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.


Contradictory Cockatoo Behavior

The most fascinating thing about watching Bebe and Flash Bare-eyed Cockatoo raise their chick, Star, is that their behaviors change as does the growing inventory of Star’s exploratory actions. Let’s look at some examples.

The Power Struggle

In my last blog episode, I mentioned the power struggle that exists between Flash and Bebe, first over who would brood the eggs, then feed the chick, and now feed and stay near the fledgling, Star. I’ve consulted with an experienced cockatoo breeder in Australia about what is, in my eyes, unusual behavior. He could not give me an answer.

He did mention, though, that in captive breeding situations cockatoos can be quite difficult, as some males show intense aggression towards their mates before going to nest. I was aware of that conduct, having bred cockatoos myself. What I haven’t observed before is anything like this constant changing of who’s “in charge” of Star.

I’m thinking that this may be a natural behavior, distorted by captivity. In the wild, while one bird broods the egg or chick, the other would typically be out for some length of time finding food. When the far-ranging mate returns, the length of time has been such that the at-home mate is ready to leave the nest box, thus letting the returned cockatoo take over brooding duties.

In the aviary, food is conveniently only a few wing-beats away. When one mate leaves the fledgling’s side, the other swoops in to take over, regardless of whether enough time has elapsed.

This is all just conjecture on my part and may well make no sense at all. I could not find detailed descriptions of wild Bare-eyed Cockatoo nesting behavior, so this is the best explanation I can come up with at this time. If anyone has any other ideas or information regarding this behavior, please leave a comment. I would love to hear from you.

Feeding and Foraging

Star, at 13 weeks of age, is still being fed regurgitated food by her parents, so whoever is on Star-watch will feed her. When I fill up the food station, the controlling parent at the time will not allow the other admission to it.

Again, I ask “Why is this?” How does this relate to cockatoo behavior in the wild? Do paired cockatoos keep their mates from accessing food in nature? Most likely not, since there is probably food readily available elsewhere.

That there is an “argument” between Flash and Bebe over food access in the aviary is probably due to limited availability, since there has been only one feeding station. Providing only one food station in a captive environment can cause resource guarding. We may see it between two companion dogs when they are fed their dinner. We can see it in a group of horses when fed communally in a paddock. I answered my own question by providing one more feeding station and the resource guarding ceased.

Free Flying Behavior

Another change in parental behavior involves Flash and Bebe’s free flying. While the pair was brooding the chick and continuing  until a few days after Star had fledged, it was typical that both birds would go out to fly when I opened their door. Off they’d go, sometimes at great length and other times just for a short stretch of the wings.

Star flies down close to Chris for the first time to forage.

While her parents were out flying, Star would sit quietly tucked in or behind the birch tree that grows in the back of the aviary. At this time of her life she did no exploratory flying in the aviary on her own.

When I offered Bebe and Flash an opportunity to free fly one morning not too long ago, neither took me up on it. Okay, that wasn’t too unusual. What was unusual is that in the weeks following, going out to free fly wasn’t part of Flash and Bebe’s agenda.

Sharing fresh millet spray with Father Flash

As Star’s exploratory behaviors have increased, so too have the parents’ intense surveillance over her. In other words, as she becomes more independent, the parents’ concern about her whereabouts grows.

It seems that it should be the opposite; that is, as Star’s independence grows, so should the loosening of parental apron strings. Again, I’ve come up with another hypothesis.

Even though Star is becoming quite competent at negotiating the aviary by flight, she has not acquired adult capabilities. Her flying is not as physically robust as her parents. Even her ability to walk on a perch is not up to adult standards yet. However, she doesn’t hesitate to fly about the aviary with as much gusto as she can muster.

The Awkward Star

I compare this extra Star attention by Flash and Bebe to human parents whose baby is learning to walk. Once some competency has been achieved by the toddler, parents are more acutely aware of her movements, as she can quickly get herself into a pickle from her new walking ability. So it may be for Star’s parents, while she is in her “toddler” stage. In the wild, her new flight skills could easily lead her into dangerous situations.

Raptors are keenly aware of juvenile birds. Fledgling parrots have all the characteristics of defenseless youngsters. Fledgling vocalizations sound different from their adult parents. Their flight skills are certainly different from those of mature birds. Their size may be different. Their mannerisms may be more awkward and so on.

Raptors pick up on these youthful characteristics with ease and understand that an effortless meal is available for the taking. Hence, Flash and Bebe watch Star even more closely during this “toddler” stage of her development, even though she is safe in the aviary.

Behaviors I see displayed by Star and her parents are no doubt colored by their captive environment. However, observing Flash and Bebe raise Star is fascinating in and of itself, regardless of where it’s done.

Latest News About Ellie

Ellie continues to settle into life at Cockatoo Downs. She seems to have grown fond of having the flyers visit her while she is in her aviary on the deck. She shows excitement and watches intently as the small flock gathers around her aviary.

Ellie Foraging

The flyers and Ellie eagerly take treats from me as we all hang out together. When they fly away, she calls after them, which I take as a healthy sign that she is becoming a bit more cockatoo- oriented, rather than just people-focused.

Just for Fun at Cockatoo Downs!

Alex Collins is a young man who attended our Exotic Bird Rescue workshop we held a few weeks ago. When I saw Alex work with a couple of the cockatoos at the workshop, I was impressed by his skill and demeanor around the birds. I invited him back for some one-on-one training time with me and the cockatoos.

Alex is calm and focused around the birds and pays attention to their body language. When there is a misread, he doesn’t get flustered and is ready to try again. Alex spent some time working Flash and Bebe in the aviary while Star watched from her perch. Bebe was all about Alex, but Flash, not so much. But with Alex’s calm persistence, Flash came around and was soon targeting and taking treats from him. It was a good day.

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.