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.


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.