allowing him to fledge fully and confidently.

There are scores of other details often not seen or even thought of when raising a parrot chick, with many of them overlooked, unrecognized, or just plain ignored by the caregiver.

As one example, we have evidence that the diet fed to wild chicks is significantly different than that which we use for hand-rearing in captivity. This raises important questions.

Wild vs. Captive Chick Feeding

Most parrot species in the wild feed chunks (an “undigested regurgitate”) of a wide variety of foods to their chicks. This is true no matter the age of the chick. (Cornejo, 2012) Contrast this with the unvaried “gruel” typically used for hand-feeding by breeders. Further, many parrots in the wild feed tree bark and small pieces of wood to their babies. As you will read below, our Bare-eyed parents at Cockatoo Downs choose to do so as well.

The fact that this “undigested regurgitate” remains in the crop for longer periods allows for crop sampling, which has resulted in the research cited herein. Crop contents have been compared to our standard hand-feeding formulas; with the latter coming up short in fat content and some nutrient levels. Further, hand-fed parrots grow more slowly than do parent-fed babies. (Cornejo, 2012)

A life-threatening problem with hand-reared chicks is crop stasis, in which the contents of the crop are not emptied. This may be due to the finely ground texture of hand-feeding formulas. (Brightsmith, et al. 2010) It has been hypothesized that the small pieces of wood and bark found in crop contents may assist in the emptying of the crop, in addition to providing additional minerals and fiber. (Renton, 2006)

But this isn’t a treatise on hand-rearing. I just wanted to emphasize the difficulties and complexities involved, as well as the questions that research has raised. Let’s move on to how it’s possible to form  partnerships with parent-raised “wild” youngsters by using positive reinforcement training (R+).

Relationships with Parent-Reared Chicks

We try our darnedest to use R+ training exclusively with all the cockatoos at Cockatoo Downs. Briefly, that means  when training or cuing a behavior, the bird is given a favorite food treat when the behavior is performed. Reinforcing a behavior with something the parrot likes makes it more likely that the action will be repeated.

For example, if my cockatoo steps up willingly and politely onto my hand, she gets a treat. If she is on a play stand minding her own business, she is reinforced with treats or activities for doing so. If she flies to me when called, she again gets a yummy food item or a quick head preen. Reinforcers in the form of food treats, head scritches, or anything the parrot likes are offered each and every time. The cockatoo sees me as the go-to source for all things good and chooses to readily perform the behaviors I request.

We set up our training environment in safe surroundings, limiting stress as best we can, and working in short sessions. We are mindful of an assortment of things: the training environment, the bird’s willingness to engage, and knowing when to continue training or to end the session. This list, along with an assortment of other components necessary for successful training sessions, creates a learner who is willing, motivated, and trusting.

The parent Bare-eyed cockatoos, Flash and Bebe (both parent-raised), grew up immersed in R+ training. This has made them trusting of me; and, this trust has generalized to other people, demonstrated by the fact that they are willing participants in working with attendees who come to our training workshops. My hope is that Flash and Bebe’s relaxed and engaged manner with me, Pam, and other people will influence positively their new chick’s behavior.

Because the cockatoo parents show little stress around us and actively seek our attention, their engaged behavior should transfer to the young fledgling and help her more easily adapt to our presence and eventually come to find people as sources of good things.*

What Do We Really Want in a Cockatoo?

Let’s start with a description of what a trained parent-raised cockatoo represents for me. First, I want the cockatoo to be independent and to grow up knowing she is a cockatoo. That’s easy to accomplish with parent- raising. She’ll obviously identify with her parents and not me.

Second, I want her to seek physical and emotional support from her cockatoo friends, not necessarily me. That may sound cold-hearted, as if I don’t really care about her.

