What Needs to Be Said

What needs to be said is that no matter how hard we try to provide the right environment when hand raising parrots, we can never provide every essential thing chicks need to grow into well-adapted and well-adjusted psittacines.

Star with one of her parents

I hand-raised cockatoos in the distant past and I now advocate for letting parrot parents do the job. I realize my advocacy is like telling a screaming parrot to be quiet, as this is usually ignored and the screaming continues. 

However, I will press on to champion for the right of captive parrots to raise their own offspring. Watching Star, a fourteen-week-old Bare-eyed Cockatoo, flourish under her parents’ care underlines for me how important it is for young parrots to be educated by their parents.

Let’s look at some contrasts I’m finding between parent-raised and hand-raised cockatoos using fledgling Star and my own hand-raised birds as examples.

Foraging

Before cleaning the cockatoos’ aviaries the other day, I put up various browse for Star and her parents and the hand-raised cockatoos to forage upon.  I was amazed at the length of foraging activity Star and her parents displayed. The full two hours I cleaned, they were actively engaged, ferreting through the offerings finding leaves, seed heads, or berries that suited their fancies.

Star forages on garden-grown millet spray.

In the “hand raised” aviary there was initial interest in the browse, but that ended quickly as the interest was instead focused on me by landing on my shoulder or by watching what I was doing from a perch. The only bird who kept at the job of foraging in the hand-raised flock was Ritzie, who was parent- raised.

This diligent foraging activity of the family certainly shouldn’t be unexpected or surprising; after all, we are all primed by our evolution to forage for food. Even though parrots and people are endowed with an inherent drive to search for food, we must learn to how to successfully do so. Having models to learn from is the easiest and most efficient way to develop and master foraging skills. In Star’s case, her teachers are her parents.

Star forages on rose hips with her parents.

And it’s just not parrots who learn from their parents, as the following example shows. Dr. Courchesne, a veterinarian, who teaches biology at Northern Essex Community College explains:

Late August is high time for harassment [of people by gulls],” she said, “because the young have fledged and their adult parents take them to foraging spots, which include beaches and boardwalks, to find food and to teach them the ropes. The gulls, like the humans, bring their whole families. They’re being so pushy for food because they’re such committed parents,” she said.[i]

While people at the boardwalk have learned to forage for their food from snack bars (and are, no doubt, teaching their kids to do the same), gulls have learned how to forage on the food people carry away from the snack bars. Thankfully, Bebe and Flash are not teaching Star to swoop down and steal a sandwich from me, but they are certainly teaching her which foods are tasty and where to find them in the aviary.

Most hand-raised fledglings are at a disadvantage when it comes to foraging. They typically do not have an adult conspecific or even a parrot of another species to model foraging behavior; or, if they do, the adult parrot may not have learned all the fine skills of foraging or developed the motivation to search for food other than from a food bowl.

I found many common refrains on foraging and the companion parrot with a quick online search that reflected the following: Be persistent! Pet birds often require repeated encouragement until foraging becomes a way of life. In fact, many hand-raised bird will give up relatively easily when they cannot find food right away.

I personally have experienced the above statement with my own hand- raised birds. I was lax at enriching the fledglings’ environment with browse or toys many years ago and, as a result, those adult birds illustrate a lack of foraging interest today. Some of the flyers don’t bother to seek foraging opportunities even when out free flying.

The free flyers forage in the garden.

That said, the cockatoos are intelligent and inquisitive animals and over the years some have learned foraging behavior from interacting with foraging toys or from finding sunflowers and millet grown in the garden. Here, though, it must be said that they take a lot of their cues from watching the parent-raised flyers raid the garden.

Socialization

When one thinks of a socialized companion parrot, usually what comes to mind is a parrot who is nice to people; that is, she is a friendly, malleable bird who is not fearful of us or our environment. The parrot has been taught to behave in a manner that is acceptable in our human community and way of life. On the whole, hand-raising a parrot does accomplish those goals, if done with skill and compassion.

Socialization, the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society, does take place with the parent-raised parrot of course. However, it is a socialization of another sort, in that the parents are teaching their young to behave in ways that are acceptable to parrot society.

Unfortunately, many hand-raised parrots miss out on this opportunity. The effect of this missed education sometimes manifests in a parrot who is afraid of other psittacines, or shows no interest in parrots, or may not have a clue as to how to behave successfully with others.

In Learning and Behavior, Paul Chance states: “…organisms are especially likely to learn a particular kind of behavior at one point in their lives, these stages for optimum learning are referred to as critical periods.[ii] With that in mind, my goal, with her parents’ help, is to teach Star to be successful in both human and parrot society at this critical period in her development.

As always, it is engrossing watching Bebe and Flash teach young Star how to be a proper cockatoo. And they don’t always use positive reinforcement methods when teaching Star about correct cockatoo etiquette. For example, Bebe will quickly give Star a strong bop with her beak if Star muscles in on food Bebe doesn’t want to share.

Star forages alongside her neighbors.

Star is further taught about cockatoo conduct by the cockatoos who live in the next door aviary. Even though they do not physically interact with Star, no doubt she is learning much about cockatoo socialization from observing the behaviors the others exhibit. For instance, she has become quite comfortable munching beak to beak (separated by the aviary wire, of course) with her neighbors as they all take advantage of a picnic of browse that is offered them in the same locale.

On first look this may seem inconsequential, but indeed learning to be near other non-familial cockatoos provides important lessons. Not only is she learning that other cockatoos can exist together amiably, she may pick up a new tip or two by watching how they forage.

At this juncture in Star’s life she is learning how to behave in cockatoo society, but not yet in human society. At Star’s age, a hand-raised cockatoo would be far advanced in knowing how to succeed with people. My goal is to teach Star how to succeed in my community and, with the help of her parents, in her community. This education will give Star effective skills for navigating both worlds.

She’s already on her way by learning that people can offer her good things. She watches as her parents get goodies on their training perches from me as well as from people they do not know.

Star looks on as her parents accept treats from visitors.

I interact with her parents daily. She sees the calm behavior her parents exhibit when I’m with them and that is a valuable visual lesson for her. I’m excited by the progress she is making as she is getting physically closer to me each time I am in the aviary.

Star eats on the training perch quite near to Chris, following her parents’ example.

Star’s learning and behavior development and comparing that progression with the behaviors of my hand-raised cockatoos is a fascinating, stimulating, and humbling journey that I invite you, the reader, to continue to join me on as I discuss more observations and dichotomies in my next blog.

[i] James Gorman, In Defense of Gulls, New York Times, 8/24/2019.

[ii] Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior (Wadsworth, 2003) pg. 434.

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.


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.