On the contrary, I believe it’s healthy for a parrot to grow up identifying as a parrot, and learning appropriate parrot behavior. I celebrate that and want to keep her self-image intact, rather than have it replaced by the more typical image – a snuggly cockatoo, dependent on people to fulfill her life. In short, I celebrate my cockatoos being cockatoos.

Third, I desire my cockatoos to have basic manners and behaviors that make living with people conducive and successful. That means stepping up when asked, coming when called, learning to live in a cage, and learning to go into a travel crate. With these foundational skills accomplished, we can move on to learning other fun stuff like flying thru hoops!

Fourth, I want my cockatoo to engage with other people. I want her to seek out people and investigate what they have to offer her. I want her to be able to anticipate that strange people are cool animals, who most likely will have blue-ribbon goodies to give her.

Now, do I accomplish all of this in my training of parent-reared birds? Usually, yes, although it’s always a work in progress. Working with my parent-reared cockatoos is an ongoing learning experience for all of us, most especially me. 

Flying through Hoops at Cockatoo Downs

Early Stages for Training

The following outlines the training I anticipate doing with this new little one. I’m sure these steps will be modified as I go forward:

  • While the chick is still in the nest, I work with the parents on simple behaviors, such as targeting or turning around on the perch, while in the aviary. This keeps the parents engaged and maintains the partnership between us.
  • I feed the parents treats when I walk by the aviary, if they approach me at the feeding station.
  • When the chick first leaves the nest box to fledge, I will assess the parents’ behavior and actions, which will indicate to me whether or not to enter the aviary. I will respect their wishes if their body language says, “Do not enter.”
  • When I can enter the aviary to train, I will start by just handing the parents treats, while the fledgling watches.
  • The next step will be to work with the parents while moving closer to the fledgling as I do so.
  • Gradually, through small baby steps, we will work toward including the fledgling in our training.

Training requires awareness and mental flexibility, along with thoughtfulness and commitment. We want to work with the cockatoos, not against them. They call the shots.

What is so wonderful about working with parent-raised birds or even flighted parrots, is the sensitivity necessary for effective teaching. It requires us to stretch and grow our capabilities and offers us untold lessons. In the end, we become better observers, trainers, and appropriate partners to our parrots.

So what’s the easiest way to socialize a parrot chick? Turns out hand-rearing and parent-rearing can be equally challenging. In the end, it’s up to us to determine which is more humane and ethical for the parents and their chicks. I’ve chosen the path less traveled: parent-rearing cockatoos.

*Research has shown how stress can be transferred between members in a gull family.( https://www.pnas.org/content/114/26/6794)

The Latest News!

Flash and Bebe, like all of us in close relationships can, had a tiff a week ago. Bebe wanted to go into the nest box to brood the chick and, for whatever reason, Flash thought otherwise. He wouldn’t allow her near the box and would chase her around the aviary endlessly.  What to do? The only thing I could think of was to let them both out to free fly.

I can hear you gasp. Please know that Bebe and Flash have free flown at Cockatoo Downs almost daily for nine years. They know every bit of the territory. They realize the dangers and their flight skills are beyond reproach.

That said, I was more than a little nervous to let them out. My gut, though, was telling me Flash needed to work off energy that was somehow affecting his relationship with Bebe.

I knew they were both highly invested in their chick. I believed that allowing them out to fly would not in any way diminish their instincts to raise the little one. So, holding my breath, I opened the aviary door and out they zoomed.

The cantankerous pair I saw in the aviary instantly transformed into a well-oiled flying machine. They flew together closely and precisely circling the property. Every flight move was made in tandem in perfect coordination. There was no strife, no bickering. It was a beautiful thing to see.

10 Days Old

I took advantage of their absence to get my first peak into the nest box. Two eggs had been laid, but only one chick had hatched. Her full crop assured me that she is being well-cared for and comparison photos indicate a solid growth pattern.

15 Days Old, Eyes Opening and Crest Up!

After about forty-five minutes of flying and visiting their cockatoo neighbors, Flash and Bebe returned to their aviary. Bebe immediately went into the box and I soon heard the chick peeping loudly as she was being fed.  Flash sat calmly on a nearby perch preening. His angst and irritation had vanished and he was at peace with his world.

Another fascinating development: I have observed Flash and Bebe eating tree bark when out flying and then feeding this to their chick, just as wild parrots do (see section above). Since this seems to be an important need of theirs, I have begun bringing branches into their aviary for consumption.

Just For Fun

I went for a short bike ride up my road the other day. It was windy and pleasant. Rebbie, Tyke, and Ritzie were out with me. Reb loves to ride with me on my shoulder as I pedal along. The other two flew low next to me as Reb and I rode up the road.

I turned back for home, riding downhill and into the wind. Reb’s cheek feathers ruffled as he held on tight, leaning into the wind. The other two had perched on a fence post watching as we rode towards home. Reb soon figured that it would be easier to fly than hold on. Off he went, whooshing up into the wind while Tyke and Ritzie left their post to join him. What a sight to behold! I so look forward to having the new little Bare-eyed chick grow up and be able to experience all the excitement free flying has to offer her. And I look forward to sharing her adventures with her.

Cockatoo Downs… Location of Adventures in Living with Parrots

References:

Brightsmith, D, et al. (2010) Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery 24(1):9–23, 2010 ’ 2010 by the Association of Avian Veterinarians. ” Nutritional Content of the Diets of Free-living Scarlet Macaw Chicks in Southeastern Peru”

Cornejo, Juan (2012). Doctoral dissertation for Texas A & M University: “Insights on Psittacine Nutrition through the Study of Free-living Chicks.” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/293175636_Insights_on_Psittacine_Nutrition_Through_the_Study_of_Free-Living_Chicks

Renton, K. (2006). Biotropica: The Scientific Journal of the ATBC. “Diet of Adult and Nestling Scarlet Macaws in Southwest Belize, Central America” https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-7429.2006.00123.x

Disclaimer:I do not recommend nor promote that companion parrots be flown outside without the owner having a solid knowledge of training and behavior and also being assisted in person by an expert parrot trainer with extensive experience in free flight.

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.

New Beginnings

Dear Readers: For the next several months, this blog will be published every week. I am bringing to you an experience you can find no where else. Every other week, my friend Chris Shank will be sharing the extraordinary story of current events at her aviary, Cockatoo Downs, as a guest blogger. On the off weeks, I will be bringing you my own thoughts, as I have been for over a year now. The following is from Chris:

I was down by the creek, clearing some brush with my free flight companion, Tyke, a Bare-eyed Cockatoo. Ritzie, another Bare-eyed, was off on one of his many flight adventures. Tyke and I were among the trees so, when I heard Ritzie give repetitive contact calls from afar, I figured he didn’t know where we were.

I had him in my sights, though, and yelled out our recall cue. Immediately, he made a beeline towards the direction of my call. I watched as he swerved through the trees and made a soft landing on the creek bridge where Tyke and I were working. I marveled at his skills and willingness to respond to my call. You see, Ritzie is a parent-raised free flying cockatoo, unlike Tyke who was hand-raised.

Controversy: Hand-raising vs. Parent-Reared?

Current prevailing “wisdom” recommends that companion parrots destined for free flight must be hand-raised, thereby making it easier to create a stronger bond with their caretakers. This human-parrot bond, so the theory goes, is the foundation for achieving success at flying a parrot outdoors. Countering that theory, parent-raised Ritzie and his brother, Flash, have achieved masterful free flight skills and positive human-cockatoo relationships through positive reinforcement training alone. From that training a trusting partnership has developed between us.

These siblings were raised by their cockatoo parents through fledging. When Ritzie and Flash left the nest, they learned from their parents (who were also competent and confident outdoor flyers) what free flying was all about. While their parents taught them flight skills, I taught them people skills such as recalling to my hand, stepping up when cued, stationing on a perch, and touching a target stick.

We accomplished all of that and more. Now, nine years later, the brothers are consummate flyers and eager participants in training sessions, not only with me, but with people who come here to participate in our many training workshops. This proves to me that parrots need not be hand raised to become willing partners, learners and skilled free flyers.

In Honor of Asta

There’s a free flight project in the making at Cockatoo Downs and it’s all because of Asta, my Bare-eyed Cockatoo. You can see her in the masthead of this blog and in the photo below. She was a super free flyer along with being a best friend to me and her pal, Rebbie, a Philippine Cockatoo. I lost her due to cancer in April 2019.

Pam and I thought the best way to honor her memory and her incredible self was to add more magnificent Bare-eyes (is there any other kind?) to the flock. I’m sure she would approve. So here’s to you, Asta! Wish us luck.

The Project

Flash has paired up with another trained Bare-eyed Cockatoo free flyer, Bebe. Both birds were parent-reared. They are very bonded and are sure to make good parents. I will be journaling the progress of this cockatoo couple from their nest box preparations to brooding, to raising their chicks, to watching them fledge, and onwards through training and flying outside. I’ll be sharing this sure-to-be fascinating  journey with you as it progresses.

The Aviary

Bebe and Flash live in a spacious 20 ft. x 40 ft. outdoor aviary. The aviary is planted in grass and has a variety of plants growing seasonally, on which the birds regularly forage. The aviary is connected to the bird barn. A window in the barn wall allows the cockatoos to enter and exit their indoor barn cage (which is 10 ft. by 10 ft.) where their food and water are kept.

The Nestbox

The nest box is made of plywood and was erected on April 18. It’s anchored securely on the barn wall at the back of the aviary. The access hole was purposely kept small to allow the birds to enlarge the hole themselves. In the box, I placed medium-sized chunks of wood for them to chew up, rearrange, or simply toss out the hole. All of this remodeling gets them into breeding mode and facilitates a team effort. Both birds worked on the access hole either together or separately; and, after three days they were able to enter the box.

Brooding

I have purposely chosen not to look in the nest box at any time so as not to disturb the couple. After about a week after entering the box, I saw signs that eggs had been laid. Now, there was always one bird in the box while the other was outside. I also observed another clue. When Bebe emerged from the box and came to the front of the aviary for a treat, I noticed there was a small bare brood patch in the middle of her chest. Flash had one also. If my calculations are correct, eggs should be hatching the week of May 20.

Training

At Cockatoo Downs we practice positive reinforcement and force-free training. I have worked with Bebe and Flash throughout their lives. Training is not on a schedule, but I do try to work with them a couple of times a week either in their aviary or while they are out flying. In their aviary, I have perches set up where they have learned to station, target, and recall to me. They have also readily worked for Pam and people who come to our training events.

Because Bebe and Flash are willing and enthusiastic participants in their training, they will be excellent role models for their youngsters. The newly fledged little ones should find nothing bizarre about this strange looking creature (me) working with their parents. My hope is that they will participate as well.

Going Forward

I am grateful to Pam for allowing me to share the adventures of our new free flight family. If the stars align the way they should, there will be chicks to write about in the next episode. I can hardly wait to hear the soft peep, peep, peeping coming from the nest box. Stay tuned!

Disclaimer: I do not recommend nor promote that companion parrots be flown outside without the owner having a solid knowledge of training and behavior and also being assisted in person by an expert parrot trainer with extensive experience in free flight.

Chris Shank’s love of parrots began with a wild little budgie named Tampiki. Chris’ natural talents at training created over time a trusting relationship with what she calls that “tiny puff of turquoise feathers.” Years later, Chris graduated from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California. Her internship was done at Busch Gardens where she became part of the parrot show. She next worked as a dolphin trainer at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara. From there, she continued her work with dolphins in Hasslock, 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.